RARA-AVIS: Re: Super Heroes, Comics, and Noir

From: JIM DOHERTY (jimdohertyjr@yahoo.com)
Date: 25 Jul 2008

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    Re your comments below:

    "I've been expecting this reply from you since posting my definition of literary noir. If you want to hold onto that film noir defines literary noir, go ahead, but there's a reason why James M. Cain, Cornell Woolrich, Dorothy B. Hughes, Jim Thompson, David Goodis, Charles Williams, Charles Willeford and Gil Brewer are often thought of as important writers of the noir tradition, and it's because of the fatalism (dooming, damning, screwed) element in their works."

    I've never said that film noir defines literary noir. What I've said is that noir is noir whatever the medium and that the definition doesn't change from medium to medium.

    In fact, to the degree that most of the best early film noirs were based on novels or stories, noir in film grows out of noir in prose, not the reverse. I never said otherwise.

    And of course, Cain, Woolrich, Hughes, Goodis, etc., are important noir writers, but I would argue that it's because they're good, not because they share thematic elements. Moreover, they don't always share those elements.

    Woolrich has always struck me as the most noir of noir writers, not because of the thematic elements, but because of his ability to set atmosphere. I've used this example before, but read that short story said to be Woolrich's favorite, "Endicott's Girl," recently reprinted in the Nevins-edited collection, NIGHT & FEAR.


    In it, a homicide cop, investigating a murder, comes to be more and more convinced that his own daughter is the killer, and he begins supressing evidence, and even tries to frame an innocent man, all to save his daughter.

    By your definition, or by Jack's, in order to be noir, he'd have to be successful in framing the innocent man, only to find that his daughter was innocent all along, and that if he'd only investigated the case honestly, he'd have nailed the real killer before deliberately sending the wrong man to gallows.

    In fact he learns of his daughter's innocence just in time's proverbial nick, and sets right the wrong he's done in order to nail the real killer.

    This was the story Woolrich thought to be his best, most representative story.


    Or take his two most famous novels, PHANTOM LADY and THE BRIDE WORE BLACK.

    None of the major characters in PHANTOM LADY are damned. One is wrongfully condemned for a murder he didn't commit. Two others, the cop on the case and the girl he loves, try to save him before it's too late.

    The only character who could be described as "damned" by your definition is the killer, who's not revealed until the end. And if his presence makes the story "noir," then every mystery is noir because every mystery has a character who commits a crime and thus "damns" himself.


    You could, I suppose, describe the murderess in THE BRIDE WORE BLACK as "damned" because she actually does what Endicott manages to avoid in the short story mentioned above, kills a series of innocent men in revenge only to find that they're all of them are, in fact, innocent of the offense she's wreaking vengeance for, thus damning herself.

    But she's the killer, for crying out loud! She's supposed to be damned in the eyes of the reader. And the fact that we see about a third of the book through her POV doesn't make her any less the villainess of the piece. You might as well say that seeing the murders committed by the special guest killer at begininng of each episode of COLUMBO, then seeing much of the rest of the episode from that character's POV as s/he matches wits with the titular detective are noir, because one of the two main characters is damned.


    In that sense, your definition is too broad. Someone is always damned in a crime story, because someone always commits a crime that damns them, or else there'd be no story to tell, and no conflict to move the story forward.

    Woolrich isn't the only writer you mention who fails to follow your model consistently. Goodis's OF MISSING PERSONS is a straightforward police procedural, still noir because of the dark, sinister atmosphere that pervades the book. Ms. Hughes's Edgar-nominated THE EXPENDABLE MAN features an innocent hero wrongfully accused of a crime, who must clear himself, and her DAVIDIAN REPORT is a nuts-and-bolts Cold War spy thriller, and both still noir because of the dark, sinister atmosphere.

    Even James M. Cain's JEALOUS WOMEN, his sequel to DOUBLE INDEMNITY, puts the claims cop, Barton Keyes, at center stage, not a damned figure, but one driven by duty and professional pride. Had Keyes gotten a bit more ink in the first book, DOUBLE INDEMNITY might be considered one of the all-time great PI novels, and had Eddie G. gotten more screen time in the film version Keyes might, in the words of our own KBS, have been regarded as "one of the great cinematic eyes."

    You, in fact, "damn" youself when you refer to "MY definition of literary noir," thus engaging in the Humpty-Dumpty school of defining terms:

    "When _I_ use a word it means precisely what I want it to mean. No more, no less."

    What you offer, Dave, isn't a definition. It's a personal preference.



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