This exchange raises a lot of interesting ideas for me.
One is that I don't see how it can reasonably be discussed without an agreed definition of what noir is. I recognize nobody except me wants to go there again. Well, even I'm not that keen. Been there, done that, it's resolved for me whether others agree or not. That being the case I think it's pointless to talk specifics, as Al has requested, however reasonable the request, unless you can at least agree on what is specified.
I agree with Mark that part of Kevin's problem (if it is, in fact, a problem) is that so much more is published now than in the past. What was once considered a sub-genre now has more titles crammed into the category, or attempting to cram themselves into the category, than even a widely-read, avid fan such as Kevin can keep up with. Running, or merely being associated with, Thrilling Detective has made him a review target for every ambitious noir and hardboiled author. Congrats on your success, Mr. Smith.
At the same time, I think this points to one of the areas where noir has gone that has been summarily dismissed, and that is post-modernism. The stylistic flourishes that are so often denigrated here as self-indulgent and over-clever are intended to point out, I believe, the increasingly pervasive influence of ever-expanding media. Kevin's reading list is just one example of this, and it's not new. The mean streets, whether published in ink or concrete, are entirely cultural constructs. Media reports affect human behaviour which is reported by the media in endless cycles, and has since stories went around campfires. Human existence is so far beyond any context for objective reality that references to the "real world" merely draw attention to that fact. One way or another a narrative has to reflect this for it's characters to be recognizeable.
Or maybe, from another viewpoint, media has been fractured to such a degree that we increasingly find characters whose behaviours are only recognizeable if we suspend disbelief and accept the logic of cultures that have been fractured from our own experiences. Kevin has mentioned again his disapproval of the overuse of the word "fuck' as a cultural signifier, especially for labourers.
I meant to ask earlier if he'd moved south before seeing the film "Final Offer" which depicts the 1984 contract negotiations with General Motors that led to the split between the Canadian Auto Workers and the international United Auto Workers. The film surprised and shocked many viewers because Bob White and Buzz Hargrove, president and successor in the Canadian auto workers unions, freely and consistently peppered the sound track with the word "fuck" and similar words, despite having been familiar articulate media personalities on many previous occasions without using such language. In fact, I think it safe to say that if they'd spoken the same way in media interviews as in the film, they would not have been interviewed very often, if at all.
But this was a film about the inside operations of the union, where it was important for leaders to show that they would not be stifled or intimidated by arbitrary rules about the niceties of language. Men who needed to show they were not afraid to call a spade a fucking shovel, for christ's sake, and that the fucking shovels would not be picked up and no fucking holes dug until management sat down and negotiated a contract, whether they liked the language or not.
I think I've mentioned before that I live in a house that backs onto a public park, and that every summer there is a rotating circle of adolescents who sit on the park benches late into the nights to smoke and swear, often in quite inventive ways. Obviously it's a rite of passage for some, and symbolizes both their powerlessness as adolescents and their rebellion against a controlling adult world. Swearing is used as an identifier, historically, and while I've not noticed its absence from any social group, White and Hargrove used it to help establish their membership among a group who'd been identified by its use as historically unworthy of better pay and benefits. In other words, Kevin, these labour leaders recognized that the word "fuck" was a significant part of the vocabularies of working men and women even in 1984, at least in certain situations such as discussions involving negotiations and labour conflict. I doubt it's application has disappeared since. I'd like to sug
gest that any narrative in which such characters eschewed such language at least in the appropriate circumstances, should not be arbitrarily dismissed on the grounds of linguistic political correctness.
Of course, the characters in the books you read may not have said "fuck" very well.
----- Original Message -----
From: Kevin Burton Smith
Sent: Wednesday, July 22, 2009 8:34 AM
Subject: RARA-AVIS: Nag, Nag, Nag Noir
What do you folks think?
Is what is being marketed as noir these days the same as it ever was?
Am I only imagining it's generally darker than it used to be? Meaner,
perhaps, or at least more graphic?
I had written:
>> "When we stopped getting drawn into the protagonists' plights and
>> realized only a falling beam separated them from us and started
>> putting ourselves above these characters, laughing at how much they
>> were being hurt and fucked."
and Mark wrote:
> Are we back to that again? Have you really become the old fart you
> try to inoculate yourself against in your opening? Boo hoo, nothing
> is as good as the old days? Boo hoo, the Beatles are gone. Boo hoo,
> there are no more James M Cains. Bullshit.
