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."
Tuesday, July 19, 2011
So many books...