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

From: Doug Bassett (
Date: 16 May 2004

Well, this is Sisyphus's work, certainly. I'll make one last push up the mountain before I let the boulder roll down on me one last time.

--- JIM DOHERTY <> wrote:
> Doug,
> Re your comments below:
> > Even granting you this point -- and your
> > qualification
> > wasn't immediately apparent to me, anyway -- does
> > AND
> No

[Snip of my other examples. Mr. Doherty claims FU MANCHU, HOUND OF THE BASKERVILLES and SPY WHO CAME IN FROM THE COLD are all noirs. (CROOKED HINGE is a John Dickson Carr fair-play mystery with a lot of sinister atmosphere, by your lights it would probably qualify.)]

But this is the folly of abstractions. You've lumped together a Victorian Detective story, a spy story, and a pulp "Yellow Menace" adventure and all called it
"noir", defining "noir" as a "dark and forboding atmosphere". Hey, it's America, define things how you like. And certainly within the context of your definition you're right. But in practice calling those all "noirs" glosses over the real fundamental differences between them. The devil's always in the details.

*In practice* the term "noir" has come to mean, for crime fans, the Cornell Woolrich/David Goodis style of story. If you want to replace the meaning of the word as it's commonly understood, go to it, but the burden's on you to show that your definition is better.

Don't we already have useful words meaning "dark and forboding atmosphere"? Isn't one "gothic"? Isn't another "paranoiac"?

> Nor, by defining noir or hard-boiled, do I mean to
> suggest that there aren't gradations within the
> parameters. For example, most would probably agree
> that Mike Hammer is more hard-boiled than the
> Continental Op who, in turn, is more hard-boiled
> than
> Phil Marlowe. But that's not the same as saying
> that
> Hammer's hard-boiled and the Op's not, or that the
> Op's hard-boiled and Marlowe's not.
> Even within a author's work, even within a given
> series, there can be gradations. Chandler's "Red
> Wind" is more noir that "Trouble Is My Business,"
> and

This is the other problem, since obviously there are lots of "gradations" as you put it, and while I can simply point to STREET OF NO RETURN and say "that's a noir" and SPY and say "that's a spy story" you have to reinvent the wheel, claim they're both "noirs", remind us of your own definition of "noir", and then distinguish between them. That's part of what I meant when I said your definition wasn't useful.

>> > 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
> > a
> > book where it's revealed the hero sold his soul to
> > the
> > devil and the investigation was a way for Satan to
> > collect?
> Yes, but that has nothing to do with what is meant
> by
> "hard-boiled" and "noir." Those terms are just
> descriptions of a type of story. They're not
> guarantees that a given reader is going to like
> everything that fits those parameters.

This is the other part of what I mean when I say your definition isn't useful. Well, I suppose if somebody wanted to simply read crime stories with forboding atmospheres, it might work. Let me rephrase it then: your definition is of limited usefulness.

(Do you classify all crime fiction this way? By style?
"Hard-boiled, noir"...I guess the rest would be
"realistic, poetic, fantastic"?)

I don't think styles define stories. Obviously here you're lumping together some pretty dissimilar books and authors. And I, at least, think you miss the mark as a result: FALLING ANGEL is a PI story with a dark forboding atmosphere, but I really don't think that makes it a "noir". At it's heart it's a straight up horror story, done in PI fancydress.

> All of that depends on the individual writer, the
> individual reader, the individual book, the
> particular
> mood the reader's in when he picks up that book, and
> a
> whole host of other things that have nothing to with
> whether or not a given book is hard-boiled or noir
> or
> both or neither.

You're pressing down too hard on this. I like Chandler, I don't like Robert Crais. That doesn't mean as a rule of thumb I don't think of both their work as hard-boiled. I was saying something much more basic, that your classification schema would reclassify a lot of books, resulting in odd, eccentric groupings. It might work for you, of course.

> If you want a definition of hard-boiled or noir that
> guarantees that a reader will enjoy all books
> falling
> within a particular classification, I'm sorry,
> there's
> just no such thing. That's something every reader
> is
> going to have to decide on a book-by-book basis.

Absolutely! Well said! But your definition, on it's face quite simple, in practice redraws the lines on the map. I want to be sure we're all at least talking about the same thing.

> That's essentially what I did. And I discovered
> that
> the criteria that generally distinguishes noir is a
> dark and sinister atmosphere. Not weak
> protagonists.
> Not downbeat endings. Not defeatism. Just a dark
> and
> sinister atmosphere. Further I discovered that not
> only Goodis, Cain, Kersh, and Woolrich, but
> Spillane,
> Chandler, Hammett, and, yes, Sax Rohmer, all easily
> fit the parameters.

Well, I don't think you did it correctly. I hate to sound like John Kerry here, but I really think if you are looking to define "noir", you need to get big and sloppy and nuanced with it. It's not as seductively clear as "dark and forboding atmosphere", but it'll end up being more accurate. And I think tossing Chandler in with Cain just obscures the differences between the two, the stuff that made them worth reading in the first place.


PS. I don't think Chandler or Hammett are noir writers. They're pretty much the antithesis of it, in fact, no matter how much dark and forboding atmosphere you spot. You're on somewhat stronger ground with Spillane, although Hammer's essential strength and heroism doesn't qualify him, IMHO.

===== Doug Bassett

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