Otto Penzler, noir distinctions and knights in tarnished armour
In it he puts forward the idea that the mystery genre/private detective stories and noir fiction “are diametrically opposed, with mutually exclusive philosophical premises“.
I’ll reproduce an (edited) version of his arguement/distinctions here:
“Noir works, whether films, novels or short stories, are existential, pessimistic tales about people, including (or especially) protagonists who are seriously flawed and morally questionable. The tone is generally bleak and nihilistic, with characters who greed, lust, jealousy and alienation lead them into a downward spiral as their plans and schemes inevitably go awry… the likelihood of a happy ending in a noir story is remote… It will end badly, because the characters are inherently corrupt and that is the fate that inevitably awaits them.
“The private detective story is a different matter entirely. Raymond Chandler famously likened the private eye to a knight, a man who could walk mean streets but not himself be mean… They may well be brought into an exceedingly dark situation and encounter characters who are deceptive, violent, paranoid and lacking a moral center, but the American private detective retains his sense of honour in the face of all the adversity and duplicity with which he must do battle.”
Food for thought, as noir tends to be thought of as more an aesthetic than philosophical / existential concern. All moody 1940s detective film lighting, hats tipped over eyes in night time side alley and the like.
And all of which got me thinking and considering somewhat; although I expect it would not be hard to place many of the stories and characters of say James Ellroy’s own work reasonably firmly in the noir camp, where walks Oswald Mosley’s fictional often non-professional crime investigator Easy Rawlins?
Yes, he is a crusading knight in some ways but in the series of books there is a sense that the resolving of a situation or case may provide only temporary respite; that he is a man just about managing to tread water amongst the darkness / moral questionability that he walks amongst but which is also quite possibly within him and for which he is sometimes culpable for by his actions, non-actions or sometimes mere presence and intrusion.
I suppose essentially, it’s a case of such things not quite being black(noir) or white. A bit more and/or/both.
Read more on Otto Penzler, The Mysterious Bookshop and a life amongst such tales here.
Ezekiel “Easy” Rawlins here.
Peruse The Best American Noir of the Century here.