RE: RARA-AVIS: DARK RIDE, Kent Harrington

From: Robison Michael R CNIN (
Date: 18 Jun 2003

Mario wrote:

You float the notion that Cain, Thompson and Goodis exhausted the possibilities of noir.

******* I knew I wasn't expressing myself well. That was definitely not what I meant to say, Mario. Let me try again (this could get ugly). Noir fiction has remained true to its origins. There have been many exciting and innovative variations, but it always harkens back to the roots.

For me, Cain's THE POSTMAN ALWAYS RINGS TWICE is the measuring stick of noir. I don't mean to imply that everything must emulate Cain's work, but just that I think of POSTMAN as the cornerstone of the genre. Not necessarily the best, and not necessarily the first. I know you favor Whitfield's GREEN ICE as a strong candidate. I feel the same way about Faulkner's SANCTUARY.

What I derive from Cain's book is a template plot, style, and theme. The plot involves sexually-charged losers attempting to better their place in life by crime and losing miserably in the end. The style is hardboiled. The theme is expressed in one word. Ask Jack Bludis for details.

There are many variations on all this.

In Thompson's KILLER INSIDE ME Lou is just plumb crazy and is making no attempt to better his life. Cornell Woolrich's I MARRIED A DEAD MAN abandons the hardboiled style. Willeford's WILD WIVES plays the irony game and provides a twist on the true identity of the femme fatale.

There was a time when it looked to me like noir was evolving into something significantly different from its origin. The doom of the protagonist had always been based on some wrong-doing on his part, but noir writers hit on a formula for increasing the irony of the protagonist's fate. The formula involved elevating the nobility of the protagonist and trivializing the significance of his wrong-doing. In my limited reading experience, I would identify the apex of this trend in Geoffrey Homes's BUILD MY GALLOWS HIGH.

But Harrington's DARK RIDE brought it home for me that noir fiction is still firmly rooted in its origins. Don't get me wrong. I'm not disparaging noir for not evolving. Rather, I think I'm saying that where it started is such a rock-solid place in the human experience that writers cannot help but return there.

So no, I don't think that the possibilities of noir were used up with Cain, Goodis, and Thompson. Flannery O'Connor, Willeford, James Ellroy, Harry Crews, Daniel Woodrell, and Sallis all have made innovative contributions. Although they might be fringe for this group, even science fiction writers Philip Dick and William Gibson have enriched the noir genre.


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