Thursday, October 22, 2009

Raiding the Ivory Tower, Part II

(Editor’s note: This is the second and concluding installment of Megan Abbott’s conversation with British educator and crime-fiction authority Lee Horsley, author of The Noir Thriller, recently released in paperback by Palgrave Macmillan. Part I can be found here.)

Megan Abbott: In your new chapter, “Literary Noir in the Twenty-First Century,” you talk about how contemporary noir novels are very much aware of the weight of their predecessors, particularly with regard to gender. You point to a “motif of men in pursuit of a lost, treacherously illusive notion of masculinity,” such as in the works of Craig McDonald, Allan Guthrie, and Ray Banks. Do you see this as new, or as a natural extension of some of the tensions in classic noir? Given that noir is traditionally the genre of the outsider, the marginalized, is this gender alienation another version of the economic or social alienation of noir male heroes of past eras?

Lee Horsley: Yes, I think it’s very much an extension of elements that characterize classic noir. One of the critical texts that influenced me most in my reading of noir was Frank Krutnik’s In a Lonely Street: Film, Genre, and Masculinity, which argues that the “tough” thriller of the 1940s was very much driven by challenges to masculine cultural authority and psychic stability, producing what he called a pressurized mode of hero-centered fiction. I suppose what I was speculating about was whether the 21st-century political climate, in which there are often unsettling echoes of Cold War rhetoric, has fed into crime fiction that often seems to share some of the main preoccupations of mid-century noir, particularly its accentuation of fractured masculine identity. As with economic themes, the image of traumatized masculinity is ever-present in noir, but this has a more pronounced impact when the entire narrative is structured around such anxiety. Al Guthrie’s novels are, as you say, a good example of what I mean here. They get an enormous amount of their narrative drive and darkly comic effect from their focus on the traumas and insufficiencies of his psychologically damaged men--Greaves, who “stopped taking his medication” on the first page of Two-Way Split; the conflicted enforcer for an Edinburgh loan shark in Kiss Her Goodbye; Wallace and Pearce and the other “crazy fuckers” in Hard Man, in which even the wee three-legged dog is pronounced at the end to be a “proper little hard man.”

MA: You write that, for many contemporary noir characters, gender itself is an exhausting performance. Male noir characters frequently must over-compensate with high levels of violence for fear they won’t live up to expectations. Similarly, female characters feel the need to publicly perform a hyper-femininity, even when it means a loss of identity (the mask that becomes the face). Gender, in both cases, is less a bodily fact than a show, high theater. In some ways, this notion feels subversive, but in others it seems old-fashioned in our increasingly gender-free world. Is this a response to contemporary life or the genre’s own complicated past?

LH: Again, I’m sure it’s centrally related to “the genre’s own complicated past.” Noir has been a source of fascination for feminist critics--for example, in the book that E. Ann Kaplan edited on Women in Film Noir, which discusses things like noir’s “absent family,” the female destroyer/redeemer, and women’s roles in narrative structure. A lot that’s been written on the representation of the femme fatale and also on the “chick dick” of contemporary hard-boiled fiction has been very much influenced by 1990s ideas of gender performativity, genders as cultural fictions, etc. Following on from this, post-’90s, we’re undoubtedly more aware of the instability of gender roles and are, as you say, less gender-bound; but at the same time, I think, we’ve also become increasingly fascinated with the nature of gender performance, with what you’ve called the performance of hyper-femininity, with the challenge of sustaining carefully constructed identities. Several of the 21st-century novels I’ve read satisfy this fascination by reworking the tropes of earlier noir, combining them with a very contemporary take on the sexual dynamic and gendered power relationships. Sometimes the past itself is rewritten, e.g., in your own retro noir novels, with their explorations of the female subjectivity behind the mask. In novels like Queenpin and Die a Little, we see the cost of asserting effective agency and the loss of self involved in mastering a chosen role. Authors of female-centered narratives that use contemporary settings--for example, Christa Faust and Vicki Hendricks--achieve similar ends by constructing their novels in relation to earlier noir patterns, imagining female performances from the inside and removing them from the male-centered narrative structures of traditional noir. Whether the setting is retro or contemporary, there is a revision of earlier representations of gender roles, but also, as you imply, a nostalgia for the “high theater” of classic noir narratives.

MA: Who are the “lost” noir authors that you feel are most
in need of recovery?

LH: The list I jotted down, probably not too surprisingly, consisted mainly of mid-century American crime writers--the writers who, along with such better-known contemporaries as Jim Thompson and Mickey Spillane, made this the great age of literary noir. A quick survey of books available on Amazon suggested that a few of them are--just possibly--in the process of becoming less lost than they were before. Charles Willeford’s Pick-Up has again fallen out of print, but others of his early novels--e.g., Wild Wives, High Priest of California, and The Woman Chaser--have all been reissued post-2000, as have his Hoke Mosley novels. Peter Rabe has been well-served by recent Black Mask and Hard Case Crime editions (Stop This Man!, Dig My Grave Deep, etc.). Another of my all-time favorites, Dorothy B. Hughes, has achieved at least partial visibility: Ride the Pink Horse was reprinted by Canongate Crime in 2002; and In a Lonely Place and The Expendable Man are both in print as well.

But many of the other great mid-century noir authors seem altogether more in danger of disappearing. Sadly, this is only a fantasy rescue mission, but should some obliging (and obviously discerning) publisher give me carte blanche to choose a list of six mid-century noir classics that I could save from obscurity ...

Margaret Millar, The Iron Gates (1945): The Iron Gates was reissued in the 1990s, and another of Millar’s strongest novels, Beast in View, in 2002, but neither is in print any longer. Her psychological melodramas are powerful explorations of the “subjective” experience of women trapped in socially constructed roles.

