RARA-AVIS: Noir and Society

From: Tim Wohlforth ( tim@timwohlforth.com)
Date: 30 Oct 2005

It was not my intention to begin a political discussion nor to simply slam the good old USA. To modify my earlier statement on the wide discrepancy in income in this country, I believe I can safely say that it is wider here than in any industrialized nation.

So what does this have to do with noir? Perhaps nothing. But I think something. Here people expect to advance, to achieve what they see on television. For many this is an impossibility. Thus a tension develops between expectation and reality that could be deeper here than elsewhere. So many noir and hardboiled stories are driven by this dynamic. The dreamer collides with reality and self-destructs.

I was impressed by a story in the NY Times a couple of days ago. A young black man gives up drug pushing to be a stand-up father for his new child. Laura Bush finds him inspiring and invites him to a conference. He spends his last $25 on a white shirt and tie, then loses two day's income as a pizza delivery man. Now that's noir!

I lived for a while in Mexico and am well aware of the huge income discrepancies there. Yet its detective fiction reflects this reality in a different way than our realistic fiction. Maybe because the chasm of class is too deep to look at with realism. I am thinking of Paco Ignacio Taibo II. It is recognized as unbridgeable. Here so many people are under the illusion that it can be bridged and enough do accomplish this so that those who fail can have tragic experiences.

Certainly classic noir film told the story of disappointments with the American dream in the aftermath of W.W.II. There were Europeans that were part of that telling. But the films were set here and largely made here.

I am sure every country has darkness. It is a human condition. And so writers in those countries may wish to penetrate that darkness. As they do so, they will do so in ways reflecting their country's culture and peoples.

Noir and the hardboiled are essentially American products, American exports. The cozy, on the other hand, is essentially a British product, for us an import. Of course, there is Ian Rankin and Ken Bruen and Henning Wankell. But they have imported the form from us just as countless American cozy writers have imported that form from England.


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