Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Hardboiled/Noir: The Writers Part One

Tough guys. Dangerous dames. Hapless losers. Psychopathic villains. Racetracks, seedy bars, swank nightclubs. Crooked cops and crumbling tenement houses.
Welcome to the underbelly: the dark, cynical heart of the American dream. This is the City of Hardboiled, the neighborhood of Noir. It’s a great place to visit, but… well, you know the drill.
This is a particularly American place, even though in recent years it’s managed to export itself around the world, taking root in England and France, Mexico and Algiers, even Norway if you can believe it. Seems that there’s plenty of existential angst to go around in this world. But the source of the virus is the States, no question. That’s where the infections first occurred, that’s where the buildings first went up and the private dick had his first shot of whisky and the grifter made his first score.
It’s hard to say where it all started, this school of hardboiled lyricism and noir dread. If you wanted to get really deep about it, you could say it started with Mark Twain, the first American writer to use a distinctly American voice. Ernest Hemingway noted that all American literature comes from one book, Huckleberry Finn, and yeah, he’s pretty much right. But maybe we’re putting too fine a point on it.
As early as the 1890’s, Twain not withstanding, we had action-packed stories of two-fisted heroes, knocking the crap out of Victorian-style villains and rescuing damsels—Nick Carter was probably the first (or at least the most successful) of these cardboard cut-out heroes. He appeared in tons of cheap chapbooks, circulated all over the country and mostly reserved for the newly-literate masses, who were, let’s face it, not particularly sophisticated in their reading habits.
But really, there’s nothing hardboiled or noir about those stories. They’re totally prelude.
Those chapbooks led to the great magazine boom of the early 20th century, and that’s really where things get rolling. In the early days, fiction magazines were general interest—they’d have, say, a western story, a detective thriller, a story of high seas adventure, etcetera. But by the early ‘20’s most of them had become more specialized. By far, the best-selling magazines were of the ‘detective’ variety.
Dime Detective. Thrilling Detective. Spicy Detective Stories. There were tons of them.
The king of detective magazines, though, was Black Mask, and that’s where the hardboiled style first emerged.
But we still haven’t defined our terms. Hardboiled and noir are not really the same thing, even though they often go hand-in-hand. A story can be hardboiled without having a trace of noir, and vice-versa.
Hardboiled came first, in those unsettled and uncertain times between the two world wars. It’s a genre defined by it’s rejection of sentiment. It portrays crime and violence in a stark, unromantic light. You could say “realism”, but that’s not really true—in most hardboiled stories, there isn’t much realism to speak of. It’s more of a “hyper-realism”, a distorted representation of the world that feels real while you’re immersed in it, that feels like the world you’re most afraid of.
Hardboiled stories usually feature a detective hero—not always, but often enough that you notice it when they don’t. This detective hero is usually every bit as tough as the villains he comes across, and he’s almost always the wittiest guy in the room. He’s cool. Cocky, even. You wish you were as cool as this guy.
Noir eventually popped out of the skull of hardboiled, fully formed. It’s basically a sort of role-reversal of protagonists—the central character in a noir isn’t usually the “knight in tarnished armor”-type; he’s the lowlife the knight is trying to nail.
Noir implies a certain dark tone, cynical, fatalistic, with a particular sort of cast of characters—generally people on the fringe of normal society, doing things you could only politely describe as anti-social. There is invariably a sense of impending doom, as a protagonist fights—or doesn’t fight—against an end that is, really, inevitable. Life sucks and then you die, that sort of thing. Granted, that’s a broad definition, and it doesn’t take into account about a ton of other things that come to mind when you think of “noir”, but that’s the general idea.
But you know, there are even finer distinctions these days. In recent years, the term “psycho-noir” gets thrown around quite a bit. Obviously, it’s a further refinement of noir, but its definition is a little trickier. David Zelsterman, the author of Small Crimes, wrote that “psycho-noir” is the type of story…

"...where the protagonists perceptions and rationalizations are just off center enough to send them to hell."

