RARA-AVIS: Why So Serious?

From: Kevin Burton Smith (kvnsmith@sbcglobal.net)
Date: 23 Nov 2008

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    Dave Z wrote:

    > Latimer wrote his Bill Crane books after Hammett, and to me they seem
    > heavily influenced by Hammett, both by The Thin Man and the
    > Continental Op. And while they have that wonderful screwball comedy
    > aspect to them, there's definitely some darkness running through them
    > also.

    True enough, but the likes of the Crane books and other popular series like them pretty much disappeared with the introduction of Marlowe. Except for maybe Evanovich and Hiassen and a few others (David Pierce, Dick Lochte, maybe Richard Hoyt), I can't think of any more-or-less contemporary writer in our darker end of the pool who has that same sort of sustained goofiness consistently going on in their work.

    Maybe Donna Moore?

    Not that there isn't still humour out there in the genre, but usually, these days, it's more touches, asides and wisecracks; not seriously funny stuff. And a lot of the humour out there is a lot darker and meaner in spirit than what Latimer and Cohen or even, say, Prather offered.

    > I'm not sure where this is coming from--I've been a member of this
    > list for years now and I can't recall people here complaining about
    > humor in their hardboiled/noir books.

    Of course, it depends on how you define humour (Me? I still contend Chandler's Marlowe woulda made a great stand-up comedian). But what is deemed acceptable humour in older books would often find strong disfavour in these climes if it appeared in a contemporary book, I think.

    > Personally, one of the reasons I
    > love Rex Stout's Nero Wolfe's so much is because of the gentle humors
    > that imbues it--and I know there are other Nero Wolfe fans here.

    Well, Stout gets in under the grandfather clause. And while this list frequently sings the praises of chainsaw vasectomies and nail gun lobotomies, the reaction to more light-hearted stuff like Parker's Spenser/Susan banter (an obvious update of Nick and Nora, with Pearl serving as the new Asta) or Stephanie Plum's sexual misadventures
    (Bill Crane with sex replacing booze) rarely finds a champion on this list.

    Even though the books they appear in are often every bit as -- and frequently far more -- "hardboiled/noir" than, say, Stout's Wolfe books.

    Were they being written today, would anyone dare bring up Stout's books on this list and praise them for their "gentle humors"?

    Can "gentle humors" and hardboiled/noir co-exist between the same two covers these days?

    Which leads to what Mr. T wrote:

    > Kevin, you make very good points. One that I would add is that pulp
    > literature, together with the production of the literary heavyweights
    > (Dos Passos, Steinbeck, etc.) of the thirties, convinced people that
    > corruption is an essential feature of the landscape, regardless of who
    > is at the helm. This trend was never reversed in literature and film.
    > It seems to be a deep conviction, apparently impossible to erase at
    > this late date. I don't think it's so much cynicism as a strong belief
    > that what underlies everything is corruption.

    Well, that seems like a pretty cynical view to me; that corruption underlies "everything."

    > In the hardboiled genre,
    > Chandler and Hammett did their share to spread this view early on.

    Yep, that's what I meant. That they reflected a certain worldview of their time, and thanks to their success and popularity, contributed to the spread of that sort of attitude.

    Kevin Burton Smith www.thrillingdetective.com

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