Re: RARA-AVIS: Bastard child

Date: 24 Feb 2004

Kerry and Miker,

Re your comments below:


> >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.
> >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.

I truly intended to stay out of it this time, but you guys seem to go to such lengths to avoid the obvious that I'm forced to comment.

"Noir" dates from roughly the mid- 20th Century for the simple reason that the term was coined, by Gallimard's mystery editor, Marcel Duhamel, to describe a type of crime fiction that was conceived, gestated, and was born during that time. He called Gallimard's mystery line SERIE NOIR for no other reason than that it was humorous play on words. The phrase, UNE SERIE NOIR, or "a black series," means roughly the same thing in France that "a run of bad luck" means over here. It was just meant as a humorous nickname for the (mostly) American, (mostly) hard-boiled crime fiction that the company was publishing in post-war France. It wasn't, and (since I think the line is still in existence), isn't meant to have some kind of deep, existential meaning. It was just a kind of humorous short-hand to describe the kind of mystery novels Gallimard was publishing. Some of the early SERIE NOIR authors included such hard-boiled luminaries as Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler, Jonathan Latimer, William P. McGivern, etc.

In other words, when the word was coined to describe a particular kind of crime fiction, it certainly wasn't meant to EXCLUDE hard-boiled stories, and was probably taken more as a synonym for hard-boiled (which is how publishers in the US tend to use it now). Nor was it meant to exclude any story that had good triumphing over evil at the end, because that happened in a lot of the SERIE NOIR books (though it also failed to happen in a lot of others).

So trying to find a distinction between "hard-boiled" and "noir" is an effort doomed to failure because the terms, though perhaps not synonomous as US publishers seem to think, are not, and were never meant to be, mutually exclusive.

Now if people want to go back and retrospectively include, say, Wilkie Collins, or Edgar Allan Poe, or even Conan Doyle, as noir (if not hard-boiled) because those authors are so well able to maintain a dark sinsiter atmosphere in their books, I've got no real problem with that. But that the term, coined in post-war France to describe a type of crime story prevalent in that era, must, consequently, REFER to those stories and to that era seems to obvious on its face that I don't see why it's worth agonizing over.


> > 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?

For the simple reason that all noir is not, by definition, tragic, and, while Shakespeare certainly can do the dark, sinister thing in his plays, and though his tragedies contain a lot of dark, sinister atmospherics, and even a lot of crime, as Kerry points out later, "noir" refers to a type of CRIME fiction, and crime fiction, as a genre, (as opposed to fiction with crime) didn't really begin to gel as a separate, distinct genre until the mid-19th Century. Further, re that very comment of Kerry's . . .

> . . . 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.

We haven't overlooked it. It was IMPLICIT, for crying out loud! Rara-Avis is a list devoted to crime fiction, generally, and hard-boiled/noir fiction, specifically. It was always understood, or it SHOULD have always been understood, that it was a sub-species of crime fiction we were talking about. It didn't NEED to be stated.



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