RARA-AVIS: The Narrative Voice in Hard-Boiled Fiction

From: Patrick Kennedy (pbjk2004@yahoo.co.uk)
Date: 25 Apr 2010

  • Next message: Frederick Zackel: "RARA-AVIS: The Narrative Voice in Hard-Boiled Fiction"

    I am currently immersed in a book of Chandler's selected letters which led me to think again about the use of the first person voice in crime fiction.  Chandler's own voice as revealed in the letters is not dissimilar to Marlowe's, but grumpier and in some aspects far less likeable. The technique has its limits, of course (the reader can only know and experience what one character knows and experiences), but all in all is a very arresting technique - depending on the skill of the writer in conveying the charm, or otherwise, of the protagonist. Marlowe works as much because the reader enjoys his company and attitudes and integrity as because of the situations he encounters and describes. But other characters, less reliable and considerably less admirable, make for fascinating reading precisely because the author's skill subtly tips us off that there is something amiss, something of self-justification or downright deception, in what we are being told.  I'm not sure who started up this business of the unreliable narrator in crime fiction; (perhaps James M Cain? and Patricia Highsmith's Ripley books definitely had that creepy ambience).  Cinematically in both 'Laura' and 'Sunset Boulevard' we eventually come to know that the story is actually narrated from beyond the grave; neat trick, that. But the most recent, and skilful, example I can think of of the use of the unreliable narrator is Megan Abbot's writing.  I have found her books totally unputdownable, not because her protagonists are pleasant company, but because of the hypnotic tension of wondering what to believe and not to believe and when, if ever, they will dig their own graves.


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