Re: RARA-AVIS: Bastard child

From: Kerry Schooley (
Date: 27 Feb 2004

At 02:26 PM 26/02/2004 -0800, you wrote:

>A term's "being out there in the world" doesn't mean
>you get to "mess with it." It means you get to use

I think I may have the answer to this, and that Humpty Dumpty stuff.

I have a copy of the CANADIAN Oxford Dictionary, which implies that there are other versions. Even within the Canuck version there are references to usages that vary from region to region. Soon my dictionary will be out of date, which implies there will be new words, and some new definitions to old words, and some definitions that have fallen into disuse. As I understand it, most English language dictionaries are created by experts who try to find the initial use of a word, or a new use of an existing word, and then see if that usage has gained acceptance in the language of defined communities.

And I have heard that French language dictionaries, the official ones at least, are compiled by selected experts who debate the appropriate use of words relative to historic records, keeping the official version of the language pure. I think the government comes into it somewhere too, dark and sinister as such speculation may be.

Now, since we are debating the English usage of a French word "noir" it follows therefore that...ugh, merde!

>When Miker said, "This is my problem with the famous
>Doherty definition as 'dark and sinister.' It simply
>lets too many cats in the door." you replied, "Such as
>all those dark & sinister yarns in which good
>reassuringly triumphs over evil at the end."
>Now since good reassuringly triumps over evil in the
>end of a lot of hard-boiled crime fiction, and since
>some on this list have suggested that, if the hero
>wins, it's hard-boiled, but if the hero loses, it's
>noir, I inferred that you were excluding hard-boiled
>from noir.

" the end of a LOT of hard-boiled crime fiction," but not all of it. I suspect not even in most of it, but why quibble? Some stories are hardboiled and noir. The terms are not mutually exclusive.

>That's not a circular argument. If tragedy is not a
>defining element of noir, as I've always maintained,
>then it follows that noir can exist without tragic
>elements (as tragedy is classically defined).

Another lap around the track. It must be a circular argument. My head is spinning. Point is, the trip is not sufficient to remove the "If" from the beginning of your second sentence. Nor is the "as I've always maintained."

> In
>other words, noir doesn't have to be about a
>protagonist who is destined to meet a bad end because
>of a fatal flaw in his personality.

Well, I'd say it does. I'd argue it again, but that just puts me on the same track as you, going in the opposite direction.

>Now, since noir deals with crime, and crime requires a
>victim, than certainly noir has, as you say, elements
>of tragedy as the term is loosely (as opposed to
>literarily) applied. So does all crime fiction, noir
>or non-noir.

Of course I'd agree with you that, loosely applied, the term "tragedy" is useless within the context of crime fiction. But literarily applied, as you put it, it is not. So we agree that not all crime fiction has a protagonist that is tragically flawed.

> But that's not the same as saying all
>noir is, by definition tragic, when it's not. It
>wasn't when Duhamel coined the term and it's not now.

Then that's what makes Duhamel's definition of noir of little value when we try to understand what makes noir different from other crime fiction. He used the term as a brand for marketing his books. Fine, but as an able salesman, he could be relied upon to broaden the meaning of the brand to encompass the products he chose to sell.

Similarly "dark and sinister" is too broad. We may reasonably say that any story that involves crime, especially murder, employs dark and sinister atmospherics. Even Miss Marple dealt with dark goings on in her little village. But Miss M was a good soul in a positive environment that would be restored to good when the crime was solved. Sam Spade, on the other hand, was uncertain of his values, which made his need to enforce them that much stronger, and I'm not sure the world was a better place when he was done. I doubt even that Spade was any better off. There is a difference between these two protagonists, and it is more than the fact that one was hardboiled (employing a colloquial style, I think you said) and the other not.

>I think it was clear that I was speaking of crime
>fiction as a separate, distinct literary genre. As a
>literary genre it dates from the mid-19th Century.
>That parts of the Bible, Greco-Roman mythology,
>Shakespeare, etc., contain elements that are now
>recognized, in rerospect, as the elements that Poe
>merged into crime fiction when he wrote "The Murders
>in the Rue Morgue" just means that stories deal with
>conflict, and always have, and conflict often means a
>bad guy doing bad things (things you might call
>crimes, if you were so inclined) and a good guy
>opposing him.

No, I'm sorry, it means something more specific than conflict. In crime-writing the bad guy has come into a specific set of conflicts: those that involve the encoded rules set down by the collective society in which he lives. Literature and life have many other types of conflicts, but the defining conflicts in crime-writing are criminal.

Within that category are another group of stories that have something else in common, such as not-so-good guys as protagonists, or maybe sometimes nice guys as protagonists who can't handle the conflict, can't redeem themselves or make the world a better place. That, as I tell the folks at the bookstore, is noir. According to moi.

It's okay that we'd tell them different things. I hope some day to enjoy the pleasure of meeting you as others on RARA-AVIS have. Maybe we should talk about the weather?

Best Kerry

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

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