Re: RARA-AVIS: crime/anti-crime (was long post on spillane - now long post on Woolrich)

From: Peedie Monk (
Date: 25 May 2002

----- Original Message ----- From: "JIM DOHERTY" <>

Al originally wrote: Basically, the theory goes, most so-called crime novels are
"anti-crime" novels. In other words, solving the crime is paramount (police procedurals and PI novels, for example). "Crime" novels, on the other hand, are written from the viewpoint of the criminal or victim (gangster novels, Woolrich, Cain, Goodis, Thompson, Brewer, Russell James), whose plight is paramount.

Jim responded:
> The reason your analysis doesn't really work (and
> don't get me wrong here; it may work for you, but it's
> not how "noir" is commonly used), is that there are
> many books/stories/films accurately, or at least
> commonly, described as noir, that are also anti-crime.
> For example, Cornell Woolrich, who is to "noir" what
> Hammett is to "hard-boiled," McBain is to "police
> procedural," and Christie is to "cozy," writes what
> you refer to as "anti-crime" far more often than he
> writes "crime." That is, there is a criminal, opposed
> by the hero who emerges triumphant when he (and, in
> Woolrich, very often "she") vanquishes the criminal.
> Now, in a Woolrich story, this triumph is more often
> likely to come about through chance, caprice, and the
> vicissitudes of fate, than it is from the hero's
> resourcefulness, but, however it happens, the hero
> wins when he solves the crime. Very often, in fact,
> Woolrich's hero is a cop (though there's no attempt at
> the "technical verity" that distinguishes the police
> procedural).

Jim, forget about "noir" for a minute. The key point is that the viewpoint of criminal or victim classifies the novel as "crime". Here are a few Woolrich examples:
"The Bride Wore Black" - Her husband was killed on their wedding day on the steps of the church. She swore vengeance on five men. Protagonist=victim=(see definition above)"crime"
"Phantom Lady" - He was awaiting execution. The only chance to prove his innocene was a woman who had disappeared from the face of the earth. Protagonist=victim="crime"
"Waltz Into Darkness" - He knew he had married the wrong woman. But he couldn't help loving her even after she stole all his money and tried to kill him. Protagonist=victim="crime"
"The Black Path Of Fear" - Scotty thought he had everything he wanted - Eve, jewels and freedom...suddenly she was dead and he was accused of her murder. Protagonist=victim="crime"
"The Black Angel" - She descended into the black world of drugs, prostitution and gambling, all to prove her husband's innocence. Protagonist=victim="crime"

Woolrich may have written others that fit the "anti-crime" classification. And why not? Francis Nevins says, "The reader can never know in advance whether a particular Woolrich story will be light or dark." I haven't read any of the cop-as-hero stories but I guarantee (and this was my point) that I won't like them as much as the ones about the "scared little man in his tiny apartment with no job, no money, a hungry wife and children, and anxiety eating him like a cancer, who then discovers that his wife has vanished in such a way that not only can he not find her but he can't convince anyone that she ever existed and, after coming to after a blackout, he little by little becomes certain that it was he who killed her" (Nevins, again, but not a direct quote). Protagonist=victim="crime".

Jim again:
> To use my favorite examples from film (since "film
> noir" is how the term came to be applied to prose
> fiction in this country), MURDER, MY SWEET is the
> quintessential film noir. It's also a hard-boiled
> private eye story. MARLOWE, which features the same
> lead character, isn't noir at all. That's not a
> knock. MARLOWE is a very enjoyable film, but the
> visual approach the director (Paul Bogart) takes isn't
> anything like the dark, sinister visuals that makes
> Edward Dmytryk's version of Chandler so memorable.

I have no desire to redefine "noir". A huge percentage of "noir" which I've read has been in the "crime" category, but that's incidental. Let me repeat my original conclusion.
> For example, Stark's Parker novels, which I like a
> lot, aren't "dark and sinister" (to my mind they're
> "tough and colloquial"). But they fit in the "crime" category. So, for
> whether a book is hardboiled or noir tells me less than if it's
> "crime" or "anti-crime".
Take your example above: "Murder, My Sweet", a noir film based on a hardboiled PI story. I am confused. These definitions seem arbitrary. If I class both as "anti-crime", I am no longer confused.

BTW, a bent cop/PI is a criminal and a cop/PI who has suffered a bereavement is a victim.

Keep me on my toes, Jim. Nice debating with you.

Al Guthrie

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