RARA-AVIS: Slapstick-Silly Noir

From: Kevin Burton Smith (kvnsmith@thrillingdetective.com)
Date: 15 Jun 2009

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    Al wrote:

    > Hard Man, the book you're referring to, has a solitary blurb on the
    > front
    > cover. It reads 'An Edinburgh festival of lip-smacking gruesomeness
    > and
    > black comedy." ...At the very least, it surely indicates that there
    > might be some
    > humorous intent between the covers and indicates what form that
    > humour might
    > take.

    My copy, if I recall correctly, was just a plain ARC with no artwork or anything. I think there was something about "a brave new voice in noir." Something like that. There wasn't any mention of silliness or humour that I recall...

    > Also, I ran a Hard Man blog at the time the book was released, which
    > stated pretty clearly that the book was "Ultra-violent. Grand Guignol.
    > Jacobean" in really big letters at the top of the page.

    Sorry, didn't read that blog, so it wouldn't really matter how big the letters were. Didn't know it was going to be on the final.

    But now I know why at least three reviews I read used the exact same phrases.

    > As for birthing 'silly noir', sorry, Eddie Muller squeezed that baby
    > out
    > first. To be precise, he called the 'extreme noir' of Hard Man,
    > 'slapstick-silly'.

    Hey, that works for me. "Slapstick-silly." Yeah, I like that.

    > And I'm pretty sure Charlie Williams and myself ... concluded that
    > 'absurd noir' or 'mad noir' might
    > have more commercial appeal however.

    Well, obviously. Gotta work "noir" in there somehow. It's applied to everything from chocolate and beer to perfume and VANITY FAIR fashion spreads. It might as well include this stuff as well, although much of it has very very little to do with what I associate with noir.


    "They kicked me off the haywagon at dawn and I shit myself. Then I nail-gunned my mother, my sister and my father, all of whom I was sleeping with. And then I cut off my own penis and Fed-Exed it to Molly."

    By George, I think I've got it! 70,000 words more and I can play too.

    And Mark wrote:

    > I can't comment on Flexer's book, although I must admit this
    > discussion has piqued my interest.

    Yep. One reason I brought it up. The whole question of what has become of noir (and we can't even agree on what it used to mean, never mind now) interests me. Is it still noir? Or is it still noir just because that's an effective way to market it?

    There's so much of this stuff out there right now, it's hard to figure out who wants their book to be taken seriously, and who wants their book to be taken as a cartoon. And who wants their book to be taken seriously even though their writing's unintentionally funny.

    Sometimes absurd is absurd. And sometimes it's really just bad writing.

    > However, Kevin, do you really think "silly noir" is something new?

    Nah, of course not. People have been passing this stuff off as noir for years. It's like TWILIGHT books or series romance for a certain portion of the reading public. They can't get enough of it.

    But don't mock and laugh at their cardboard characters or ridiculous plots or their shock-and-awe excesses. Unless they tell you to.

    > And is your problem with Flexer's contribution alone or the whole
    > approach? I really can't tell.

    I can't tell myself. Certainly, I see THE DISASSEMBLED MAN as part of a trend, but I feel the constant attempts by those cashing in on that trend to out do each other are tiresome. So I'm not sure if the disappointment lies solely in Flexer's book or in the whole approach.

    I wish they'd put as much effort into their characters as they put into their rape and dismemberment fantasies, but the approach itself is what really confuses me. Are they ridiculing one genre, or trying to create a new one?

    Or trying to write in a tradition they can't really pull off and so resort to parody?

    How many books can you write parodying the same sub-genre over and over?

    (Although Flexer himself hasn't tried to dismiss his book by playing the humour card -- at most he cops to "poking a little fun" at some of the hard-boiled genre's cliches.)

    I'm told something's noir, I sort of know what to expect. Or I used to. But this stuff, with its obsessions with torture and mutilation and excrement and and all that seems pretty far removed from what I used to expect noir to be: dark, gritty, nuanced tales of people circling the drain. Now it's a bad Saturday Night Live skit with the June Taylor Dancers (and chainsaws).

    Noir used to be about real or at least recognizable people, living real or at least recognizable lives. Now a lot of what's being served up as now is an academic intellectual exercise, deliberately peopled with wildly exaggerated cartoon characters doing wildly exaggerated cartoonish things.

    I like the Marx Brothers and Monty Python and Tex Avery, and I like hard-boiled and noir fiction, and I'll even cop to liking the screwball antics of Jonathan Latimer, Richard Prather and some of their literary descendants. But this stuff falls somewhere in between all of them. And for me, most of the time, it falls flat.

    Plus the self-involved self-consciousness seems a little weird to me
    -- it's not books about real or at least recognizable people anymore, it's books making fun of books about real or at least recognizable people. Is it of the genre or about the genre?

    As an aside, it's also curious to note that the characters (often working class) in this sub-genre are often treated with a fair amount of condescension by their (usually middle-class) authors. As if earning minimum wage (or not being able to find work) automatically reduces one's impulse control, sense of common decency and vocabulary.

    And then it's all excused with allusions to things I have to dig out my tattered copy of BENET'S READERS' ENCYCLOPEDIA or look up on Wiki to understand.

    I'll certainly be looking at these lampoons with new eyes from now on. I come across some piece of extreme silliness, I'll try to give it the benefit of the doubt.

    > Have you read Charlie Huston's Hank Thompson trilogy? Al's Hard Man?
    > Charlie Williams's Deadfolk? Ken Bruen's Brant books? Or his Hard
    > Case collaboratiosn with Jason Starr? Did you take them seriously?
    > And those are just the newer examples. Steve Aylett, for example,
    > has been doing it for a while. This is all qualitatively different
    > from, say, Westlake's comic noirs. They are far more vulgar, far
    > darker than those, but I certainly see them as comic noirs.
    > Of course it can be done well or poorly.

    Ah, but there's the rub. When it's done poorly, it's hard to tell if it's supposed to be funny or not. What may be intentionally juvenile but funny in one book may be just pandering to 14-year old boys in another, if the writing isn't there. I've read HARD MAN (but not until after everyone assumed I already had) and a few of those other guys. I particularly enjoyed the Starr/Bruen collaborations, but it was obvious they were supposed to be taken tongue-in-cheek. No blog was necessary.

    If I was told to take them as dead-serious crime fiction, though, I probably wouldn't have enjoyed them as much.

    Who do you guys recommend as some of the best current writers of Slapstick-Silly Extreme Noir?


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