Noir fiction

The Master of Noir Writing?

Noir detective girl in door

You saw the title and I bet you’re thinking Dashiell Hammett?  Raymond Chandler?  Perhaps these two men would dominate if we were awarding style points, but the hard-boiled genre isn’t about flash or pretty prose.  It’s about page-turning grit, two-fisted aggression and the dod-eat-dog underbelly of society.  It’s the kind of thing a grunt would carry in his pocket in Flanders or Normandy or Korea as opposed to the kind of thing whose author would be fêted on Fifth Avenue.

Noir film has understood this since the beginning, which is why the source material is often forgotten.   Honestly, most people have seen The Maltese Falcon, and recognize it as a classic, even today, but how many have read the book?

Even we at Classically Educated are guilty.  Looking back at our history of book reviews, we’ve done Paul Auster’s New York Trilogy, which, as postmodernist literature would likely have been about as popular with the troops as gonorrhea, we’ve done Agatha Christie which has murder and popular appeal, but isn’t noir, and we’ve looked at the wonderful Garrett books by Glen Cook, which tick all the boxes, but are undermined as pure noir by the fact that they tick an extra box: they’re fantasy.

It’s time to address that failing.

To do so, we need to grab the bull by the horn and go for the noirest of the noir, Mickey Spillane himself.  In his day, especially in the 1950s, the man probably outsold every other noir writer combined…  and he did it the old-fashioned way: by making his stories more violent, sexier and more sensationalist than anyone else.

A good way to get a feel for what this implies is to pick up one of the omnibus editions out there.

Mickey Spillane Volume I - I, the Jury, My Gun is Quick, Vengeance is Mine!

So I did, and I have to say the man earned it.  I read the big block of a book containing Spillane’s three first novels (I, the Jury, My Gun is Quick, Vengeance is Mine!) in a breathless rush that was only resolved in the last sentence.   While not every writer would be well served writing this way (I wouldn’t try it–the critics would have a field day), it works perfectly for Spillane himself.

Mike Hammer might not be as well-remembered today as Marlowe or Spade… but he should be.  And some of the endings might be predictable if you’re familiar with the genre, but none of them will leave you unsatisfied (and remember that they are probably predictable because they’ve been copied).

Just the thing to forget about those shells falling all around your foxhole in some foreign land.

 

Gustavo Bondoni is an Argentine author whose novel Outside will also keep you guessing until the last pages (not the last sentence, though.  He chickened out).  You can check it out here.

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And One That Didn’t Quite Make the Grade

The other book I ordered from Folio along with Notes from a Small Island was yet another classic on the cusp from a contemporary writer.  Paul Auster’s New York Trilogy is another beautifully produced edition, but it didn’t, in my opinion, live up to its promise.

Paul Auster - The New York Trilogy - Folio Society edition

The problem here is the content of the book.  No matter how perfect the binding or evocative the illustrations, it’s hard to turn an exercise in experimental fiction into a good read.  Even worse, this book is saddled by the yoke of postmodernism…

So, of course, the critics loved it, lauded the way it plays with the tropes of detective fiction, and basked in its empty nihilism and lack of definition.  After all, we were in the throes of destroying all that had come before and exposing the falseness of underlying assumptions.

And I guess in that, they were correct.  As a piece of postmodern art, this one could be a hell of a lot worse.  By using the structure of a detective novel, at least it doesn’t descend into complete navel gazing, as there are actually things going on, even if they aren’t quite as entertaining as the things that go on in real detective novels, and if the ending isn’t as satisfying as they are in, say, a good noir book.

Perhaps that’s what hit me the hardest on this one.  I’m going through a phase where I’m enjoying noir enormously, and I feel that an author of Auster’s caliber (even here, it’s obvious that the man can write, if he had so chosen) could have done something truly special with the form.

But no… postmodern sensibilities won out.

I often wonder if anything postmodern will be part of the canon in a few years time, or if it will all be consigned to the rubbish bin of history like the dead end it is.  Perhaps a few pieces of postmodernism will survive, in the same way that a few bits of modernism have reached us as illustrations of their particular form.  Perhaps Folio is right and Auster’s trilogy is one of those pieces that will represent the movement going forward.

But I doubt that much else will last.  Cynicism and irony are great if savage and loaded, not when they replace a shrug and a sigh.  The postmodernists are not as jaded as they want to make us believe… and it shows int heir weak output.

 

Gustavo Bondoni is an Argentine novelist and short story writer.  His novel Outside explores posthumanism without attempting to be too optimistic or too pessimistic about it.  But realism can be quite shocking, too.