William Lindsay Gresham, Nightmare Alley (1946): Published in the same year as Hughes’ Ride the Pink Horse, Nightmare Alley uses a traveling carnival to create an intense and surreal evocation of existential despair. Sometimes described as a cult classic, Nightmare Alley is nevertheless out of print, although there is a 2003 graphic novel adaptation by the underground cartoonist Spain Rodriguez, and the 1947 film of the novel has finally been made available on DVD in the Masters of Cinema series.

Charles Williams, Hell Hath No Fury (1953): Williams specializes in creating narrators whose self-delusion and moral turpitude are the substance of the narrative--a strategy central to Hell Hath No Fury, adapted for the screen by Dennis Hopper as The Hot Spot in 1990. A Touch of Death was reissued by Hard Case Crime in 2006 and about a dozen of Williams’ books have been filmed, but he ought to be much better known: his novels only rarely surface, and I think Hell Hath No Fury has been out of print for nearly 20 years now.

Day Keene, Sleep with the Devil (1954): Al Guthrie and I included a “Day Keene double” on the Pulp Originals site that we set up to make out-of-print paperback originals available in e-book form, and there are a couple of his novels currently available (from, of course, Hard Case Crime and Black Mask). One of the novels Al and I included would be particularly good to see in print: Sleep with the Devil, the protagonist of which opens by declaring his intention to commit murder and has no hesitation in admitting that he’s a heel--“The heel is the lowest thing in the human nervous system and, consequently, has no conscience.”

Harry Whittington, Web of Murder (1958): You can still buy, at a fairly exorbitant price, The Dimes of Harry Whittington (issued in three volumes by Disc Us Press around 2000); and The Devil Wears Wings was published as an e-book by Pulp Originals. But Whittington deserves the sort of bold-cover, single-novel reissues that, say, Hard Case Crime does. Web of Murder is one of his very best, following its protagonist along a road to Hell that’s very much of his own making.

Gil Brewer, Wild to Possess (1959): From 1951 on, Brewer produced some of the most successful of all the paperback originals, but there is only one of his novels in print, The Vengeful Virgin, issued with a fantastic vintage cover by Hard Case Crime in April 2007. I’m very partial to 13 French Street and Nude on Thin Ice, but think perhaps I’d suggest Wild to Possess, which centers on an aggressively male protagonist who repeatedly reveals himself to be unscrupulous, devious, and wholly deserving of the fate that befalls him.

MA: Do you think the perception of noir fiction in academia has changed since 2001?

LH: I think there’s been a significant shift in attitudes towards genre fiction as an academic subject. This is often, of course, derided outside academia--The Thrilling Detective Web Site supplied my favorite comment on our CrimeCulture site [which Horsley edits with her daughter Katharine]: “At last! Something for people with too many initials after their names!” And it probably goes without saying that genre fiction is still sometimes seen as not quite a proper subject within the academy. But during the period since I launched my first course on popular fiction (The Noir Thriller, an M.A. module set up in the 1990s), Lancaster University’s Department of English & Creative Writing has seen a proliferation of popular-fiction courses--the Gothic, science fiction, a crime fiction course for undergraduates, children’s literature. And other colleagues are writing and lecturing on the romance, the Western, and the horror film. This kind of critical focus has been further encouraged by the establishment of courses in which literature and film are taught alongside one another. All of these things, of course, have
attracted a lot of students, and joint research projects have also begun to take shape. In a context like this, film noir and literary noir have started to seem like much less eccentric preoccupations. I’ve had discussions over the past few months with one of my colleagues who specializes in the Gothic about the relationship between crime fiction (particularly noir) and the Gothic, have gone to a crime conference with another colleague who is fascinated by the noir Western, and have begun discussions about a collaborative book on criminal confessions.

So I guess, in answer to your question, yes, I do think that the academic perception of noir has changed a lot since I first decided that it was something I wanted to write about. In the 1990s, it was part of a research project I started because I thought, Why not? It interests me, I’m getting close to retirement ... who will care if I spend my time reading crime novels? Now, in 2009, I’m still at the university a year past retirement age, and the huge amount of academic interest in popular fiction is one of my main
incentives for staying on.

MA: When you originally wrote The Noir Thriller, many of the books you discussed were out of print and very hard to find. To what do you attribute the recent resurgence of interest (e.g., Hard Case Crime’s reissues, which you discuss in your new chapter)?

LH: As my online search for some of my favorite writers suggests, a lot of the best mid-century crime novels are still out of print, but some publishers have clearly worked very effectively to rescue the lost writers of the paperback revolution and in doing so have fostered a growing interest in noir--Hard Case Crime, Serpent’s Tail, Black Mask, No Exit Press. The current resurgence will probably not re-establish the “lost” noir writers any more securely than did the publishing efforts of the 1970s and ’80s, when Black Box Thrillers and Vintage/Black Lizard, for example, first made their mark. But all of these imprints have contributed to the marketing of noir as noir, and to a sense that literary noir is as deserving of popular and critical attention as cinematic noir. It is during these last three or four decades that the label “noir” has begun to float free of its exclusive association with the canonical film noirs of the 1940s and ’50s. As James Naremore writes (in More Than Night: Film Noir in Its Contexts), “Whether classic noir ever existed, by 1974 a great many people believed in it,” and since then it has come to be “a major signifier of sleekly commercial artistic ambition.” Not unlike the contemporary Gothic, 21st-century noir has a contradictory appeal, compounded of familiarity and subversiveness. It is dark, disruptive, and dangerous, but at the same time draws on a reassuring iconography ... which perhaps brings us back to the image of Bogart’s worn face that we started with. Things are bad, but then--they always have been.

1 comment:

David Rachels said...

Wild to Possess has been back in print since 2006! Somebody send her a memo!