Re: RARA-AVIS: Bastard child

From: Kerry Schooley (
Date: 24 Feb 2004

At 08:42 AM 24/02/2004 -0800, you wrote:

>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.

Ha! Gotcha.

>"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.

Maybe not, but "a run of bad luck" certainly lends itself to the idea. Just a matter of the length of the run, really.

> 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).

But the term is out there in the big world now. We get to mess with it too.

>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.

Maybe I missed something. Did either of us said they were? I do recall, I think, that you had a different definition for hardboil than you had for noir, but again, not mutually exclusive. Why do you introduce these extra elements to debate?

>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.

Not to worry. If there was any agony on my part, it was fleeting. Thanks for your concern.

>For the simple reason that all noir is not, by
>definition, tragic,

You've done this sort of circular argument before. Tragedy is not the same as noir because all noir is not by definition tragic. Not very compelling, I'm afraid. For me, noir is well immersed in tragedy. Therefore it is not noir if it lacks any element of tragedy. I doubt that convinces you either, though both noir and tragedy are hot and steamy. No, wait. Make that dark and sinister.

> 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 . . .

That's a pretty thin edge, the difference between crime fiction and fiction with crime. I understand what you're getting at and I can see where such a difference would be useful, but is there a percentage or possibly a word count I can use as a reliable reference? I'd like to have the distinction handy next time I'm held to account by authority: "You see, mine is a life of crime officer, but not really a criminal life."

>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.

Sure, that's why we overlooked it. But jeez, we're trying to settle this noir definition thing for all eternity now. It's gone way beyond our little circle. You'd be surprised how often I'm asked in bookstores for a definition of noir. Seriously, you would. And wasn't some RARA AVIAN going to deliver a paper to the UN that touched on this? Think the Ambassador from Botswana knows what's implicit in noir? Okay then, how about his/her secretary?

>Do you Yahoo!?

No, dammit, I don't. And I wish you'd stop asking.

Best Kerry

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