The Beatles are gone? It's about time phony Beatlemaina finally bit
But James M. Cain? That train left the station while Cain was still
alive. Some of his latter stuff was pretty weak.
> My problems with your recycled set of global dismissals:
> First of all, you are misrepresenting older noir. There was a lot of
> crap there, and there was a lot of sadistic stuff there, too, even
> sadistic stuff we were supposed to laugh/cheer at: "It was easy!"
> Just add cackle. And Fred just gave a nice little list of racist,
> misogynistic and homophobic snippets from classic noir.
Ah, yes, the famous lace panties speech. But all those examples cited
were from books where the characters mattered. What I'm disappointed
in is that characters in some recent "noir" seem to matter less these
days than shock and awe. (And PLEASE notice I said "some.")
Yes, I know it's not a new phenomenon. But it just seems more
prevalent to me. Then again, I don't have the money and time to
deliberately track down bad books from the past, especially since new
bad ones are coming over the transom every day.
Whether the characters are racist, misogynistic, homophobic or
whatever doesn't bother me as much as whether I find them credible.
Speaking for myself, I don't want lace panties or some sort of
gratuitous political correctness, but I do want human beings in the
stories to be recognizable as human beings; as more than mere plot
constructs or cartoon stick figures whose verisimilitude depends on
more than how many times they say "fuck" in a sentence.
> As we grow older, many of us, apparently you, have the tendency to
> cling onto, remember and reread the best of the old and forget the
> rest, reduce that best to the norm, not the cream.
Uh, no. I'll be the first to point out (and have often) that a lot of
sacred cows on this list were actually pretty crappy. And definitely
over-rated, even if they're now considered just swell by the
tragically hip. And there's some new stuff I really love, whether it's
considered cool or not.
We can't all be Peter Pans, I guess. Eternally young, always on the
cutting edge, living in a Neverland of Cool. Boo hoo hoo.
Sorry, I got over that hump in my teens... but thanks for the lecture
> You depict current noir as all one thing.
Nope. But it's a nice straw argument.
> Even if you disliked one recent book you've read, I still haven't
> seen you give any evidence it represents all of recent noir. Even if
> you can find other books that add laughs to their violence, and I
> agree they are out there, it still doesn't mean they represent all
> of recent noir, even all of a single author's output.
I never said all new noir is inferior to all old noir. I simply lament
that there seems to be an increase in the type that plays violence and
tragedy for yucks, with very little connection to characters that are
recognizable as human. Cynicism and cheap laughs are easy; writing
real characters is hard.
It doesn't help that "noir" as a term has become so devalued that
everything someone likes on this list is instantly "something-noir."
Or that the moment something is slammed for its excesses, a parody
flag is thrown down.
> For example (you remember those, right, examples to support your
> points? any reader of crime fiction should know evidence is needed
> to convict), Bruen can go over the top to make you laugh, or he can
> go over the top to make you cringe, sometimes both at once. And even
> when there is humor, it does not mean there is no connection to the
> human condition.
Is that what's got you so riled? That you think I'm attacking Ken?
Sorry, he's one of my favourite writers. And his characters are almost
always unbearably human.
A lot of the books I've read are not the relatively mainstream (or
sniffing around the edges of mainstream) writers and books you're
defending. A lot of them are from really small presses and vanity
presses, sent to me (often unsolicited) to review. And I'm still
getting occasional stories submitted directly to me for THRILLING
DETECTIVE, even though they're supposed to go to Gerald first.
In the last few years, what was a trickle has become a slow but
growing stream of meanspiritedness, all rubber-stamped with the "noir"
label (their words, not mine), with little in the way of anything
coming even close to the "human condition." Non-existent plots,
laughable logic, cruelty instead of viable characters. I don't
generally trash these books; I just give up on them.
Mario's suggested collapse of society might be the reason I'm seeing
more of this stuff, but I think it's technology itself that's helped
spark it. It's not that there's more of these guys, but with the
internet and word processing and a zillion ways to get stuff out
there, more and more of them are demanding to be heard. So all these
guys (and they're overwhelmingly male) no longer have to hide in their
basements and garrets; now they can all claim to be writers.
And since most of them aren't going to be snapped up by big name (or
even small name) publishers and bookstores, they look for other ways
to get the word out. Including through me.
