Noir, Dames and Real Women

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annotation by Melissa F. Olson

 

I love crime fiction. I especially love the old noir detective fiction. It’s just that I don’t always love what happens to the women who appear in it.

My troubled love affair with hardboiled detective fiction began….oh, somewhere around middle school. A voracious reader without a driver’s license, I spent my adolescence plundering my parents’ bookshelves for anything, anything I could get my hands on to read. (Obviously, this was before Kindle, or I would have sent my parents into bankruptcy.) And after I’d worked my way through all of my mother’s Mary Higgins Clark, I moved on to my dad’s stash of 90’s-era Robert B. Parker.

Unless you’ve been in this position yourself, I’m not sure you can understand just how flat-out cool Robert B. Parker’s Spenser can be to a thirteen-year-old. Here was a guy who existed on perfect confidence: he always had a quip, always knew what to do, and was always surrounded by a legion of loyal friends and acquaintances. At thirteen, I never knew what to do, I was always half-convinced my friends hated me, and if I thought of a funny comeback, it was usually about twelve hours too late to be deployed.

When I finished all the available Parker, I decided to backtrack to some of the classic hardboiled novels of the 30’s: Dashiell Hammett,* Raymond Chandler, Ross Macdonald (his Lew Archer became my favorite, probably because he occasionally showed signs of possessing actual human feelings). During my freshman year of college, I took a survey course on detective fiction. Then I took some gender studies courses.

And then some red flags began to spring up in my mind.

Holy crap, those guys were all a bunch of sexist assholes. Even (especially?) my man Spenser.**

As disappointing realizations go, this one was not small. Here were all these detectives that embodied the very spirit of cool, and they treated women like possessions, or china dolls, or hapless victims. The most impressive thing a woman could do in many of these classic noir books was be a femme fatale, because that at least made her interesting. But it also made her a villain – usually a slutty one, too, back when that was one of the worst things you could say about a woman.

I want to say that those hardboiled noir stories got more enlightened over time, but it certainly took awhile. Even 90’s-era Spenser, who should have been modern enough to know better, had as his best female role model Dr. Susan Silverman, who would “get out and walk home in her high heels” before pumping her own gas.

Now, however, it’s been eighty years since Phillip Marlowe sauntered into LA, and female mystery authors have long since created their own hardboiled detectives who can play on the level of Marlowe, Sam Spade, Spenser, and all the rest. Sara Paretsky, Sue Grafton, and recent debut Ingrid Thoft are all great examples, and there are many more.

As for me, well, I never wanted to compete with the old noir stories – I wanted to answer them. So I stopped reading Parker and started working on my own detective novel, The Big Keep. I wrote this book to explore not whether a female detective could be tough, because that was established ages ago, but whether she could be tough and have feelings, a pregnancy, and a marriage, all at the same time. I hope that I pull it off, but I know that I’ll never regret trying.

*It’s worth pointing out, in the name of fairness, that because I was focused on the lone-wolf detective, I did not read The Thin Man or any of the other Nick and Nora books. If I had, Nora might have inspired me.

**Yes, I know that Parker eventually wrote a separate detective series with a female PI – but Sunny Randall was really just Lady Spenser. You can’t just throw a vagina on a lead character and expect that all is forgiven.

 

The Big Sleep

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book by Raymond Chandler

annotation by Hedwika Cox

 

In The Big Sleep, Raymond Chandler provides minimal insight into the third person experience of Philip Marlowe. We are okay with this. Because despite this detail, we still receive an enlightened perspective of the world around him through his language. In fact, Chandler’s extensive use of imagery serves as the primary device that gives us substantial insight of his characters.

The author’s language is exquisite. Throughout this story, we receive no inner monologue of our main character, but if we listen close to the dialogue, it’s there. When Marlowe meets his employer, the General, for the first time, the dialogue exchange gives us our initial perception of the General’s daughters: “They are nasty things. Their flesh is too much like the flesh of men. And their perfume has the rotten sweetness of a prostitute.” He doesn’t elaborate, but within these few lines, we get the picture.

The women are written complex, which toe the line of gender stereotypes in fiction, especially for that era. With antagonist Vivian Regan, he describes her “… she had little sharp predatory teeth, as white as fresh orange pith and as shiny as porcelain.”

