RARA-AVIS: Re: greatest noir or detective protags

From: JIM DOHERTY (jimdohertyjr@yahoo.com)
Date: 05 Aug 2009

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    Re your comments below:

    "How, then, do you define hardboiled fiction? Hannay was the original lone agent who'd stop at nothing to gain his ends. Hell, he escapes from a country house by blowing it up and everyone in it. I'll concede that Buchan is not a great writer in the way that Hammett & Chandler are. But he's a much better writer than his immediate contemporaries, Edgar Wallace and Sax Rohmer."

    Most people on this list are tired of hearing this, so, for those of you who've heard this before, you can skip it. "Hard-boiled" is not just a matter of toughness. It's also a matter of style.

    "Hard-boiled" is crime fiction that is tough AND COLLOQUIAL. To quote Chandler (specifically about Hammett, but applicable to the whole hard-boiled field), hard-boiled crime fiction, "[gives] murder back to the kind of people who commit it . . . [AND] . . . [makes] them TALK AND THINK IN THE LANGUAGE THEY CUSTOMARILY USED FOR THESE PURPOSES [emphasis mine]."

    I grant that Hanny is a significant character in the history of crime fiction. I even grant that he's a tough cookie. But he's not hard-boiled. He's simply too much the cultured British gentleman for that.

    The whole point of hard-boiled crime fiction was that it was something strikingly different from what had been seen in crime fiction to that point. It wasn't just toughness. Sherlock Holmes, boxer, marksman, pursuer of the worst denizens of Victorian London's crimina underworld, was tough. Wounded combat vet Lord Peter Wimsey was tough. Agatha Christies Col. Johnny Race, retired professional soldier and one-time spymaster, is tough. None of them are hard-boiled. All of them are, in fact, the kind of character that the hard-boiled form was a movement away from, to some degree, they were the kind of character that the hard-boiled form was a movement against.

    And, as great a character as he is, so is Richard Hannay.

    "While hardboiled and noir fiction both appeal to us, there's a distinct difference between the two. Hardboiled fiction is romantic, improbable, good overcoming evil by getting into the dirt with evil and beating it at its own game. This pretty much never happens in real life. It's escapist fiction. Noir, on the other hand, is a study of doom. No matter how successful a noir protagonist may be, the decisions they make are going to destroy them. Doc & Carol McCoy in Thompson's THE GETAWAY for example: even in succeeding, the price of their success is so high their life is miserable. Noirs are cautionary tales."

    Again, you simultaneously read too much into noir and not enough. And you make the error that hard-boiled and noir are somehow mutually exclusive.

    If hard-boiled is about attitude and style, than noir is about atmosphere. It's crime fiction that has a deliberately dark and sinister tone. What Chandler called "The smell of fear."

    It's not the same thing as hard-boiled, but neither is it mutually exclusive.

    If it's tough and colloquial, it's hard-boiled. If it's not, it isn't.

    If it's dark and sinister, it's noir. If it's not, it isn't.

    If it's dark and sinister, and tough and colloquial, it's both hard-boiled and noir.

    Noir's not inherently about "doom." It's not inherently cautionary. It's a story, not a fable with a moral.

    Hard-boiled's not a romantic vision that's inherently about overcoming evil by turning its own methods against it. It's just a crime story about tough guys who talk the way real tough guys talk.

    Both terms are much wider, yet, oddly, much more proscribed, than you suggest.

    Westlake's Parker novels, for example, aren't about overcoming evil at all. They are, really, about evil triumphing. But to say they're not hard-boiled would be ludicrous.

    Cornell Woolrich is almost the definitive noir writer, yet in his two most famous noir novels, THE BRIDE WORE BLACK and PHANTOM LADY, good triumphs over evil.

    Richard Hannay is an important character in the history of mystery. He may be the first series espionage character ever. He is certainly the only character who embodies both types of espionage hero, the innocent caught up in a plot from which he must extricate himself (in THE 39 STEPS), and the professional secret agent (in GREENMANTLE and MR. STANDFAST, in which, while serving as a soldier in wartime, he is assigned Intelligence duties). In this, he is both a precursor to the many innocents Eric Ambler wrote about, and to the scores of professional spies, from Bond, to Helm, to Smiley.

    But he's not hard-boiled, nor are his books noir. He's not even borderline. Doesn't mean you can't enjoy him. Doesn't mean he isn't great. Just means he doesn't happen to fit in that particular set of categories, though he presages some characters who do.




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