Re: RARA-AVIS: Bastard child

From: Kerry Schooley (
Date: 24 Feb 2004

At 05:08 AM 24/02/2004 -0800, you wrote:

>I have been toying with the idea that without a
>contrived definition restricting noir to the 30s and
>beyond, the term is so generic as to be worthless.

Sounds reasonable that noir may be defined as a twentieth century incarnation of a tradition that goes back to the Greek tragedies, and probably into pre-literate, oral story-telling too.

>This is my problem with the famous Doherty definition
>as "dark and sinister." It simply lets too many cats
>in the door.

Such as all those dark & sinister yarns in which good reassuringly triumphs over evil at the end. But I'm not sure it's enough to say the characters are fucked, either. There may need to be some notion that the characters aspire to something better, a case of humanity's reach exceeding its grasp, to provide the necessary dark humour.

We have Spade with his ideas of what a partner is required to do, taking Brigit down, but the rest of those nasty characters are left to continue their obsessive pursuit of dross. And we have Ellroy's characters achieving a form of redemption in L.A. Confidential, but it certainly seems small and compromised, possibly even pointless given the context. Even Cockfighter, with its elaborate social structure based on the fighting ability of an animal with a brain smaller than a pea.

> Using this definition, Hamlet is noir.

Yeah, and Macbeth, and man, if you've seen the movie Titus. That Shaky Bill was something when it came to writing stories readily adaptable to the screen. Leonard could learn a thing or two, and probably has. But I see your point. Why not just call it all tragedy and have done with it?

>So is everything from the Gothic tradition.

Except Gothic has gone in a couple of different directions, such as spook and vampire stories (they're dark and sinister too, but not our idea of noir, I suspect.) And Gothic, while like noir is grounded in location, that location is natural. There's evil in the landscape. Twentieth century noir is definitely urban, the evil in man. But wait! What about country noir? Is it enough to say that these stories are grounded in a rural landscape within an urban society?

And what to make then of Brian Moore's Black Robe? I've long thought that noir. It was written in the 20th century, but takes place in a pre-urban North American landscape. Definitely Gothic in its outlook at a harsh environment, but also a story line that suggests a human limitation to human aspiration.

>Tightening the scope in an admittedly contrived
>manner, noir is the bastard child born of American
>Naturalism and fathered by the hardboiled school. In
>it's inception it featured a doomed criminal. LITTLE
>CAESAR, SANCTUARY, and SCARFACE laid the foundation,

Your precedents are too limited, but you've added one thing to the definition that, surprisingly, we've overlooked in the past. Crime. There has to be a crime involved. Noir is a sub-genre of crimewriting, in my opinion anyway.

How about noir as the tragic sub-genre of post 19th century crime writing? My Oxford (admittedly the bastardized Canuck version) defines tragedy as
"1. a serious accident, crime or natural catastrophe" and "3. a dramatic representation of tragic events and with an unhappy ending, esp. concerning the downfall of the protagonist."

Ah yes. The downfall of the protagonist.

Best Kerry

------------------------------------------------------ Literary events Calendar (South Ont.) The evil men do lives after them

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