Maybe the crime genre has something to do with it. This was evident to me in the characterization of Marlowe. The story focuses more on moving the story/drama forward, avoiding exposition or introspection from the main character, which in turn makes me lose a piece of him. Do we indeed lose a piece, though? When we watch a Bond movie, isn’t this what we expect or wonder about? Action always moves forward and yet still forward again. No room for backstory.

The fact remains that despite being written in the first person, we have yet to glimpse into Marlowe’s thoughts. Specifically, we can trace this even to the end where he loads the bullets into Carmen’s pistol. We are surprised to learn that he has figured out Regan’s disappearance a while ago, and we are never really in his head after all. We can surmise though that even though this is Marlowe’s point of view, it is really a sort of omniscient one, if that is at all possible.

Despite all of this, I like Marlowe just the way he is. Smart-assed and intelligent, Marlowe is like the gadget-less James Bond. He gives us accurate images and envelops us into the story, but we are still missing something. Him. And the fact that two women throw themselves at him, and he does nothing about it, makes us wonder on what is really going on with this man. Is it fair to the reader to divulge everything to the reader? As writers, we must make a choice. In The Big Sleep, the author makes his own choice to not lay all of Marlowe’s thoughts on the table. By doing this, he makes Marlowe’s own character and motivation a detective story in itself.

 

L.A. Confidential

LA Confidentialbook by James Ellroy

Annotation by Neal Bonser

First off, and I feel I have to address this, this is the first time I can remember that I’ve read a book when I had seen the movie version first. It’s been a while, but I couldn’t help seeing Kevin Spacey’s face whenever Jack Vincennes spoke, or Guy Pearce or Russell Crowe. I don’t think it detracted from the experience exactly. But it certainly transformed my visual experience of the novel. I’m left wondering what visuals would have been left in my head by Ellroy’s prose had these actors’ faces not been previously implanted. What is the importance of the visual evoked in a novel?

I think it must be very important. How many times have I seen movie versions of novels I’ve read and either been happy or disappointed (usually disappointed) by the visuals of the movie and how they compared to what was already in my head? It really is an impressive accomplishment to evoke such strong images in the reader’s head using the black and white page and a collections of letters and words and sentences. I suppose it is in, what we are so often taught, the specificity of detail. When I think about my own characters, some of them are very visually present to me and some are not. It makes me want to revisit those that I can’t picture clearly and clarify that image for myself, or how will I ever make that image sharp for the reader?

I really enjoyed the clipped sentences and straightforward prose that Ellroy employs in this novel. It was evocative of that noir mood, easy to read and it provided a momentum to the prose that made me want to keep reading. While Nicholson Baker’s prose wore me out after ten pages (sometimes two), Ellroy’s prose pulled me along for the ride. Is this a personal predilection or something inherent to this style of prose? Michael Chabon’s twirling, beautiful prose doesn’t wear me out. So it’s not as simple as sentence length. But there’s something very satisfying when reading Ellroy’s unadorned, to-the-point sentences. And maybe unadorned is the wrong word. Ellroy certainly employed unique vocabulary within his clipped sentences. The sentences themselves, even as they changed points of view, remained similar in their style, so the voice was consistent even as the point of view changed. The characters are made distinct through description and action, not the nature of the prose. This is interesting to me. As I have personally explored the nature of the narrator in third person work, I realize that the narrator in L.A. Confidential is present purely as voice. We’re pretty much directly in the head of the point of view characters at all times. No pull back. No distant perspective. But that voice is always there. That clipped sentence style of hard-boiled (sorry for the cliché) prose. It sort of pleases me that this book kind of confirms one of my hypotheses about what a narrator can be in third person work.

My favorite thing about the book though, is probably the plot itself. In spite of it seeming a little bit overcomplicated and maybe even confusing at times, it was always compelling. I remember hearing somewhere that literary fiction is character based and popular/genre fiction is plot based. I suppose that’s true to some extent in an overgeneralized sort of way. But plot is important. Make me want to turn the page. (Help me make my reader want to turn the page!) Plot evolves from character, I suppose. But plot also reveals character. I’m not sure what I’m saying here, except I enjoyed reading this book on the very simple level of the pure enjoyment of reading. Wow, what a crummy sentence. Ellroy would hate that.

What Ellroy wouldn’t hate is that I came away from this book re-inspired to keep my plots moving. I also am reminded that simple sentences are not unadorned sentences. I like straightforward prose (perhaps because I don’t have it within me to write otherwise), but when traveling in that (dare I say it?) minimalist vein, word choice is critical. Oh great gods of prose help me to not forget the sentence. Hallelujah. Amen. In a, you know, secular, desperate writer, sort of way.

