Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Otto Penzler: Noir is about losers, not private eyes

Ed here: I thought this was a fine piece by Otto Penzler about noit fiction. It appears on Huffington Post.

Otto Penzler:

Noir fiction has attracted some of the best writers in the United States (mostly) and many of its aficionados are among the most sophisticated readers in the crime genre. Having said that, I am constantly baffled by the fact that a huge number of those readers don't seem to know what noir fiction is. When they begin to speak of their favorite titles in the category, they invariably include a preponderance of books and short stories that are about as noir as strawberry shortcake.

Look, noir is about losers. The characters in these existential, nihilistic tales are doomed. They may not die, but they probably should, as the life that awaits them is certain to be so ugly, so lost and lonely, that they'd be better off just curling up and getting it over with. And, let's face it, they deserve it.

Pretty much everyone in a noir story (or film) is driven by greed, lust, jealousy or alienation, a path that inevitably sucks them into a downward spiral from which they cannot escape. They couldn't find the exit from their personal highway to hell if flashing neon lights pointed to a town named Hope. It is their own lack of morality that blindly drives them to ruin.

Noir fiction 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. There are tough guys in his stories, and lying dames, and violence, double-crosses, murder, and nefarious schemes.

But--and this is where the private detective story separates itself from noir--it also has a character with a moral center. Sam Spade knew that when somebody kills your partner, you're supposed to do something about it. Raymond Chandler, whose splendid prose illuminated his novels and stories, compared his private detective to a knight, describing his as someone who walked the mean streets but was not himself mean.

for the rest go here:


Kenneth Mark Hoover said...

that's a very good definition of noir

Ron Scheer said...

Another good one. Have never seen it all laid out so clearly. Currently reading James Reasoner's DUST DEVILS and so far it fits perfectly.

It would be interesting to see classic film noir folded into the argument, because it fits more into the detective story that holds to a moral center.

Anonymous said...

That is a superb definition. On the negative side, most noir is absurd.

Mike Dennis said...

Great definition, Ed. It dovetails nicely with mine which is essentially that noir stories deal with ordinary people, minor players in society, who get swallowed up in extraordinary circumstances and emotions, and they eventually cross the line. They're doomed from the get-go, like you said, because they're trapped in the backwaters of their own unfortunate choices. And those choices are usually of the no-win variety.

It peeves me, too, when people refer to Philip Marlowe and Sam Spade as "noir protagonists", but I usually let it go.