Re: RARA-AVIS: Noir definition

Date: 24 Aug 2004

I actually posted my oft-repeated definitions once more because I rather liked the idea of that being the first-ever post on Rara-Avis's new home.

I thought it might engender a chuckle or two ("Oh that Doherty; he's at it, again"), but I didn't really expect it to generate another discussion, and I've been staying out of the current one because I want to save my best stuff for Bouchercon.

However, I don't want anyone to think that I've beome suddenly acquiescent simply because I've been silent. So I'll say this once and then wait for Toronto.

"Tough," by itself, isn't an adequate definition of hard-boiled. Sherlock Holmes, who bends steel pokers in his bare hands, who's and expert boxer, a reasonably proficient marksman, and a fair-to-middling fencer, who goes after what he wants and (usually) gets it, and who regularly goes head-to-head with the worst criminals in London, is tough. But he's NOT hard-boiled. The hard-boiled mystery was a reaction to, not a joining with, the more traditional, more formal mystery story represented by writers like Conan Doyle. And a colloquial style was an integral part of what the hard-boiled story was about.

As Chandler said, the hard-boiled story told about murder and mayhem in (and I'm quoting from memory here, but I know I got the gist correct), "in the language customarily used for such purposes." In other words, in the vivid vernacular of street-level hoods and dicks. Chandler himself, though literary in the best sense as Jack Bludis says, WAS colloquial. In fact, it was precisely the use of colloquial language that fascinated him. He even compiled a dictionary of American slang expressions so that he could authentically incorporate it into his novels and stories.

Ross Macdonald, raised in Canada though US-born, would express a similar fascination with American colloquial language in the introduction to his ARCHER IN HOLLYWOOD omnibus.

Language is an integral part of the hard-boiled ethos, and the language is not the formal English of Christie, Sayers, or Van Dine, but the familiar, everyday language of urban working people.

As for "Noir" being about people who are "screwed" or
"tough losers" or "fated to meet a tragic end," that's not true either. Certainly many stories that have been classified as noir have those elements, but many others don't, so they can't be the defining elements. Nor are "noir" and "hard-boiled" mutually exclusive.

The term, as has been discussed here before, was coined by Marcel Duhamel, when he was assigned to develop a mystery line, which he called SERIE NOIR, for the French publisher Gallimard. As the guy who coined the term, he's the guy who set the parameters, and the parameters he set were pretty wide. Yes he published writers like Cain and his ilk, but he also published Hammett, Chandler, and all sorts of other purveyors of stories about "tough guys who win."

What the novels Duhamel published shared, and what the films made from those novels (or in the tradition of those novels), shared was an atmosphere that was dark and sinister. If those are the only common elements of noir fiction, and from the wide variety of stories in many mediums classified as noir (not by me, but by Duhamel and others), those are the only common elements I perceive, then it follows that they must be the defining elements.

So, if it's tough and colloquial, it's hard-boiled.

If it's dark and sinister, it's noir.

If it's tough and colloquial AND dark and sinister, it's both hard-boiled and noir.

Simple, really.


_______________________________ Do you Yahoo!? Win 1 of 4,000 free domain names from Yahoo! Enter now.

------------------------ Yahoo! Groups Sponsor --------------------~-->
$9.95 domain names from Yahoo!. Register anything.

RARA-AVIS home page:
  Yahoo! Groups Links

<*> To visit your group on the web, go to:

<*> To unsubscribe from this group, send an email to:

<*> Your use of Yahoo! Groups is subject to:

This archive was generated by hypermail 2b29 : 24 Aug 2004 EDT