RARA-AVIS: Re: Everything's Noir?

From: JIM DOHERTY ( jimdohertyjr@yahoo.com)
Date: 21 May 2007

"... dark and sinister is way to vague for a description of noir fiction. In France, I think dark and sinister works, but outside of France I believe noir has evolved to become something more specific."

"Dark and sinister" works precisely BECAUSE it's broad enough to include all of the various types of crime fiction that it's been used to describe. And (and here's the point) used to describe from the very beginning.

Even before it began to be used so generically that it was virtually a synonym for "mystery," a definition even I think is too broad, it was used to describe a very wide spectrum of crime fiction.

Look at the recent anthology of articles on noir, THE BIG BOOK OF NOIR. You'll see articles on Donald Hamilton and Matt Helm, on Cornell Woolrich, on Raymond Chandler, on Jack Webb, even on the old-time radio series THE SHADOW. Signficantly, this was not a bunch of bottom-liners looking for a term that's in. It was a fairly serious discussion of what noir is, in prose fiction and in other mediums, and the consensus, to the degree that a consensus can be drawn from so many disparate articles, was that noir is a broadly applied term.

It simply hasn't evolved the way you insist it has.

"And I don't think it's absurd at all that film noir is different from book noir. Film noir doesn't just take into account subject matter; it also refers to mood and look and atmosphere. In book noir, I think it's all about character. That's why in (in my opinion) the Maltese Falcon book is not noir, but the film is. In France, both are noir."

Neither does "noir" in prose. And it never has. Cornell Woolrich, who is one of the authors often pointed to as the someone who almost defines noir, has at least as many winners in his stories as losers. That the protagonist wins may be nothing more than the carpiciousness of fate and chance, but the fact is that the hero comes out on top in much of his fiction.
 Read the story "Endicott's Girl" in his collection NIGHT AND FEAR, and see if that isn't noir according to the most narrow definition.


At least, according to the most narrow definition of noir right up to the end. Somehow, by the most unbelievable,yet thoroughly compelling set of coincidences imaginable, the cop-hero who's been trying to save his daughter from a murder rap, who's been willing to do murder himself to save her, is stopped before it comes to the crunch, and told that the premise he's been operating under was dead wrong, that his daughter's innocent, and that he's still got a chance to catch the real killer.

The notion that a surprise twist that winds up with the hero saved rather than doomed, somehow changes a story that is noir by anyone's definition, at least to the point of that surprise twist, strike me as silly. It gives the reader the same jolt. It keeps the reader turning pages for the same reason.

Some readers might feel cheated that the hero emerges triumphant. Other might feel relieved and would be just as angry if the hero simply walked to his doom.

Point is, doom can't be the defining element unless you're prepared to say that a story can hit on every other noir cylinder yet not be noir.

That strikes me as too narrow, and it's why I always rail at that narrow definition.



And the notion that it means something different in France (where the term was COINED, for crying out loud) and here is almost, if not more, ludicrous than the notion that it means something different depending on the medium it's applied to.


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