Friday, June 29, 2007


I dunno.

After reading a spate of recent books by some of the more highly touted (or is that highly tooted?) practitioners of the "new noir," I've noticed something.

Not in all of them, mind you, but in enough of them to be disturbed by what seems to be a developing trend. I hope not. Maybe I just hit a bad string of books (and no, i don't want to name them). But...

Many of these books have increasingly little to do with the classic noir films and novels their authors all claim to admire and adore so much (but may have never actually read).

If the original noirs were usually about normal -- or at least identifiable characters -- being drawn into the darkness, that's long gone. So many of the recent noirs I've read are populated by amoral sociopaths who are already plenty dark.

Like, really, really, dark.

In the original noirs, the main characters were usually just more-or-less regular joes: migrant workers, insurance salesmen, professors, news hawks, coffee shop waitresses. B-girls, cut-rate private eyes, mildly bent cops, low-level crooks. The sort of people you'd meet in a bar or on the street. Or getting off a hay wagon. Just regular schmucks, with more-or-less normal levels of intelligence. And their fall is presented as tragedy, with one bad decision, one moment of weakness, one fatal flaw serving as the catalyst that ignites a world of hurt.

Nowadays, though, the characters are more often big shot celebrities, serial killers, globetrotting hit men, cannibal dope fiends and the like, over-the-top sociopathic cartoons who seem to exist mostly in books. And these guys are usually criminally clueless. These books aren't presented as morality plays, but as clusterfucks of stupidity and venality. These characters come pre-doomed and pre-damned; dumbfucks who seem compelled to make one obviously bad choice after another -- the sort of stupid choices that owe more to plot machinations than anything.

What happens to them isn't some slow, inevitable tragic fall from grace into the darkness of the abyss, but more a turned-to-eleven amplification of atrocities and bad luck, betrayals and misunderstandings and coincidences that, again, only exist in fiction.

Certainly, things are more graphic and there's far more obscene language, violence and sex than in the old noirs, which is to be expected, I guess. But so much of it just seems so strained and self-conscious; like a bunch of little boys trying to out-do each other. These neo-noirs aren't presented as tragedy at all, but as comedy of the cruelest sort, the "grown-up" equivalent of slipping a frog down a girl's back.

And what's with all the torture and mutilation going on? Is Cheyney secretly moonlighting as an acquisitions editor?

Chainsaws! Woodchippers! Cruxifiction!

Like, "You fed a guy's testicles into a Waring blender? Fine, I'll do that, too, but I'll toss in some Coors Light and then make my guy drink it! And then gerbil him to death!"

I may be imagining this, but it seems to me that there's also a growing contempt among the authors for their own characters, a kind of mean-spiritedness that's creeping in -- a condescending sort of self-righteous authorial stance being adapted that says "Yeah, they're all scumbags, so I make them go through all kinds of shit. Cool, huh?"

The old noir characters, whatever their flaws, had souls of some sort. Hell, the books themselves had soul, and you got the sense that the authors -- and readers -- cared about these characters on at least some level. The characters who inhabit this cynical new breed of noir too often are unlikable two-dimensional cardboard cutouts who exist only to be put through their paces by an author with one hand down his (or her) pants for the edification of their like-minded buddies.

All the meanness and carnage of these soulless wallows comes off more like pornography than noir, at least to me.

Makes me wonder who's getting off on it.

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Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

That's a hell of a fine post. Maybe it's best to avoid neo-, post- or alternative anything. But some examples would be nice as a basis for discussion. Type them in pig Latin, if you'd like, to conceal their identities.
Detectives Beyond Borders
"Because Murder Is More Fun Away From Home"

5:01 PM, June 29, 2007  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thanks for having your say, Kevin: I couldn't agree with you more. And this is coming from someone who reads not only about 100 published crime novels a year but about 1000 unpublished ones -- and you'd better believe that people who write the sort of stuff you're describing send it to Hard Case Crime (entirely missing the point that we're looking for books that feel like Cain and Chandler, not the modern cut-off-their-kneecaps-for-laughs variety of the form).

In fairness, the issue's not unique to noir -- look at what's happened to horror movies, which now feature the subtle emotional stylings of "Hostel 2" and "The Hills Have Eyes 2" and "Saw 2." And it's not like comedies have become less coarse since the days of Preston Sturges.

But I certainly agree that I'm getting a bit tired of seeing authors try to top each other with the extremes of violence and mayhem they can cram onto a page. When I get a query letter that says something like (and this is an actual quote from a query I got on June 15), "I tried to push the boundaries of visceral horror and shocking violence," I politely but firmly and without hesitation say no.

[Comment cross-posted from The Rap Sheet]

4:22 AM, June 30, 2007  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Agree. 100%. The trend I've noticed in movies in particular.

1:36 PM, September 29, 2007  

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