I think the main difference between “noir” and “psycho-noir” lies in the central protagonist. In “noir”, it’s usually a normal kind of joe, maybe a bit too ambitious or a bit too flip about right and wrong, who’s drawn into a messed-up situation by circumstance or by his own hubris. He may wind up doing monstrous things, but he’s basically a decent guy who manages to fuck up royally.
The main character in a “psycho-noir”, on the other hand, is usually a monstrous person to begin with. Perhaps he’s an amoral sociopath, like Patricia Highsmith’s Tom Ripley. In some cases, like Jim Thompson’s Pop. 1280, he’s a full-on delusional lunatic. The main thing is, he’s a bad guy, and not a bad guy who’s really a good guy deep inside, or is simply “misunderstood”. No, he’s the full-on villain, and the story belongs to him, and if it’s done right you still kinda want him to win.
These can be really small distinctions, of course. Sometimes, it’s difficult to find that point where “hardboiled” becomes “noir”, or where “noir” becomes “psycho-noir”, and honestly a good crime story is just a good crime story regardless, because of the elements that they have in common. And what are those? The writer Jack Bludis sums it up as neatly as anything I’ve heard:

None of this happened in a vacuum, of course. It’s not as if every other writer in America between the two world wars was writing beautiful, shining monuments to happiness and optimism. Hardboiled/noir grew out of a general feeling of dissatisfaction and alienation that was reflected in the work of more mainstream or critically respected authors as well. Ernest Hemingway developed his lean, spare style of writing as a response against the excesses of his literary contemporaries, an excess he felt obscured more than illuminated. He wrote about tough men, usually, doing tough things, just like the writers of hardboiled/noir, and also like them his cynicism and despair over the human condition shined through his work.
Hemingway and Hammett are often compared. The styles they employed were similar, and some critics have accused Hammett of stealing Hemingway’s lean style outright. This is patently untrue: Hammett actually came first, in the pages of Black Mask, in 1923. Hemingway’s first book wasn’t released in the States until two years later. Not that Hemingway stole from Hammett—he certainly did not. It must have been something in the water, or maybe they drank the same brand of whisky.
Regardless, Hemingway is significant in the development of the hardboiled school. His short stories are especially relevant, and the novels A Farwell to Arms, The Sun Also Rises and For Whom the Bell Tolls all show the same attitude about the world and humanity that are displayed in the genre writers.
A few years later, John Steinbeck, too, would be easily linked to the hardboiled movement with his grim novels of Depression-era America: Of Mice and Men, East of Eden, and The Grapes of Wrath.
William Faulkner was a huge fan of hardboiled and noir, and it shows in many of his books, most notably Pylon, Sanctuary, A Light in August, and the darkly comic As I Lay Dying.

But let’s be real. As significant as those books are, they aren’t really hardboiled/noir, despite their influence on and influence by genre fiction. They merely serve to illustrate how hardboiled/noir didn’t spring up out of nowhere.
The first hardboiled detective story is usually credited to a guy named Carroll John Daly, which is unfortunate because Daly was kind of a lousy writer. But he more or less invented the hardboiled detective with his character Terry Mack, in the May 1923 issue of Black Mask.
The story was called “Three Gun Terry”, and it wasn’t too much different than the old Nick Carter stories except that the hero was every bit the nasty equal of his nemesis. He wasn’t afraid to get his hands dirty; he knew the streets, he knew the lingo, he was a wise-ass and a bad-ass, and the readers of Black Mask fell immediately in love with him.
Daly also created the character Race Williams just a couple of months later in the story “Knights of the Open Palm”; Race was pretty much the same thing as Terry Mack but soared to even greater heights of fame amongst Black Mask readers.
The stories that Daly wrote were invariably cookie-cutter stuff, predictable, violent, low-brow. If you stalk the used bookstores or E-bay, you might be able to find paperback editions of the stuff he wrote for Black Mask, like The Hidden Hand or The Tag Murders. They don’t stand up well now, and even then more sophisticated readers rightfully dismissed him and this new unpleasant style of detective story that seemed to cater to the lowest common denominator.
And yet, in a 1930 poll, Black Mask readers voted Daly their favorite. Dashiell Hammett was a distant second. Fortunately, time has rectified that misjudgment.