The Knockout Artist

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book by Harry Crews

annotation by Kate Maruyama

Given the dark subject matter, I had thought this noir book would be a chore, but found it instead a heartbreaking delight. Crews takes us directly into the dark underbelly of society, accompanying Eugene to one of his gigs. He gives us Eugene’s simple look at the world, taking stock in his surroundings, staring at the jackets in the closet across from him. When Jake comes in with Oyster-Boy, thin, pale, shedding skin, a dog collar around his neck led by the enormous and salacious Purvis, we know that he has crept into the darkest side of town, the part most of us don’t want to see but can’t help staring at. But Eugene keeps his head, protects himself by fighting off any interaction with these people and goes and does his job, knocking himself out.

Within one chapter Crews has given us a coherent world and a solid hero with a strong voice. There is something uncorruptable about Eugene, made more obvious by his introduction taking place in a deeply corrupt society. What is it about this guy that is so decent despite the fact that he is a kept man and knocks himself out to make money? He is deeply buried in self-loathing, but there is something solid at the core of Eugene that will never be soiled. The complexity of a character having such opposing aspects to his personality makes for a compelling protagonist. I seriously need to work toward that, but figure I’m still years away.

Things for Eugene are bound to get worse, we know this from our classic noir surroundings; his simple act of blacking out regularly is very Phillip Marlowe. Of course we are introduced to the mysterious and tragic woman (Jake), then the user trouble woman (Charity).

Pete is a beautiful best friend character. Crews did a great thing by taking us inside Eugene’s hopes for Pete. When it looks like Pete is getting his life together, Eugene buys it. We know because of the nature of the book something awful will happen, but Crews is careful about weaving Eugene’s hope in a way that makes us feel it with him; Tulip cleaning up Pete’s apartment, the fact that the two are clearly in love. Eugene has a respect for this real love, and knows more and more clearly it is not what he shares with Charity. Crews has a real eye for finding the good in people readers might otherwise not think of: Tulip who had a sex act with a teddy bear on Bourbon Street is the woman to give Pete something larger to live for. And Pete, porn and snuff film projectionist, who could not make peace with Eugene’s knockout living, saw the good in her, which makes him more appealing.

There is such tragic beauty in Eugene’s dealings with Blasingame. It is Eugene who takes Pete into his deal with Blasingame, and it is Blasingame’s world that ruins Pete forever. In trying to free himself from corruption and kink (the knocking himself out) he has unwittingly led Pete down the path to destruction. It is on Blasingame’s boat that the clean Tulip uses again which plants the seeds for her downward slide, making our final image of Pete, fully immersed in Blasingame’s world a complete and utter destruction on Eugene’s shoulders.

The tenuous, frenetic hope that Crews weaves around Eugene and Pete’s plans for a future in boxing management reminded me a lot of April’s spinning hopes about Paris in REVOLUTIONARY ROAD. You can feel the exhilaration of the character, especially when Pete gets on board and starts talking Blasingame’s ear off. But their enthusiasm creates its own tension, since the reader is fully aware that things are not going to end well. It is such a careful balance and I would like to somehow steal that for the climax of my book.

Charity takes the Noir female villain to the next level. She has the upper hand when we first meet her, as she is keeping Eugene and cataloging him with her sex-produced recording sessions. Crews builds a dominating woman, but once Eugene gets into her files and learns that she was kicked out of school, she becomes even more vulnerable and therefore more interesting. This drive of hers to get inside other people’s lives and destroy them is all bluster; this fragility makes her completely fascinating and when she takes an interest in Jake, Eugene and we can feel genuine worry for her. This reminds me that I need to build my villain’s motivation in a more human way. If I can get into her human need to collect souls, beyond a supernatural level, she’ll be much more interesting. I have her motivation from a stance of pure evil and, frankly, that’s not enough.

Eugene has lost everything, including the one friend who had loved him for who he was and had kept him together. But Crews is careful to leave us with a sense of hope. Jacques comes into the picture only at the end, but we get the sense that his Cajun common sense may well be a solid calming force in Eugene’s life and may help him hang onto the shred of decency at his core. This is an important reminder that if you lead your reader down a dark path, you can’t abandon them there. A sad story works better with a glimmer of hope, or at least a foothold and forward movement for its hero. Something gained.

This was a truly artful book, a pleasure to read, completely not in a genre I’ve ever written, and yet it was totally useful.