Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Raiding the Ivory Tower, Part I

(Editor’s note: This is the first segment of an interview with British educator and crime-fiction authority Lee Horsley, conducted by American novelist Megan Abbott [Bury Me Deep]. The conclusion will be posted here tomorrow.)

When I began working on my dissertation on hard-boiled fiction in the late 1990s, the easiest part was making sure I had read all or most of the academic studies on the subject--because there were so few. Even choosing these books as my focus felt a little bit like taking a chance. Some English Departments, after all, were still reluctant to include these books on “serious” syllabi.

But it did feel like things were changing. Wonderful books were emerging, such as Geoffrey O’Brien’s Hard-boiled America: Lurid Paperbacks and the Masters of Noir (1997), Tony Hilfer’s The Crime Novel: A Deviant Genre (1990), William Marling’s The American Roman Noir: Hammett, Cain, and Chandler (1995), and Woody Haut’s Pulp Culture: Hard-boiled Fiction and the Cold War (1996).

It was not until a few years after I finished my study that I learned of an even more recent and very bold new entry. During my first Bouchercon convention in Chicago, I had the great fortune to meet editor and crime novelist Allan Guthrie, and in our very first conversation, he told me I had to read The Noir Thriller (2001), by British scholar Lee Horsley. A few weeks later, a copy of that book showed up in my mailbox, straight from Al. I think I read it cover to cover, fascinated by its analyses and in particular by the different and exciting perspectives (about noir’s place in the literary tradition, about noir’s complicated gender history) Horsley offered as someone writing from outside the United States.

Now, The Noir Thriller is at last available in paperback, with a new chapter titled “Literary Noir in the Twenty-First Century,” and Lee was kind enough to answer a few questions for The Rap Sheet. (Full disclosure: My novels, among many other current noir works, are discussed in the new chapter.)

Megan Abbott: You write that the study of noir, or even popular conception of it, has been too focused on the individualist tradition of the hard-boiled tough guy who restores order. The Noir Thriller expands our conception of noir, both its influences and its influence, permitting us to see links to Joseph Conrad (whom you call protonoir) and T.S. Eliot and the whole modernist strain of a “world gone wrong.” Yet when we see the word “noir” in popular media and elsewhere, it still seems to summon up nostalgic images of Humphrey Bogart in a fedora, a flask in his desk drawer. Why do you think popular conceptions of noir, at least in America, remain in large part so connected to the loner private eye?

Lee Horsley: The private eye is a powerful image in so many ways. It’s partly, as you suggest, just to do with Bogart’s incarnation of both Chandler’s and Hammett’s detectives, isn’t it? He gave performances so memorable and so inextricably related to the early history of film noir that he’s almost bound to be the iconic figure. The things we recognize him by are unquestionably “noir”--the scarred lip and unglamorous, weather-beaten face; the taut voice and cynical, world-weary delivery. Of course, he brought the same qualities to his portrayal of less assured and more damaged noir protagonists, for example in Dark Passage and In a Lonely Place. But those aren’t the roles that have been referenced, imitated, and parodied hundreds of times over: in the popular terms, if we ask whether people are more easily able to visualize Sam Spade or Vincent Parry, it’s no contest.

The private-eye narrative is also a very flexible vehicle for noir themes, moods, and attitudes. He can be traumatized in so many different ways--drink, failed relationships, dead friends, sexual betrayal, official injustice, exclusion, penury, persecution. His tough sufficiency, tenacity, and ability (most of the time) to restore some kind of order give him an enduring appeal in an individualistic society, but in fact his most recognizable individual characteristics are often his weaknesses. To oversimplify greatly, we tend to differentiate classic detectives by their eccentricities (deerstalkers, monocles, mustaches, knitting needles ...); but the identity of the hard-boiled detective is most closely bound up with his characteristic failures--chosen at random from hundreds of possible examples, Lawrence Block’s alcoholic Matt Scudder; Andrew Vachss’ “outlaw” private detective, Burke; James Crumley’s court-martialed Vietnam veteran, [C.W.] Sughrue. Some of the best-known hard-boiled investigative figures are, like the Continental Op in Red Harvest, only a hair’s breadth from the status of victim or transgressor.

