RARA-AVIS: Re: Digest Number 1548

From: JIM DOHERTY ( jimdohertyjr@yahoo.com)
Date: 07 Jul 2007


Re your comments below:

"Maybe settled for Jim, but I still say the definition of noir is 'screwed.' The old Gothic novels were dark and sinister, so are the modern erotic vampire novels ... Noir, nah."

"Noir," in the context that we're discussing it here, refers to the specific genre of crime fiction, not supernatural horror fiction, and not gothic fiction that predates the mystery. However, I'll certainly grant that the dark, sinister atmosphere of gothic literature influences, to one degree or another, modern noir crime fiction.

As for your proposed defintion, in any piece of crime fiction, even in the coziest whodunit featuring the dearest, most grandmotherly "little old lady" sleuth, SOMEONE is always screwed. Someone, perhaps a comparatively minor character in many cases, but someone, is the victim of a crime, usually of a murder. And being murdered is as screwed as you can get. So, given one interpretation, your definition is too broad.

On the other hand, if you mean that the PROTAGONIST must be screwed, then, conversely, your definition is much too narrow. Many books published under the SERIE NOIRE imprint, many films listed in Silver & Ward's FILM NOIR, many authors profiled in THE BIG BOOK OF NOIR, fall outside of those tight parameters.

I'm not waving the flag for "dark and sinister" because I WANT noir to mean that. I am, as I've said in the past, looking at the books, films, and authors, commonly referred to as "noir," from virtually the beginning of that term's being coined to describe a particular kind of mystery, and trying to discern the common elements.

Many of the novels and films deemed "noir," not by me but by others, and not recently but from the beginning of the term's coinage, do, as you observe, feature
"screwed" protagonists, but as many, or more, feature ultimately triumphant protagonists. So "screwed" simply can't be a correct definition because too many within the class under consideration, too many that have always commonly been counted as being under the umbrella of "noir," are excluded by it.

However, what they all DO seem to have in common, to one degree or another, are certain atmospheric qualities, certain tones, that I have called "dark and sinister." Think of a better way of describing those atmospheric qualities, and I'll jump on your bandwagon.

"The definition of hardboiled is 'tough.' Makes no difference if it's colloquial. No way Chandler was colloquial ... I know Jim will argue this too. But being literate doesn't exclude a character or a book from being hardboiled."

You're arguing from a false premise. You're assuming that "literate" and "colloquial" are mutually exclusive terms, and they aren't. Mark Twain proves that. Ernest Hemingway proves that.

To say that style isn't an integral element of
"hard-boiled" is simply to miss the obvious. The very term "hard-boiled" is a colloquial metaphor, for crying out loud.

If one needs only to be tough, consider who must be included under "hard-boled's" big tent. Sherlock Holmes routinely faces down the worst criminal elements in London. Hercule Poirot was a legendary figure in European law enforcement circles before retiring and going private. Lord Peter Wimsey is a combat veteran. To include these characters, worthy though they are, tough though they are, within the rubric of "hard-boiled" is to render the term meaningless. The hard-boiled writers of the original pulps, even the worst of them (and as KBS has recently observed, a lot of them could be pretty bad) were reacting to, and to some degree against, just the kind of mystery Holmes, Poirot, and Wimsey appeared in.

Hence, style is, and must be, an integral part of the recipe. Conan Doyle, Christie, and Sayers wrote in a more formal style than writers like Daly, Hammett, and Gardner. And the style is what drew the British-educated Chandler to the form.

"Hammett," Chandler wrote, "gave murder back to the people who commit it . . . AND HE MADE THEM TALK AND THINK IN THE LANGUAGE THEY CUSTOMARILY USED FOR THESE PURPOSES (emphasis mine)."

Years later, another British-educated American driven to write hard-boiled mysteries, Ross Macdonald, would also talk about the literary possibilities of colloquial language. I don't have the exact quote handy, but the gist was something like:

"Democracy is as much a language as it is a philosophy. Phil Marlowe and Lew Archer can go anywhere, at least once, and talk to anybody."

Colloquial expression, then, is the great equalizer that sets the hard-boiled mystery apart from its traditional, "cozy," and more class-conscious predecessor.

As for whether or not Chandler himself was colloquial, he was certainly TRYING to be. If you think he was unsuccessful, well, that's a personal opinion, but there's not a doubt that Chandler was certainly attempting to write in a colloquial style.

Indeed, fascinated as he was with the literary possibilities of American colloquial language, Chandler actually went to the length of compiling his own dictionary of American slang just to be sure he was using it accurately in his work. How you can say a writer who went to such lengths to be colloquial, who was attracted to the form precisely BECAUSE of its colloquialism, isn't colloquial at all, and then use that puzzling assertion as proof that the hard-boiled mystery has nothing to do with a colloquial style, mystifies me no end.

"The settlement, as Jim calls it, was that we just got tired of discussing it."

Nah, you just didn't want to admit that I was right all along.


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