Thursday, March 11, 2010

Hardboiled/Noir: The Writers Part Two

Mentioning James M. Cain in direct reference to the other Gods of the Trinity is especially inaccurate; Cain didn’t write about detectives, and he certainly didn’t write about characters of high moral standing. In that regard, he was one of the first writers that we can actually call noir.
Chandler hated him. He thought Cain was a filthy pervert, celebrating everything indecent about humanity. To some extent he was right. But what Chandler failed to see was that Cain understood the darkness in our souls, the lengths humans are willing to go to in order to avoid their own doom, and the knowledge that it was futile anyway; we are all doomed, and every step we take to change that brings us that much closer to the end.
Cain was a poet of entropy, and from his novels came noir, fully formed. The hapless protagonist, lured by sex, the manipulative femme fatale, the raw sexuality, the violence, and the wicked plan that’s doomed from the start. Reading his novels—especially the first two—gives the reader a crash course in noir that covers all the basics.
--Double Indemnity
--The Postman Always Rings Twice
--Root of His Evil
--The Embezzler
--Mildred Pierce
--Love’s Lonely Counterfeit

Albert Camus is quoted as saying his novel The Stranger was inspired in part by Cain’s The Postman Always Rings Twice. So what’s the difference between noir and existential? You tell me. I believe The Stranger more than qualifies as noir.

A contemporary of Hammett, Chandler and Cain’s was the remarkable W.R. Burnett. He too brought something new to the hardboiled table, something midway between Chandler and Cain—instead of focusing on the detective-hero or the hapless sucker, his central characters were usually straight-up bad guys: gangsters, thieves, etcetera. He was hugely popular for awhile, especially in the ‘30’s when Americans began to glamorize the crooks of Prohibition and the roaming bank robbers like John Dillinger. Burnett’s timing couldn’t have been better. Of course, the bad guy heroes of his stories always paid the piper at the end. Noir hadn’t developed so much that the bad guy could get away with his crimes—that development was a couple of decades away.
--Little Caesar
--Iron Man
--Dark Hazard
--High Sierra
--The Asphalt Jungle
--Nobody Lives Forever

There were other writers who don’t get referenced as often as Hammett, Chandler, Cain or even Burnett who still made important contributions and added their own particular ingredients to the ever more diversified genre of hardboiled/noir.
One of the greatest and most underappreciated was Horace McCoy, who wrote what is perhaps the most grueling noir of the ‘30’s, They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? There are no private dicks here, or gangsters or even hapless sex-slaves. It takes place during a brutal dance marathon—a popular past-time of the era—and uses the marathon as a perfect metaphor for the unrelenting cruelty of existence. It’s a harsh, uncompromising book. His others were almost as good.
--They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?
--No Pockets on a Shroud
--Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye
--I Should’ve Stayed Home

Eric Knight, writing under the name Paul Hallas, gave us one notable book that has taken on a sort of Holy Grail-like quality. It’s highly-regarded by fans of noir but is rarely read these days—in fact, since the decades since its first appearance it’s been out of print most of the time. Black Lizard was the last to reprint it, back in the ‘80’s. But its well-worth searching out.
--You Play the Black and the Red Comes Up

Paul Cain is another lost master of noir. He wrote a handful of short stories, collected later into one volume, and one novel that Raymond Chandler called “some kind of high-water mark in hardboiled”. Fortunately, his meager output is still available in an omnibus edition.
--Fast One
--Seven Slayers

And Raoul Whitfield deserves to be mentioned for a number of reasons: he was one of Black Mask’s most prolific contributors for awhile, he created the first Filipino detective hero (Jo Gar), and his stories about ex-convict Mel Ourney became the highly-regarded novel…
--Green Ice

There were hundreds of other writers who plied their trade in the pulp magazines throughout the ‘20’s and early ‘30’s, obviously—names that are mostly lost to us now, stories that no one will ever read again. Some of them deserved a bigger audience; most of them didn’t. Fortunately, the decades since the pulp magazine explosion have mostly seen the cream rise to the top. It was an amazing time, though. With the profusion of magazines on the stands—there were literally hundreds of them—a professional writer with a little talent and a lot of dedication could eke out a living for himself, and if he was lucky, leave behind some sort of small legacy.

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