Much of the suspense we experience in reading private-eye novels is to do with our fear that things could end very badly for such protagonists ... if only they weren’t part of a series. I think one of my favorite crime-writing stories is about Charles Willeford’s Grimhaven, written when he was unwillingly pressed into producing more Hoke Mosley novels. It is by all accounts a truly noir novel that never saw the light of day, in which Hoke kills his daughters and conceals their corpses in the shower stall of his rundown hotel room. His publisher thought this a less-than-commercial sequel, and I suppose that commercial pressures constitute another compelling reason that the “popular conception” of noir has so frequently been allied with the battered investigator who is just tough enough to survive--and almost honorable enough to deserve a five-book contract.

MA: “Thriller” is a term that isn’t frequently paired with “noir,” at least in America. But you make the case for the suitability of the term--that thrillers are all about “excess, feeling, and sensation” rather than the rational world of classic detective tales. I think, for some, noir suggests a certain cold-bloodness, a remorseless violence. What is, do you think, the role of feeling, emotionalism in noir?

LH: You’re quite right, of course, that cold-blooded violence often takes center stage in noir narratives. But I don’t think that this kind of ruthlessness would drive a narrative without emotion--either on the part of the killer or the victim. In the case of the killer, revenge is often a dominant motive: we at least glimpse an intense internal state, an emotional response that involves an extreme sense of grievance at being harmed and an angry resolution to take revenge. The revenge-seekers we think of as cold and amoral have often been driven to violence by what they see as unforgivable wrongs and injustices. I suppose one of the examples that immediately comes to mind here is Richard Stark’s existential loner, Parker, an unstoppable, laconic revenge-seeker who takes on the criminal machine. [Donald E.] Westlake hadn’t in fact seen him as a series character: “I’d made Parker completely remorseless, completely without redeeming characteristics because he was going to get caught at the end. So I wound up with a truly cold leading-series character ...” In many ways, though, we respond emotionally to Parker because he is a figure of such extremity--propelled by his sense of betrayal to pursue his ends in the face of almost insurmountable opposition.

Parker is a more sympathetic figure than, say, some of the coldly psychopathic protagonists created in Jim Thompson’s first-person narratives. But even Thompson’s multiple murderers are not represented as being emotionless: Lou Ford [from 1952’s The Killer Inside Me], for example, is driven throughout by excessive feelings, by childhood trauma, and by his hatred of the hypocrisy and corruptions of small-town American society. One of the things that most fascinates us as readers is the extreme tension between the two sides of Lou’s personality--between his cool impersonation of normality and his irresistible inner compulsion to kill, repeatedly linked to his overpowering rage against the “screwed up, bitched up world” he inhabits.

If a novelist doesn’t imagine his psychopathic killer as suffering from intense inner turmoil, then he is probably creating emotional impact by pitting a cold antagonist against a suffering, vulnerable central character. Serial-killer films and novels often, of course, have it both ways--alternately plumbing the emotional depths of the twisted killer and making us share the terrors of the victims he threatens. But “excess, feeling, and sensation” can also be engendered by the incomprehensible violence of a character who is given no motivation other than the merciless pursuit of a cold-blooded objective. Anton Chigurh, in [Cormac McCarthy’s] No Country for Old Men, fits this pattern. A relentless killer, he is an archetypal figure who has been compared to Bergman’s Death (as Death says, “Nothing escapes me. No one escapes me.”). He seems emotionless himself, but the threat posed by Chigurh’s onslaught generates extreme fear, producing a novel that reviewers describe as heated, terrifying, thrilling, harrowing.

MA: You write that recent noir frequently focuses on the “guilt and anxiety of the insider rather than the alienation of the outsider.” Is it still noir if it’s a tale told by an insider?

LH: You’re good at spotting a certain fuzziness of phrasing! Pressed to reflect on this generalization, I suppose I’d say that the “noir insider” is also alienated. I think that I’d probably want to argue that alienation is a more important noir ingredient than “outsiderhood.” It is the basis of those feelings of loss, failure, disintegration that are so characteristic. [Hard Case Crime editor] Charles Ardai, in an e-mail interview he gave me, quoted Cornell Woolrich’s description of the noir protagonist as “‘some sort of a poor insect that you’ve put inside a downturned glass, and it tries to climb up the sides, and it can’t, and it can’t, and it can’t.’ This is the flavor of doom I look for,” Ardai said, “the sense of struggling and failing and struggling some more.”