But I don't think I should slag a book by name if I don't give it a
fair shot, reading it through to its conclusion. That seems dishonest
* * * *
Maybe I'm misreading this stuff. Maybe it really doesn't represent a
trend, and I've just been dealt a really bad hand of books these
days. Maybe this stuff was always out there, always falling between
the cracks. But other people seem to think I'm not imagining what I
see as a trend -- they've seen it themselves. Ed Gorman wanted me to
run for president, of all things.
And other people get their panties all twisted defending it. Even
though it doesn't exist.
THE DISCONNECTED MAN was better than most of these, but it's also
emblematic of much of what I think I've seen in increasing amounts. So
it was a perfect opportunity to add to an on-going thread that's been
a part of this list since almost Day One. You want me to hold these
suckers up to the spotlight to prove they exist; others think it would
be unfair to do so. (But ironically have no hesitation attacking
anyone higher up on the food chain -- by name -- without having read
> Lots of extreme violence, even violence as black humor meant to
> provoke laughter, in Huston's Caught Stealing, but the reader still
> feels for Hank Thompson and his plight.
Charlie's stuff proves your point about not all current noir, even
some of the more out there stuff, being crap. But I'm coming across a
lot of stuff that is just excessive and certainly not up to Charlie's
standards. Or Ken's or Duane's or Scott Wolven's or Victor Gischler's
or Neil Anthony Smith's or whomever. There IS good stuff out there.
Even some good, excessive stuff that would probably have fallen
through the cracks -- or never been published -- in the old days.
But then there's the other stuff...
Assuming it exists and I'm not imagining it, are we supposed to laugh
or cry at this stuff? Some people think I'm taking it all too
seriously; other people get upset if I don't take it seriously enough.
One guy claims his stuff is supposed to be funny; another guy gets
upset if I suggest his stuff is funny. And some guys can't even
remember if the books they're recommending are supposed to be funny or
> You are ignoring all of the current noir that does not fit your
Well, d'uh. Maybe because I'm not dismissing all current noir?
> What about Jason Starr's books?
I like most of them. I like his severely flawed characters, and the
way that he makes them credible even when they're complete morons and
even Grade-A assholes. Who usually get what they deserve. Although
usually in unexpected ways.
But once again, my gripe isn't with all new stuff. It's with all the
new stuff I don't think is particularly well-written.
> What about Dave Zeltersman's? For all of your ridicule of his jacket
> photo, have you read what's inside the cover? because none of the
> books I've read of his are anything like what you are pumping up to
I've never said anything about SMALL CRIMES on this list for obvious
The only reason I originally found out Dave even had a publicity shot
of him posing with a pool cue is because a discussion came up
somewhere else on props often used for "tough guy" writers' photos,
and his photo was mentioned by someone, in conjunction with pool cues.
Other popular items used in hard-boiled fiction include guns, fedoras,
trenchcoats, dead animals, leather jackets and alcohol.
The good news is that so far I've got a monopoly on bleary-eyed,
wrinkly turtle faces,.
> They are straight up noir, not comedy, and they don't use over the
> top violence for humor. They are all about the human condition.
Well, we already knew he's a very very serious guy.
> And what about Charles Willeford? How does his treatment of violence
> not fit into your dimissal? He can be very violent and very funny at
> it. And many (most?) of his protagonists can be sadistic pricks. Do
> his books lack the human condition?
Not the ones I've read. I particularly enjoyed the Hoke series.
Missing dentures strike me as infinitely human.
> Going to dismiss them, too? What about Joe Lansdale? Lots of dark,
> bleak humor there. Is he gone?
Not unless he's a ghost. I like Joe Lansdale a lot, particularly his
Hap and Leonard stuff. Although I'm not sure I'd peg them all as noir.
Sometimes they're just good pulpy action thrillers. But mostly they
just ARE. Lansdale seems far less concerned with labels than some of
his contemporaries. He just bounces all over the place. Good writers
can do that.
Look, Mark, I'm not sure why you're so pissed off. You seem to think
this stuff exists. I certainly think it exists. We may disagree on how
much of it is out there, or how representative it is of current
writing trends, or even if it's relevant or not, but why are you so
insistent on me providing the name, rank and serial number of those
who I find wanting?
So you can sit back and watch the fireworks?
> We get it, Kevin, you didn't like Disassembled Man. It's time to
> read another new book.
I am. Several at a time. I just didn't realize I had to report back to
you every time I did, professor. But I assure you that when I do
comment on a specific book, I'll read it first.
Kevin Burton Smith
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