Dashiell Hammett’s first story of the Continental Op appeared in Black Mask in the October 1923 issue, only months after Daly’s first Race Williams story, and signified a serious change in the demeanor of hardboiled. The most significant difference between Hammett and his hardboiled predecessor was a simple one: Hammett could write. He could really write. He used short, declarative sentences, designed for maximum effect; he didn’t spend much time inside the head of his protagonist; he concentrated on keeping the story moving, and practically invented the idea of “real time” action. Hammett was a revelation.
Every hardboiled detective since the Op owes its existence to Hammett. He transformed what might have turned out to be a literary fad into a genuine movement that’s still going strong today, and redefined what we think of as the “American voice” in fiction.
Hammett brought to the table his experiences as a private detective for the Pinkerton agency, and that experience colored all his work, but especially the stories of the Op. Later, he would create the memorable Sam Spade in a series of stories and the novel The Maltese Falcon, but for me it’s all about the Continental Op—short, mulish, fat, and totally dedicated to the job. The Op is a relentless, unstoppable force that has no existence outside his job. He’s incorruptible not because it would be immoral to break his own rules but because it would be unprofessional.
Hammett’s work has never been out of print in the States, and if you’re new to the genre there’s no excuse not to start with the source. He wasn’t amazingly prolific. He wrote all of his great work in a short ten year period, and in the last twenty years of his life didn’t write a single word that saw publication.
All of his books with the exception of The Thin Man were first serialized in Black Mask. They are:
--The Dain Curse
--Red Harvest
--The Maltese Falcon
--The Glass Key
--The Thin Man
…and his short stories are collected in these editions from Black Lizard/Vintage Crime:
--The Big Knockover
--The Continental Op
--Nightmare Town

The 1920’s and early ‘30’s were the Golden Age of the Hardboiled novel. Following in the wake of Hammett, hardboiled dicks started springing up all over the place. Most of them were pale imitations, adding nothing significant to the genre, but occasionally someone would come along with a fresh game and slap things around a little.
Fans of the detective story will often refer to the Holy Trinity of Hammett-Chandler-Cain, as if these three writers had anything in common. You’ve seen the reviews of every new detective novel, referring to this or that new writer as being “in the best tradition of Hammett, Chandler and Cain”. In reality, they couldn’t have been more different from one another, not only in style but in subject matter. It’s like saying, “In the best tradition of Shakespeare, James Fenimore Cooper, and Stephen King”.
Raymond Chandler certainly utilized the raw materials that Hammett made, but he represented the next phase of the hardboiled story and took the genre in a new direction, one of rich, evocative language and something a little closer to a genuine literary agenda. Reading about Chandler, you almost get the idea that he was insecure in his chosen field, that he feared more than anything not being taken seriously as a writer. He shouldn’t have worried; his reputation as a literary giant is intact, despite the hundreds of pastiches of his work that have surfaced over the decades.
“He was about as inconspicuous as a tarantula on a slice of angel food cake.” All those brilliant and fun metaphors that we’ve come to associate with his novels about Philip Marlowe were only the bells and whistles. On a deeper level, Chandler was struggling with bigger themes of decency, humanity, and how to maintain a moral stake in a world where morality has no place. That was something his imitators never understood.
What can you say about Chandler that hasn’t already been said? While not as tight a plotter as Hammett, Chandler’s voice as a writer was sharp and observant, and his style was hugely influential. Like Hammett, Chandler wasn’t prolific; he wrote only seven novels in his lifetime, and only the first four or five of those were notable.
--The Big Sleep
--Farewell, My Lovely
--The High Window
--Lady in the Lake
--The Little Sister
--The Long Goodbye
--The Simple Art of Murder

to be continued

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