Otto Penzler on Noir, received with promotional materials For The Best American Noir of the Century, edited by Penzler and James Ellroy, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
Noir Fiction is About Losers, Not Private Eyes
(Featured guest blog in HuffPost Books, August 10, 2010)
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.
The private eye story is optimistic, even if the detective is not. A client needs help and believes that a generally shabby guy in a rundown office with a bottle of bourbon in his desk drawer will somehow find a way to solve the problem. Can you get more optimistic than that?
Furthermore, this rather cynical figure--underpaid, disrespected, threatened, shot at, beaten up--has a code of ethics that guarantees he'll do the best he can for his client, who's probably lying to him anyway. A heroic figure stands at the center of the private eye novel; there are no heroic figures in noir fiction.
Not only are these two sub-categories of crime fiction not the same, they are philosophically diametrically opposed to each other. One is dependent on its hero maintaining the ethical high ground while most everyone with whom he interacts lies, cheats, steals and kills. The other features people who wallow in the sty that is their world. The machinations of their lust, whether for money or love (which, in noir fiction, is a four-letter word for sex), will cause them to be blinded to rudimentary decency as they become entangled in the web of their own doom.
Happy endings are not required in a private eye story, but the reader will generally have a sense of justice being done as the lone hero overcomes all the forces that have been arrayed against him. This is a uniquely American sensibility, deriving from the lone, stalwart sheriff cleaning up a town.
The noir story with a happy ending has never been written, nor can it be. The lost and corrupt souls who populate these tales were doomed before we met them because of their hollow hearts and depraved sensibilities.
I love noir fiction. It makes doom fun. And who doesn't like fun?
THE 10 BEST LINES IN FILM NOIR
Compiled by Otto Penzler
1. Dix Steele to Laurel Gray, In a Lonely Place (1950), recognizing that it’s over: “I was born when you kissed me. I died when you left me. I lived a few weeks while you loved me.”
2. Clarice Starling to a prison guard, The Silence of the Lambs (1991), when he asks her, “Is it true what they’re saying? He’s some kind of vampire?” Starling tells him, “They don’t have a name for what he is.”
3. Captain Finley to Leroy, Crossfire (1947), after shooting his murderous friend. Leroy asks, “Captain, is he dead?” The cop answers, “He was dead for a long time. He just didn’t know it.”
4. Travis Bickle, writing in his diary, Taxi Driver (1976): “I don’t believe that one should spend one’s life to morbid self-attention.”
5. Matty Walker to Ned Racine, Body Heat (1981), as he relentlessly flirts with her after being told she’s married and not interested: “You’re not too smart, are you? I like that in a man.”
6. Myra Langtry to Roy Dillon, The Grifters (1990), admiringly describing her former con artist partner: “He was so crooked he could eat soup with a corkscrew.”
7. Bailey to Kathie Moffett, Out of the Past (1947), after she has double-crossed him:“You’re like a leaf that the wind blows from one gutter to another.”
8. Mr. Pink to Mr. Orange, Reservoir Dogs (1992), when he sees his fellow thug has been shot: “Is it bad?” Mr. White looks at Mr. Pink and responds: “As opposed to good?”
9. Madame Tana to Hank Quinlan, Touch of Evil (1958), when the corrupt sheriff asks the fortune-teller to read her taro cards and tell him his future: “You haven’t got any. Your future is all used up.”
10. Ed Cornell to Jill Lynn, I Wake Up Screaming (1941), when she asks what would be the good of living without hope. In a dead voice, the lonely detective tells her, “It can be done.”