Tuesday, August 10, 2010

"Hollow hearts and depraved sensibilities"

Otto Penzler, who is a genuine authority on crime fiction, writes about why one genre differs from another in "Noir Fiction Is About Losers, Not Private Eyes." What redeems "noir," and makes it enjoyable, is the fact that "it...has a character with a moral center" — perhaps only one, but at least one with whom the reader can identify.
...[N]oir 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 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? .... [more]
Thanks to Brandywine Books for the reference.

Otto Penzler: Noir Fiction Is About Losers, Not Private Eyes