by Robert K. Lewis
I decided yesterday, as I was sitting at the stick of my favorite watering hole, that I should just start my journey here on From the Write Angle by giving you some basics about the writing that’s as near and dear to my heart as a new fifth of Johnny Walker Black: The hard-boiled detective story, otherwise known as noir.
I love this description I found in Merriam Webster: Crime fiction featuring hard-boiled cynical characters and bleak sleazy settings.
Hard-boiled, cynical characters. Bleak, sleazy settings.
How can you go wrong with that?
Let me begin with the writers and/or books you need to know about. I’ve already written, to a fair degree, about some great, yet pretty unknown hard-boiled writers, so I won’t beat that dead horse here.
So, belly up to the bar, people...
Black Mask. If there’s a bible for this stuff, then the magazine Black Mask is it. Was in publication from 1920-1951. Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler polished their chops writing for that mag. Erle Stanley Gardner, John D. MacDonald, and Lester Dent also got their start there. Every one of these guys went on to become a part of the canon of detective fiction.
The Maltese Falcon. Any list has to start with this book, and with Dashiell Hammett. Sam Spade is the iconic, tough private eye. The guy you think about when someone asks about tough guy private detectives. This book has it all: tough cops, a dame that’s not to be trusted, and a psycho killer. The way Hammett draws San Francisco, you can smell the fog rolling in off the bay, the fish being unloaded at the wharf. This novel is considered by many to be the great “opening salvo” of the genre.
The Big Sleep. And if Sam Spade is the granddaddy of all noir gumshoes, then Philip Marlowe is the grand uncle. In fact, Chandler did more to change the face of crime fiction than any other writer. So much of what Chandler wrote is now the granite-like foundation of the canon, that his contribution is often taken for granted. Let me just give you a small example, from this novel:
“You were dead, you were sleeping the big sleep, you were not bothered by things like that, oil and water were the same as wind and air to you. You just slept the big sleep, not caring about the nastiness of how you died or where you fell. Me, I was part of the nastiness now. Far more a part of it than Rusty Regan was."
THAT, my friends, is tough, gritty writing, at its best.
Mickey Spillane. What I linked to here is one large volume that contains his first three, tough-as-nails novels: I, the Jury, My Gun is Quick, and Vengeance is Mine! What? You’ve never heard of Spillane? Well, have you heard of his legendary private detective, Mike Hammer? No, not the coked-out, 80’s TV show, but the gumshoe in these novels. Spillane learned from the guys that came before him, like Chandler and Hammett, and took hard-boiled/noir to a whole new level violence and grit.
There are a few other guys that I think you should hop on down to your local used bookstore and check out: Ross MacDonald, Don Westlake (and his pen name Richard Stark), Frank Kane, and Brett Halliday. If you’re looking for more modern variants of this hard style of writing, then check out Dennis Tafoya or Michael Connelly. Hell, there’s even surf noir! If you haven’t read Kem Nunn’s The Dogs of Winter, then you are really missing out. Not really a detective novel with a private eye or anything, but there is a mystery, and how Nunn creates this dark sense of dread and impending doom (a staple of the noir style) is truly the work of a master writer.
I want to end this by hipping you to some quotes from Raymond Chandler’s treatise on detective fiction, The Simple Art of Murder. These snippets will give you a great idea of what exactly noir is about, and how the detective fits into the dark world he finds himself in:
In everything that can be called art there is a quality of redemption. It may be pure tragedy, if it is high tragedy, it may be pity and irony, and it may be the raucous laughter of the strong man. But down these mean streets a man must go who is not himself mean, who is neither tarnished nor afraid. The detective in this kind of story must be such a man. He is the hero; he is everything. He must be a complete man and a common man and yet an unusual man. He must be, to use a rather weathered phrase, a man of honor–by instinct, by inevitability, without thought of it, and certainly without saying it. He must be the best man in his world and a good enough man for any world.
He is a common man or he could not go among common people. He has a sense of character, or he would not know his job. He will take no man’s money dishonestly and no man’s insolence without a due and dispassionate revenge.
The story is this man’s adventure in search of hidden truth, and it would be no adventure if it did not happen to a man for adventure. He has a range of awareness that startles you, but it belongs to him by right, because it belongs to the world he lives in. If there were enough like him, the world would be a safe place to live in, without becoming too dull to be worth living in.