January, 2004

NOIR FICTION REVISITED


Guest Commentary by Steven Quan

The unfortunate truth is classic noir stories are quaint and dated.

As a marketing device, some publishers or critics talk about "literary noir." But what does the reader really get? A PI or police procedural? A tough guy story?

Imitation, it has been said, is the highest form of praise. Several years ago, when I tried my hand at writing fiction, I "discovered" Hammett, Chandler, James Cain, and Cornell Woolrich. I didn't know then that they wrote noir. All I knew was that I loved their stories, settings, plots, and characters. So I sat down, rolled a fresh sheet of paper in the portable manual typewriter (alas, it was that long ago), and proceeded to make the error many novice writers commit. I attempted to imitate those noir stories I loved. What I turned out...well, nothing got published. It didn't occur to me I was trying to break into genre fiction with a style, an approach, a world view, that was in vogue during the 1940's and 1950's. I would have as much luck if I wrote Westerns like Zane Grey.

As a novice, I was too in love with Hammett, Chandler, Woolrich, and their contemporaries to see how dated were my imitations of their noir stories. It's like watching a movie made in the 1960's and chuckling at what was current for hair style, fashion (leisure suits and polyester), and slang. No one today would have their heroes and heroines dress and talk like the Mod-Squad of the 60's, unless as a period piece or a parody (e.g., Austen Powers).

All the noir writers I read and admired were from the 40's, 50's, and early 60's. There were no current crime writers that fit the bill. (Lawrence Block's Matt Scudder and Ross MacDonald's Lew Archer I consider modern.) With Black Lizard Press reprinting in the mid-1980's Jim Thompson, David Goodis, Paul Cain, and their contemporaries, I "discovered" a whole new world of pulp age hard-boiled and noir.

One of the more successful modern retro-noir writers today is Russell James. Ian Rankin called him "the Godfather of British noir." In Russell James's article, So You Want to Write Noir?, http://www.allanguthrie.co.uk/syswtrn.htm, he tells us that readers might hunt down second-hand pulp classics, but the market for new noir books is weak. (A paradox as a reader I have personal experience with.) He writes, "...if you want to write noir, you'll want to be published. To get published you're likely to be tempted down one of two routes: either to conceal your noir heart in a PI or police procedural format, or to splatter the text with lashings of sex and violence. Forget the second. Sex and violence is not noir."

Fortunately reprints of the classic noir books are readily available. Search the WEB for titles and authors. Every publisher and crime/mystery related website has its own definition of noir. In the end, each reader must for decide for themselves what succeeds or fails.


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