Re: RARA-AVIS: Neo-noir ?

From: Mark Sullivan (
Date: 27 Mar 2003

miker wrote:

"A gut-level feeling would place Willeford's WILD WIVES, even though it was 1956, in with Woodrell's GIVE US A KISS, but would class Ellroy's BLACK DAHLIA among the older. Like I said, this is just a gut-level feeling. I can't really explain the difference, except that maybe that fate seems to be playing a bigger joke on the protagonist in the neo-noir. But that doesn't hold a lot of water. That sorta ironic humor is in the old stuff, too."

That's an interesting question, miker. Is there more to the label
"neo-noir" than simply marking a generational divide? I think there is, but I haven't given great thought to defining it from within.

Just off the top of my head, though, I would certainly place Ellroy's work, especially his historical works like Black Dahlia in the neo-noir category. In my reading, Ellroy is writing as much about the genre of noir as he is writing a noir story. I think that's how I would distinguish the neo from the noir, an author's examination of the genre while working within it.

This goes beyond a simple awareness of the genre in which one is writing/reading. You can be aware of the genre and use that awareness to perfectly satisfy it or you can examine it. Charles Willeford, James Sallis, Jack O'Connell, James Crumley and, to a lesser extent, George Pelecanos, along with many others are actively engaging many of the bedrock notions of hardboiled literature -- ideas of manhood, doing what's got to be done, uses and costs of violence, the role of the loner, etc. Even Loren Estleman can be neo-noir to the degree that he notes Amos Walker's most traditional attributes are now anachronisms, that Walker is a man out of his time. Of course, Altman's adaptation of The Long Goodbye takes this notion even further.

I must admit that this idea of auteurs' awareness making for a break is close to Jim D's claim that awareness brought the death of film noir, with which I argued at length. The difference is that I don't believe that noir died, but that it split off. One of those splits is neo-noir. It's noir's sometimes ungrateful bastard child.


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