Sam Spade, Phillip Marlow, Alexander Black, trench coats, fedoras, violence, and dames. Crime Noir is a literary genre made popular by the likes of Dashiell Hammet and Raymond Chandler, and has survived since the genre’s pioneer Carroll John Daly’s story, Knights of the Open Palm was published in the June, 1923 issue of Black Mask magazine.
Daly’s main character in that story, Race Williams, became the model for many of the protagonists in fiction crime noir that have left bloody footprints and gasping bims since his first appearance. Williams’ sharp tongued, hardboiled, cold blooded, and shoot-first-don’t-give-a-damn-about-names attributes can be clearly seen in Chandler’s Phillip Marlow, Hammet’s Sam Spade, and Mickey Spillane’s Mike Hammer.
But not all crime noir involves private eyes of eras gone by. Stieg Larsson’s wildly popular The Millennium Series, starring Lizabeth Salander as the main character, is considered crime noir, and Lizabeth is just a girl in a heap of trouble. Additionally, James Lee Burke and Richard Stark (a.k.a. Donald Westlake) are huge names in crime noir, and their main characters range from the on again/off again cop, David Robicheaux to the non-hero, professional thief, Parker.
What Is Crime Noir?
To sum up almost all definitions of crime noir- the story must be dark, and treat violence and sex with the kid gloves off. In other words: fiction that makes us flinch.
In most cases, the protagonist is not a character instilled with socially accepted moral standards. Sam Spade and Phillip Marlow are known as anti-heroes- characters not above using unscrupulous methods to get the job done (entrapment, strong-arm tactics, and womanizing, Oh My!). And then there is Richard Stark’s most well known protagonist, Parker, a cold blooded thief who punches, bullies, and often shoots his way out of a soured caper so he doesn’t get pinched.
Also common in fiction crime noir are story lines where the central characters are somehow connected to a violent crime—-murder and armed robbery being the two biggies— and are forced to make a decision— should they seek help from the authorities, or should they attempt to untangle themselves using their own wits? Almost always, the decision falls on the latter side of the coin, providing opportunity after opportunity for the protagonist to dig themselves into a deeper hole.
Think Dr. Richard Kimble of The Fugitive.
Can Crime Noir Be Literary Genius?
Why not? James Lee Burke is often hailed as one of the genre’s masters with praise attached for his literary prowess. And it’s true- Burke’s tales are written beautifully with complex characters and stunning metaphors. His talent for laying down descriptions, putting the reader in the middle of wherever Burke dictates, is nearly unrivaled. This passage from The Glass Rainbow is a prime example of his talent as Dave Robicheaux describes a room he rented in Natchez, Mississippi:
…the ventilated storm shutters were slatted with a pink glow, as soft and filtered and cool in color as the spring sunrise can be in the Garden District, the courtyard outside touched with mist off the river, the pastel walls deep in shadow and stained with lichen above the flower beds, the walkways smelling of damp stone and the wild spearmint that grew in green clusters between the bricks. I could see the shadows of banana trees moving on the window screens, the humidity condensing and threading along the fronds, like living tissue. I could hear a ship’s horn blowing somewhere out on the river, a long hooting sound that was absorbed and muted inside the mist, thwarting its own purpose….The wood floor and the garish wallpaper and the rain spots on the ceiling belonged to another era, one that was outside of time and unheedful to the demands of commerce…
Even if Burke does deserve the praise he gets for his awesome ink, it is almost unfair because there have been authors in the genre equally talented. Where Burke is a master of painting almost surreal scenes taken from the reality of the Mississippi Delta, Richard Stark was a master at putting the reader in the taut mind of professional thief.
Parker—just Parker, no first name, no last name—was as hard as cold blue steel. But he didn’t operate without rhyme or reason; Stark let us in on his protagonist’s psyche and showed us how Parker logically evolved through the series of twenty-four novels. One Parker faithful made this observation:
And Stark…yes…moving words- active, eliciting emotion…and subtleties find their way between the lines. Like the poor beauty shop owner, how she died accidentally, how that guilt seeps in long enough to resonate within Parker’s psyche, and then..somehow…he let’s himself off the
hook..thereby letting you off the hook..
What is the common denominator that makes all memorable crime noir work? The same magic trick that all great authors have up their sleeves, no matter the genre— tension. The tool of champions is what has readers reaching for the a book when they should be doing something else, or turning one more page than they promised themselves they would.
In 1980, among the top fifteen U.S. fiction titles sold, seven belonged to Mickey Spillane— in spite of the fact his books were constantly crucified by literary critics who found the high content of violence and sex in his work to be distasteful. Mickey’s reaction:
Those big-shot writers could never dig the fact that there are more salted peanuts consumed than caviar… If the public likes you, you’re good.
From the era of fedoras, trench coats, classy women who knew how to play, and acerbic gumshoes to modern themes involving abused girls and doctors trying to prove their innocence while running from the law, crime noir has proven over and over that it is a genre that can’t be plugged and sent to the big sleep.
Alexander Black operates below the surface of every day life. Some would call him a Cleaner, others a Fixer, but few would call him by his real name more than twice. Pledging allegiance to no one, he works on both sides of the law, performing the type of wet work that calls for molten steel in his veins, and a noble approach to justice before legal.
The newest anti-hero legend of the crime noir genre can be found at his web site- Alexander Black. Pick up some of his short stories while you are there. Guaranteed brain candy for the gritty minded.
Additional information on Alexander Black can be found in the article Fiction Crime Star Alexander Black, at Squidoo.