From: Michael Robison ( miker_zspider@yahoo.com)
Date: 12 Sep 2006

When I first discovered noir fiction, I was both repelled and attracted by the tragic stories. Looking for some direction for other noir novels to read and opinions on their significance, I was lucky to find Paul Duncan's book on the subject. This slim volume contains a wealth of information on noir writers, along with a definition and brief history of the genre. The huge number of noir novels cited is a boon for the initiate reader, especially the ones that stray from the standard fare.

Duncan begins the book with a definition of noir fiction: "Noir is not a kind of macho Hard-Boiled fiction where Tough Guys pass judgement on an immoral society. Noir is about the weak-minded, the losers, the bottom-feeders, the obsessives, the compulsives and the psychopaths. Noir is not about people standing on the edge of the abyss looking in, but about the people in it, forever writhing, aware of the pain, aware of future pain to come." I came upon this soon after I embarked on the noir nightmare, and in the ensuing years I have never come across a finer definition. It is worth noting that Duncan's definition stands as a controversial opinion, since Duncan is very specifically excluding much of the hardboiled detective novels, such as those of Hammett and Chandler, which have been adapted to movies that fall firmly within the category of film noir. Why Duncan rejects the purely hardboiled as noir becomes evident in his exploration of its roots in fiction.

Discussing its origin, Duncan points out that the first use of noir in relation to fiction is the French phrase Roman Noir, used to describe the Gothic tradition that began with Walpole's The Castle of Otranto in 1764. Cast in a medieval setting, Gothic evoked a mood of gloom and covert danger, exploring themes such as mistaken identity, doomed love, and the supernatural. Although Duncan chooses not to elaborate, besides spooky entertainment, Gothic literature represented a philosophic rejection of the optimistic claims of the Enlightenment, that Kant's rationalism and and the newly found scientific method would elevate man to a new pinnacle of civilization. Gothic either ignored the benefits of science or else cast it in an evil light, such as in Shelley's Frankenstein, published in 1818. The dark and foreboding castle passageways in Gothic became the dark and foreboding alleyways in noir. In addition to its Gothic roots, Duncan notes the influence of the American Naturalists, German Expressionists, the French Existentialists, American hardboiled, and the Proletarian writers.

The most significant nonfiction work cited in Noir Fiction is Charles Willeford's essay New Forms of Ugly, in which he outlines the characteristics of what he calls the immobilised man, a description that Duncan correctly identifies as closely paralleling the symptoms of the noir protagonist. Duncan agrees with Willeford's assessment of Dostoevsky's Notes From the Underground (1864) as an example of an immobilised man, and suggests the novel as a prototype for contemporary noir. Alienation, doubt, and anxiety permeates the text, and a crippling freedom seems inescapable. Two years later Dostoevsky followed with one of the greatest psychological studies of the criminal mind, Crime and Punishment. Although Raskolnikov's existential rebellion against morality ends with a neat spiritual salvation, the questions raised in the novel are not so easily resolved.

Duncan mentions Joseph Conrad as another early novelist who explored noir themes. He notes that while Dostoevsky's view is from the inside, Marlow's view of Kurtz's horrors in Heart of Darkness is from the outside. Indeed, although Marlow observes carefully, he never fully understands Kurtz's capacity for evil or even his motivation. Duncan is not overly troubled by the ambiguities of the novel, but he does note that Malrow is able to make a clear distinction between social restraints and a man's inner restraint.
 Conrad names Kurtz a hollow man. He lacks the inner restraint necessary to govern himself once he is outside the boundaries of the law. Duncan's interpretation of Kurtz's famous words, "The horror. The horror!" as a recognition of the wrong he has done, is interesting. I have always seen it as a comment on the existential void that man faces, without the implication of a confession.

Duncan separates noir fiction into five eras, ranging through depression, fear, paranoia, apathy, and amorality. Duncan identifies the theme of the first noir era as depression and, bracketed within the 1930s, it perhaps has as much to do with economics as it does with a mindset. He discusses some of the great noir authors of this period, including Nathanael West, James Cain, and Horace McCoy. In the 1940s he characterizes fear as the dominant theme, invoking both the highly literary works of Camus, such as The Trial and The Outsider, and the lowly cult work of Boris Vian, his notorious I Spit on Your Grave. This time frame also encompasses Gresham's Nightmare Alley, a spectacular novel and an equally spectacular movie. Gerald Kersh and Cornell Woolrich also fall within this period.

Coinciding with Joe McCarthy and the Red Scare, Duncan describes the 1950s as paranoid. Although Jim Thompson's work spanned several decades, Duncan places him within the context of the 1950s, the decade that produced his most famous work, The Killer Inside Me. David Goodis also falls within his 1950s discussion. The fourth period roughly spans two decades, from 1960 to 1978, and Duncan equates this era with apathy. Duncan discusses several authors within this period, notably Patricia Highsmith and Charles Willeford. Although the final period encompasses the greatest time period, stretching from 1978 to 2000 (the year Noir Fiction was published), Duncan finds time to portray only two noir authors, James Ellroy and Derek Raymond, with amorality as the dominant theme.

There are flaws in even the most perfect gem. The lives of many noir authors might parallel the characters in their books, but much of the biographical information that Duncan provides could have been sacrificed to a more thorough discussion of noir. In genre discussions, it is not uncommon to pass over the actual literary quality of the work. Duncan subscribes to this, so without previous knowledge of the books he describes, it's difficult to know the relative strength of a work. Lowbrow selections like Chase's Orchids for Miss Blandish and Vian's I Spit on Your Grave stand on level ground with solid literary works by Camus and Dostoevsky. In such a broad survey it is always tempting to protest the selection of books mentioned, and invariably a reader's favorites are passed over for unknown or lesser choices. In what is obviously meant to be a work where brevity is virtue, this type of complaint doesn't carry much weight. Although his five thematic divisions of noir are arbitrary at best, his discussion of its relationships to Gothic, Expressionism, Naturalism, and Existentialism succeeds in illuminating the dark passages of noir, lending both historical and philosophical depth to the genre. The bottom line is that this book is one of the best introductory books on the subject of noir fiction.


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