Re: RARA-AVIS: Back into the definitional whirlpool (spoilers for FALLING ANGEL)

From: Doug Bassett (
Date: 14 May 2004

--- JIM DOHERTY <> wrote:
> Mark,
> Re your comments below:
> > I was talking about how various other "implied"
> > necessary conditions
> > seem to appear -- crime, lack of
> self-consciousness
> > -- when you are
> > applying/enforcing your definition.
> "Crime" is implicit in the very subject of this
> list.
> I always assumed it was clear that we were talking
> about crime (mystery, suspense, detective, call it
> what you will) fiction. I mean, what is Rara-Avis
> about, romance novels set in the Regency period?
> What
> book did the term "rara-avis" appear in, THE WAR OF
> THE WORLDS? Rara-Avis is about crime fiction, so
> all
> discussions, unless specifically qualified, can and
> should be safely assumed to be about crime fiction.

Even granting you this point -- and your qualification wasn't immediately apparent to me, anyway -- does AND THEN THERE WERE NONE/TEN LITTLE INDIANS qualify? How about THE RETURN OF DR. FU MANCHU? THE CROOKED HINGE? THE HOUND OF THE BASKERVILLES? THE SPY THAT CAME IN FROM THE COLD? Or Joe R. Lansdale's classic short story "Night They Missed the Horror Show"? They're all crime stories, they all have a dark and sinister atmosphere (at least I think so); are they all noirs?

I personally think that it's a lot harder to define
"noir" or "hardboiled" than, say "police procedural" or "spy story". Those latter two are structural definitions, they describe the plot. The first two are stylistic definitions. You could have a noirish police procedural, or a hardboiled one, or one that's neither. They're approaches to subject matter, it seems to me, and it's a lot harder to quantify that kind of thing.

It's tempting to be a hardass, keep it simple, in/out. If you can quantify a spy story, why not noir? I understand completely, for in the past I often thought this way myself. But I was an idiot. Sometimes the straightforward thing just doesn't work: there's just too many counterexamples, and there'll always be a smartass who'll share them. Is somebody who's just finished Goodis's DOWN THERE and wants something similar really going to get that from FALLING ANGEL, a book where it's revealed the hero sold his soul to the devil and the investigation was a way for Satan to collect?

That doesn't mean you can't define noir or hardboiled, I just think it pays to be nuanced about it. List the criteria that generally distinguishes noir fiction
(forboding atmosphere, realism, crime story, downbeat ending, weak or insufficient protagonist, paranoia or defeatism, etc.), list authors or books that easily fit (Woolrich, Goodis, Cain, Kersh's NIGHT AND THE CITY, etc.), note the marginal cases (Lansdale, maybe), note the ones that seem not to fit (FU MANCHU series), and then fight it out on an individual author and book basis. When you're done, the sum total of the works in the "easily fit" and "maybe fit" catagory should give you a picture of noir fiction.

I know that sounds ridiculously complicated, but I think fans of genres do it unconciously all the time. It's just verbalizing the gut feeling people get when they wonder if an author fits this or that classification. For instance, you were talking in another post about how the SERE NOIRE guys classified noir writers. Do you think that Chandler fits? Whatever that French guy did, does it seem right to you? Is he noir in the way THEY SHOOT HORSES, DON'T THEY? is noir? I don't think so. And that quick opinion is based on what I know about noir fiction, hardboiled fiction, and Chandler.

I agree with you completely about post 1963 noir films, incidentally. But that's another discussion.


now reading George Pelecanos's DOWN BY THE RIVER WHERE THE DEAD MEN GO.

===== Doug Bassett

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