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Noir Is for Losers

Noir.

Slippery little word, isn’t it? French, but applied in retrospect to American movies that were themselves informed by aspects of German Expressionism. According to Otto Penzler, when people profess to be fans of the sub-genre, they very rarely know what they’re talking about. As editor, critic, and proprietor of the Mysterious Bookshop, Penzler obviously does.

The one thing noir isn’t, he says, is PI fiction. In fact the two sub-genres are “philosophically diametrically opposed.” Noir fiction’s “existential, nihilistic tales” represent the pitch-black flip side to PI fiction’s more optimistic slant. PI fiction displays an ethical code; noir fiction wallows in the gutter. PI fiction tends to restore order (Penzler’s connection to the sheriff cleaning up the wayward town is key); noir fiction must end in utter annihilation.

On the face of it, there’s not a lot to argue with here, other than the usual exceptions thrown up in response to a concrete definition written to an equally concrete word count. And indeed, there’s something about the definition that feels a little too concrete.

Let’s forget for a moment whether a sub-genre can comprise existentialism, nihilism, and some of the more basic concepts of predeterminism, and instead go right back to its roots. Penzler states that noir “has its roots in the hard-boiled private eye story that was essentially created by Dashiell Hammett in the pages of Black Mask Magazine in the 1920s,” and while I think it’s safe to say that the PI archetype (as opposed to the amateur sleuth or consulting detective) originated in its most popular and credible form with Hammett, my own feeling is that the roots of noir go much further back than the early part of the 20th century. Indeed—and you’ll have to forgive me for sounding like a substitute English teacher here—I believe noir can be traced right back to a trio of bad-asses named Aeschylus, Euripides, and Sophocles, the fathers of tragedy.

As evidenced in the work of the above and defined by Aristotle, the tragic hero is a man “who neither is a paragon of virtue and justice nor undergoes the change to misfortune through any real badness or wickedness but because of some mistake.” This mistake needn’t be an action on the character’s part, either—it could be and often is an inherent personality flaw, hubris, or a failure of the spirit that leads to his eventual doom. But the point is that there are no purely evil characters, that in even the worst of the tragic heroes, there is a spark of humanity that keeps him compelling to an audience. It may not be the most pleasant spark, but it’s there. And it’s that spark that makes noir characters compelling. After all, there isn’t that much separating the motives of Oedipus and Bill Rhodes, Macbeth and Jaime Figueras, or Ferdinand and J. J. Hunsecker, and Penzler’s assertion that “noir is about losers” who pretty much deserve their fates robs noir of its humanity and renders it instead a series of quickie morality plays with horny puppets double-crossing each other to death.

It is the critic and bookseller’s first instinct to categorize, of course, but the danger in this is that only the broad strokes are seen. Defining noir fiction by its lust-driven losers and doom-laden outsiders brings us perilously close to cliché, and cliché can only lead to stagnation. It’s the same thing that crippled the PI sub-genre, and while there are certainly some excellent writers working in a more traditional vein (Laura Lippman, Sean Chercover, Michael Koryta, and Russel D McLean, to name but four), I still think we’re waiting for someone to shake that sub-genre up the way Pelecanos or Crumley did.

So then, with an open mind, why can’t PI fiction be noir fiction? Well, the fact is, it can.

The first novel that springs to mind is Falling Angel by William Hjortsberg. If you haven’t read it, you’ve probably seen the sterling 1986 adaptation Angel Heart, which moved the story from New York to New Orleans and certainly made me think twice before eating another hard-boiled egg. The book opens with a quote from Aristotle, from Oedipus the King, no less— “Alas, how terrible is wisdom when it brings no profit to the man that’s wise!” —and a typically retro hard-boiled first line:

“It was Friday the thirteenth and yesterday’s snowstorm lingered in the streets like a leftover curse.”

Although there’s a strong element of pastiche in Falling Angel is a one-off, and PI fiction by its nature tends toward the series, which is perhaps why I can think of more noir movie PIs than I can literary. But I think the first four Jack Taylor novels (ending with The Dramatist’s final bleak tableau) certainly count as a noir cycle, and the only reason I don’t include the others is that Bruen hasn’t finished the series yet, and I’d be surprised if Jack lives happily ever after. And I might as well admit that I have a dog in this particular fight myself. He’s not a particularly big dog, but he’s proven game enough to make it through four books. There does, however, seem to be a distinct lack of properly noir PIs. If you have any suggestions, I’d love to read them—comments are open.

Also, this lack of crossover reminds us of how fixated we can be as both authors and readers (yes, readers—you’re the ones dictating taste here) on the window dressing of a sub-genre as opposed to what made it compelling in the first place. And while every sub-genre waxes and wanes in popularity, isn’t there also a chance that every wane may be its last?

Ray Banks is the author of the Cal Innes novels, the last of which, Beast of Burden, will be published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt in 2011. He’s also written a bunch of short stories that have been anthologized in such places as Dublin Noir, Damn Near Dead, Expletive Deleted, and Shattered. When he’s not mouthing off over here, he can be found mouthing off over at his website, www.thesaturdayboy.com.