The “insider”--trapped like the insect in Woolrich’s glass--might be said to occupy a more conflicted, equivocal position than the quintessential noir outsider. The outsider, after all, can lay claim to a morally justified sense of outrage against the corrupt system that excludes and torments him: Bowie and Keechie, for example, the small-time crooks in [Edward] Anderson’s Thieves Like Us, are created as an implicit judgment of the criminality and inhumanity of “respectable” society. The insider, on the other hand, can simultaneously be tortured by feelings of alienation from the system and by a sense of guilty complicity. Easy Rawlins, in A Red Death, is an outsider moving towards being an insider, and is made intensely anxious by his compromises with the dominant society--his position as a landlord leading him into a deal with the FBI to act as a spy and informer, the epitome of McCarthyite treachery. Of course, by no means all insiders experience a sense of guilty collusion or suffer from the honorable misgivings of Easy Rawlins. I think the protagonist of Jason Starr’s Cold Caller is a particularly good example of the morally dense insider, alienated but too imperceptive to understand his actions with any subtlety, an ill-adjusted and delusional insider who tries to murder his way to upward mobility.

MA: You point out that in the 1930s novels, noir characters’ fates are consistently dictated by economic hardship, while in the post-World War II period, fate is determined by difference--characters feeling out of place or alienated. In contrast, you write, in 1980s and ’90s noir, rather than being lured into an enticing underbelly, protagonists are seduced by the promise of a commodity-rich lifestyle (e.g., Bret Easton Ellis, Elmore Leonard, Charles Willeford’s Hoke Mosley novels). What is the role of economics in more recent noir? Has there has been another shift?

LH: Again, you’re effectively prompting me to think through my arguments. In my reading of 21st-century noir, I was most struck by a pervasive preoccupation with the performance of gender roles. But if I revisit the texts I chose to discuss there, I can also, of course, see prominent economic themes running through all of them. In Charlie Huston’s Caught Stealing, Hank [Thompson]’s ordeal is set in motion by money--a quest for a “fabulous object” modeled on The Maltese Falcon--and Huston ultimately allows money to transform things for his long-suffering protagonist. In your own Queenpin, the spectacular female performances are part of a power struggle, but the novel is also a potent tale of the protagonist’s desperation to escape impoverished origins.

So--yes, the role of economics is still strongly apparent, as it has been (in one way or another) through the whole of literary and cinematic noir. But the emphasis does shift, and I think that probably, in the new millennium, crime writers have to some extent become less preoccupied with the Thatcher-Reagan era and its impact on the economic life of both Britain and America. In talking to one of my postgraduates about his dissertation this summer, I thought he’d come up with an interesting observation about some of the political novels of the ’90s, in which he argued that there was a Gothic sense of entrapment by the economic crimes of the ’80s. Novels like [Iain Banks’] Complicity and [Ellis’] American Psycho are particularly striking in this respect, with violence spiraling out of an economic context that is also harshly satirized.

It is this satire of economic perfidy, I think, that is largely absent from the 21st-century noir I have read. Greed and savage competition are taken for granted as part of the circumstances governing life, but our attention isn’t focused on the metaphoric significance of the various forms of consumption, acquisitiveness, and materialism represented. At its most extreme, satire of this kind can be seen, for example, in the Swiftian tactics of Ellis’ novel, profoundly disturbing in its accumulation of commodities and consumers, anti-aging eye balm and honey almond body scrub, Soprani jackets, Ralph Lauren shirts and “a tie from Agnes B. still covered with flecks of someone’s blood.” However ... given that I’ve just come across a Neutrogena/Nivea advertising feature on Amazon called “So you’d like to ... have the American Psycho facial treatment,” one has to wonder yet again about the effectiveness of satire. As Swift said, “Satire is a sort of glass, wherein beholders do generally discover everybody’s face but their own ...”

(Part II can be found here.)


Anonymous said...

very interesting...i can't wait to read some of the recomendations

Ali Karim said...



The existential Parker indeed!

Unknown said...

Brilliant interview!