RARA-AVIS: Hardboiled as hip

From: William Denton ( wtd@pobox.com)
Date: 24 May 2006

I recently read HIP: THE HISTORY, by John Leland (2004), which is about hipness: hip as in Bird, Diz, Monk, Lou Reed, etc. He goes to Wolof for the origin of the term, from "hepi" (to see) or "hipi" (to open one's eyes). Hip is about knowing and being aware (digging), he says: "an undercurrent of enlightenment, organized around contradiction and anxieties." Cool is the mask hipness wears to stay reserved and understated. These are hard terms to define, but he does a good job. Even if you don't like them, you know what they words mean, anyway.

All this is of interest here because of chapter four: "Would a Hipster Hit a Lady? Pulp Fiction, Film Noir, and Gangsta Rap." Leland shows how hip Spade, Marlowe, the Op and others were. I hadn't thought of them that way, but it makes sense. They knew how everything worked (their cities, politics, people, crime), they were involved yet apart, always on their own terms; they cracked wise, they hung out with outsiders, they didn't fit in with the squares.

"In the 1920s and 1930s, these two currents came together in a new avatar of masculine hip, the hard-boiled detective or pulp hero. As drawn by Dashiell Hammett, James M. Cain, Raymond Chandler, Jonathan Latimer, David Goodis and other disciples of the penny-a-word form, the hard-boiled hero was a figure of masculinity unbound: big shoulders, strong chin, smart lip, big pistol and taught gift of gab. As if in answer to Jung, this hero--Philip Marlowe, Sam Spade, the Continental Op, Three Gun Terry, Race Williams and others--introduced an all-American style of sex and violence, bordered only by the writers' equally homegrown tools: rhythym, humor, sensationalism, mass production and bold opportunism. The private eye was his own invention, usually an independent operator, unmarried, childless and motherless. He cowed neither to women nor to work. He did not suffer an employer; in many stories he gained the upper hand by walking away from a check. Similarly, he cut a sexual swath but did not have any attachments or obligations; on this front, he gained advantage by walking away from hot nookie. Produced and sold in bulk, he was an early model of mass hip. His lineage, which offered brutality as style and product, has continued in film noir and, since the late 1980s, in the cinematic nihilism of gangsta rap."

He discusses the Flitcraft episode from THE MALTESE FALCON, gives some history of BLACK MASK and its writers, quotes Hammett and Chandler, and gets into Jim Thompson and James Ellroy.

"Though they are called crime fiction, the stories were only incidentally about crime. Often the crimes were the most formulaic element. In THE MALTESE FALCON, for example, the black bird is a red herring. The work was about work. No art has ever dealt as exhaustingly in the mechanics of earning a living: the solicitation of clients, the interview, the day rate, the expenses, the office furnishings, the secretary. This work, in turn, was not about money. For a Depression readership, pulp treated money as a cheap metaphor or plot point. Money served a literary function. For the bad guys, money was power; in trying to get it, they were ultimately beholden to it. Money locked both cops and criminals into a pecking order of toadies and bosses, which many readers could identify with their own workplaces.

"In contrast, for the detective money was freedom--arising, paradoxically, from his freedom to reject it. He worked strictly freelance.... Chandler was even more explicit about the drag of the nine-to-five. After being slugged, drugged, kidnapped and ambushed, Chandler's detective, Philip Marlowe, still feels 'not as sick as I would feel if I had a salaried job.'"


William Denton : Toronto, Canada : www.miskatonic.org : www.frbr.org

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