Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Noir Reading List

So many books...

Guthrie, Allan. “200 Noirs,” at Allan Guthrie’s Noir Originals.

Guthrie is the author of one of the earliest Hard Case Crime books, and several more. He introduces this impressive list of 200 noir novels (better get a move on, is the implication) with the caution that his notion of noir "rules out most detective fiction -- unless the detectives are victims, crooks, lunatics or are generally shafted in some major way."

Why the lionization of noir? I mean apart from the fact that it jibes with fashionable narci-nihilism? I can see there's some truth in the notion that a classic noir story has the structure of a tragedy, most interesting when the protagonists bring about their own downfall. Apart from the fact hat noir characters tend to be the dregs and the traditional view of tragedy requires a fall from a great height, noir tales have the potential to be be powerful dramas evoking pity and fear and all the rest of it. But I find I still gravitate more powerfully to detective stories, and when I read Guthrie's patronizing dismissal I felt somewhat offended on their behalf.

"The story is the man's adventure in search of a hidden truth." That was Raymond Chandler's definition. Hard to see that's there's anything inherently limiting in that. The stories are accounts of people trying to answer questions and solve problems. Pretty basic human activities, in the classical/liberal scheme of things. Not everything the hero learns is going to be reassuring, but the activity itself is affirmative.

For me there is no impulse more central to the notion of investigation than trying to get to the heart of the matter, to the root or the source -- to the point that I've written off as failures research projects that didn't quite dig all the way back to the beginning. No wonder, with a bias like this, that Ross Macdonald is my God of the Detective Story.

A simple example of how a story about someone trying to answer a question can be put to non-escapist literary use would be Winter's Bone, in which the search for an answer takes us inside an unfamiliar culture, shows us its power structure and lays out the code of behavior that gave rise to a crime. WB is an interesting case because the "detective," Ree Dolly, isn't trying got find out who did it, only that it was done.

"Starts bad, gets worse," is one definition of noir I've come across. Woodrell says he began Winter's Bone as a noir, but changed his mind as the finale drew closer, because he saw that Ree had acted honorably and didn't deserve a malign fate. In her case the standard noir ending would be an arbitrary horror. For Woodrell, it seems, true noir has to be at least arguably tragic. (In the film version, a tragic grace note was added for John Hawkes' Uncle Teardrop: He dooms himself by finding out who did it. A nice extra fillip of genre-bending ingenuity.)

UPDATE: I didn't have the novel in front of me when I wrote this and it turns out that last observation is mistaken. In the novel, too, Teardrop tells Ree: "I know who now." Hugging him, "She felt she was holding somebody doomed who was already vanishing even as she squeezed her arms around his neck."


Adam Thornton said...

I like the "starts bad, gets worse" definition...it does seem to sum it up. Robert Coover's most recent novel (called...errr..."NOIR") is a typically Coover-esque pastiche of noir elements. It definitely "starts bad, gets worse," but his books always do that anyway.

Al Guthrie said...

I was hoping to provide a list of books in the noir (James Cain) tradition as opposed to the hardboiled (Raymond Chandler) tradition. If making that distinction is patronizing then that's certainly not the intention. How would you make the distinction, given that they are clearly different types of crime fiction?

David Chute said...

I can see I was wrong to read a patronizing attitude into what you wrote. That's my reflex, after fighting a running battle in my head for years against the notion that pessimism is automatically smarter and hipper than optimism. (Cheap pessimism as the filpside of cheap optimism.)

That's what I'd base the distinction on, pessimism vs. optimism. Elsewhere here there's a quote from a piece on the late Derek Raymond:

"He defined the black novel as one that 'seeks to present as forcibly as it can the terminal psychic situation that occurs in people who have arrived at a point where they have no hope, no motive, and no longer even the desire to conceal anything from themselves; the black novel intervenes at the moment where a human being approaches his last moment.'"

The act of trying to solve a crime is implicitly optimistic. It's an act of hope against hopelessness. The detective lives in a noir world but stubbornly continues to behave as if something can be salvaged. He rarely restores the social order as neatly as the Golden Age guys but he may win a little bit. The classic hard boiled ending is a hard won partial victory.

Here I am pontificating at someone way better qualified to pronounce on these issues than I am. Apologies again for misreading your comments.

Al Guthrie said...

No worries, David. I like noir, but I like detective fiction too. I read both, I write both, and as a literary agent I represent authors who write both. Funnily enough, my experiences since 2004 as a writer, editor and literary agent suggest that noir is not hip, not smart and certainly not commercial. I like the 'pessimism versus optimism' idea. I would argue, though, that trying to solve a crime is not an implicitly optimistic act. You could quite easily try to solve a crime thinking you have no chance of finding the culprit, whether you're a seasoned cop doing a job or a cynical hardboiled private detective who's getting paid by the hour. I have to say I can't see much optimism in Hammett's detective novels either (which may well be why I like him so much, of course!). I would also suggest that hope is an ingredient you'll find in almost all good noir. In fact, "hope against hopelessness" is a perfect description of the psyche of a huge number of non-detective noir protagonists. After all, it's the hope that kills...

David Chute said...

There may also be a contrast here between soemone who's jut theorizing and someone who's actually doing it -- and who knows that they real stuff is always a mixture. No noir can have the attitude in its pure form or it would be unreadably nihilistic.