Wednesday, March 17, 2010
Hardboiled/Noir: The Writers Part Three
The late ‘30’s and the ‘40’s didn’t offer much new in the hardboiled/noir world. There were plenty of solid writers, but there wasn’t much fresh on the market and it seemed that the Golden Age of creativity in the genre was over.
Not that the ‘40’s were completely devoid of anything noteworthy-- John Latimer wrote a book that really shook things up dramatically. He’s mostly remembered now for his more comic-oriented crime novels, but in 1941 he wrote what many consider to be one of the most brutal hard-boiled novels of all time, the hard-to-find Solomon’s Vineyard. This novel was censored and decried and condemned, and the unexpurgated version never saw print until the 1980’s.
But for the most part it was rough-going for readers of hardboiled/noir. The steady decline of the pulp magazine market didn’t help things. It had been going downhill for some time. The interest in crime stories that dominated the magazine stands in the ‘20’s gave way in the ‘30’s to action heroes like Doc Savage, The Shadow, and the Spider. And by the end of the decade, even those were suffering from poor sales.
But it was the emergence of this new thing called ‘paperback books’ that really sounded the death knell of the pulp magazine. New printing technology made binding books between stiff covers affordable. At first, publishers concentrated on ‘classic lit’ or mainstream fiction, but it didn’t take long for some savvy publishers to realize the true potential of the paperback original.
It took awhile for everything to gel, but right from the start the idea of a book printed in a cheap, easy to handle format was a huge success. During World War II, paperback books were popular with soldiers—they were convenient, could fit easily in a pocket or knapsack, and were considerably more resilient than a magazine. The industry continued to grow after the war, when the idea of paperback originals first took hold.
By the early 1950’s, publishers like Gold Medal Books had staked out a considerable territory and in the process created a whole new type of publishing. It was the beginning of the second Golden Age of hardboiled/noir.
The secret to success for the paperback originals was a sort of formula: first, you start with a very lurid cover—something they learned from the pulp magazines before them. A rough-looking guy with a gun, maybe, or someone slamming a fist into someone else’s face. Better yet, a woman—the less she’s wearing, the better—giving some thug the eye, being seductive and sexy. Even if the cover image had next to nothing to do with the story within, it was essential to grab the attention of the young men who were the target market. It was a technique so successful they even applied it to the covers of more literary fiction: the cover of Bantam’s 1949 edition of W. Somerset Maugham’s Stranger in Paradise shows a shapely woman seductively letting her dressing gown fall to her hips in the presence of a somewhat laconic-looking young man.
The second part of the formula was of course the story. The paperback originals had to have solid plots, lots of action, some sex (though not as much as the covers suggested), and pitch-perfect pacing. No time for character introspection that lasted more than a paragraph. No time for lengthy detailed descriptions of places and things. The best writers of the paperback originals were masters at sketching images in the reader’s minds, giving them the essentials and keeping the story rolling along like a sleek roadster.
It was a time of transition for the writers trying to make a buck, and some of them adjusted to the cross-over better than others.
One of the most successful of these was the masterly Cornell Woolrich. He had a solid career in the pulps, and many of his stories were translated for the big screen. When pulps gave way to paperbacks, he shifted gears and enjoyed renewed popularity as both Woolrich and William Irish.
Woolrich didn’t write in that lean, spare style that we’ve come to associate with noir and hard-boiled; his prose was rich and full, brimming over sometimes with melodrama that, to a modern reader, can be occasionally tiresome. But for all that, not too many writers could match him for ratcheting up tension, creating almost palpable dread, and making sure the reader kept those pages turning to see what awful thing was going to happen next.
He was also one of the first writers in the genre to give us stories from a female point of view. In fact, most of his best stories are tales of women driven to murder to protect their honor or to avenge the death of a loved one. Most notably, his so-called “Black Trilogy”.
There’s been speculation that Woolrich was a closest homosexual, and that he suffered from depression and bouts of alcohol-fueled self-loathing. Reading his work, you wouldn’t find these speculations surprising. The world he writes about is a dark, untrustworthy place. Woolrich is essential noir. Here are some of his best titles:
--The Bride Wore Black
--The Black Curtain
--The Black Angel
--Black Path of Fear
--The Night Has a Thousand Eyes
--Rendezvous in Black
--I Married a Dead Man
David Goodis was the other notable writer who shifted well from pulp to paperback, although many critics think that his work suffered throughout the fifties. It’s true that, as early as 1947, Goodis seemed destined for mainstream success with his novel Retreat from Oblivion. But by the beginning of the new decade it seems that, for some reason, he opted for a sort of anonymousness by writing paperback originals and keeping a low public profile. Mainstream success didn’t elude him; he eluded it.
To some degree, his subject matter reflected what we’ve come to believe about his own life. Goodis wrote about the losers, men who had fallen from grace due to circumstance or their own poor choices. His novels were dark and pessimistic and grim, without an ounce of humor. Bleak stuff, and highly recommended for a serious dose of noir.
--Retreat from Oblivion
--Of Missing Persons
--Street of the Lost
--Moon in the Gutter
--The Wounded and the Slain
--Street of No Return
--Shoot the Piano Player (aka, Down There)
So the death of the pulps didn’t always have to mean the end of careers. Several other writers of varying talent made the switch, while still writing for the handful of pulps that still existed. However, by the mid-fifties a whole new crop of amazing young writers had premiered, and the face of crime fiction altered, shifted subtly into a thing of more sophistication that the old pulp writers could ever have imagined.
By far, the most popular writer in the genre in the 1950’s was Mickey Spillane.
Love him or hate him, Spillane was hugely important in the history of hardboiled. His novels about Mike Hammer were ultra-violent, misanthropic, and unapologetically nasty. As a protagonist, Hammer was a raging, hateful creature of vengeance, driven by some peculiar code of honor that only he seemed capable of abiding. I personally find it easier to read Hammer’s adventures if I don’t think of him as a hero—he works better as a borderline psychopath.
I, the Jury
My Gun is Quick
Vengeance is Mine
One Lonely Night
The Big Kill
The Long Wait
Kiss Me, Deadly