Re: RARA-AVIS: can noir writers advocate social reform?

From: Michael Robison (
Date: 27 Nov 2006

Al wrote:

A Woolrich protagonist can be doomed simply by being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Several Day Keene and John D. MacDonald protagonists are also the victims of circumstance. A Goodis protagonist is doomed from the moment he's born, although it can take him a few years to figure that out.. And I'm sure there must be a host of noir protagonists who are doomed as a result of moral actions. Anybody think of any noir protagonists who get screwed as a result of a good deed? That's about as noir as it gets, I'd have thought.

************* The only Woolrich I have read is I Married a Dead Man.
 A down-on-your luck girl impersonates a rich girl and gets locked into higher and higher stakes to maintain the deception. I've read a Day Keene, but I can't remember it. The only non-detective JDM I've read was Cape Fear. There's a solid win for the hometeam in it. I wouldn't call it noir.

However, I am REALLY glad you brought up the issue of the noir victim of a good deed. When noir started out, the protagonists were into the bad. Way into it.
 Some classics are Postman, Nightmare Alley, and Thieves Like Us. But later there was an interest in a reduction of the bad deed to almost nothing. The detective in Build My Gallows High killed a man who was attempting to murder a woman. He was unpopular with the cops, so he buried the body. He gets blackmailed for it later. Some of the wrong-doing is practically nonexistent. These characters blame themselves. Goodis's Shoot the Piano Player makes a slightly derogatory comment to his wife, and she commits suicide (am I right here? If I can't remember the plots, I just make something up.). I think most would call The Big Heat noir, even though he triumphs at the end. His big sin was letting his wife move the car instead of doing it himself. (There is an excellent scene later in the book where he comes very close to doing the real bad, but that's not really relevant here.)

That's enough for now. I better wrap it up before I get caught in too many lies. The noir condition is not the sole result of moral transgression, but it is definitely a major player in many incidents.


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