RARA-AVIS: Re: Duhamel's Definition of Noir

From: JIM DOHERTY (jimdohertyjr@yahoo.com)
Date: 14 Jul 2010

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    Re your comments below:

    "I didn't mean to offer up Duhamel's 1948 definition of noir as one that would do the job in 2010. Rather, I'm interested in how the idea was understood by the writer who first tried to describe it not only with his words but also with the books that he was publishing. So for me, 'picking holes' in Duhamel means finding ways in which he fails to describe accurately the novels that the Serie Noire was publishing."

    This isn't the first time, or even the second, that Duhamel's manifesto has been cited as the "definition."  Problem with it is it's not, and never was intended to be, a definition, per se.  It was a list of common elements that MIGHT be found in any novel in the Serie Noire line, not a list of elements that would ALWAYS be found in EVERY novel in the line.  And a definition, BY definition, would have to describe elements that could be found in every single novel in the line, and that, moreover, were absolutely exclusive to the type of book published by that line.

    So it's not a question of poking holes in Duhame's statement.  His statement is perfectly valid for what it is.  It's just not valid as a definition, which it was never intended to be.

    Just looking at the first 10 novels published in the line:

    1. Peter Cheyney, POISON IVY (1937; Série Noire 1945) 2. Peter Cheyney, THIS MAN IS DANGEROUS (1936; SN 1945) 3. James Hadley Chase, NO ORCHIDS FOR MISS BLANDISH (1939; SN 1946) 4. Horace McCoy, NO POCKETS IN A SHROUD (1937; SN 1946) 5. Don Tracy, LAST YEAR'S SNOW (1937; SN 1947) 6. James Hadley Chase, EVE (1945; SN 1947) 7. Peter Cheyney, DON'T GET ME WRONG (1939; SN 1947) 8. Raymond Chandler, THE LADY IN THE LAKE(1943; SN 1948) 9. Peter Cheyney, YOU'D BE SURPRISED (1940; SN 1948) 10. James Hadley Chase, THE FLESH IN THE ORCHID (1948; SN 1948)

    and comparing them to Duhamel's statement:

    "Let unwary readers be warned: books in the Série Noire cannot safely be placed in just any hands. Those who like Sherlock Holmes-type puzzles won't find what they're looking for. Neither will systematic optimists. The immorality generally accepted in this type of work solely to serve as a foil for conventional morality is just as much at home there as fine feelings, even just plain amorality. The spirit of such books is rarely conformist. In them there are police more corrupt than the crimnals they're chasing. The nice detective doesn't always solve the mystery. Sometimes there is no mystery. And sometimes there isn't even a detective. And so? So what remains is action, torment and violence, in all its forms, especially the most shameful--from beatings to massacres. As in good films, moods are expressed through actions, and readers who are fond of instrospective literature will have to do the reverse gymnastics. There is also love--preferably
     bestial--disorderly passion, pitiless hate. In short, our goal is quite simple: to keep you from sleeping."

    one can find any number of exceptions to the "rules" supposedly set by Duhamel. 

    For example, there a few characters in crime fiction as "conventionally moral" as Philip Marlowe, and (SPOILER ALERT) while the villain in the case does turn out to be a crooked cop there are clean cops, too, even in the Bay City force, and it's a clean cop who ultimately overcomes Degarmo (END SPOILER ALERT), so that's two elements in Duhamel's supposed definition that don't hold true for one of the books.

    Lemmy Caution, in Peter Cheyney's novels, may be charitibly described as a not altogether convincing protagonist, but he IS a straight cop, and he's the hero, so that's another four books in which one of Duahmel's supposedly inviolable principles (and if it's a definition, all the elements listed HAVE to be inviolable) is violated.

    You might be getting a little closer with the three Chase books. Certainly "bestial love" (or at least bestial passion), if not literal bestiality, is a hallmark of NO ORCHIDS and EVE, and the protagonist of FLESH OF THE ORCHID is the product of bestial passion, but it's difficult to describe the cops in, say, NO ORCHIDS, as being worse than the Grisson gang, and cops, crooked or otherwise, aren't really a major feature of EVE or FLESH.

    I'm not familiar with LAST YEAR'S SNOW, but even if it has every single feature described in Duhamel's statement, that's one book out of ten.

    Moreover, each of these elements, perhaps not all of them at once but at least one at a time, can be found in books that really can't be described as noir, so none of these elements can be described as exclusive to noir, which mean they can't really be defining features.

    So clearly Duhamel's statement was not intended as an overarching defintion, which mean, as usual, that to define correctly noir, we have to try to discern what all of these ten books, and all the other books ultimately published by Gallimard under its Serie Noire line, have in common that sets it apart from other crime fiction.

    And, as far as I can tell, what they ALL have in common is a dark, sinister atmosphere.

    Think that's wrong? Then find at least one other element, just one, that all of them have in common. Just out of these ten. Forget the hundreds of others Gallimard has published in the last 60-odd years. One single element besides a dark and sinister atmosphere that all ten of these novels have in common.

    'Cause otherwise, as always, I'm right.

    (Sorry about that, but Jack did say he was willing to have another go-around on the "what is noir" question just to get Rara-Avis's muscles flexing again.)



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