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Socialism Today 132 - October 2009

Forbidden questions: the politics of noir fiction

‘Noir’ fiction portrays the rotten core of capitalist society. Today’s economic crisis provides the perfect backdrop for its bleak, pessimistic themes – and for a new spike in its popularity. It’s no surprise, then, to see BBC television’s recent series of noir films and documentaries. JOEL LANE looks at the politics behind the genre.

THE TERM ‘noir fiction’ describes a strand of crime fiction that deals with conflict, crisis and corruption, whether in society or in the individual. It was derived retrospectively – through the French Série Noire, a series of American crime novels in translation, and the concept of film noir, which was essentially a 1940s and 50s cinematic genre. Most critics define noir fiction primarily in terms of dark psychology and existential despair, which takes it closer to the territory of Edgar Allen Poe or Franz Kafka than to the witty, sardonic gangster movies of the film noir genre.

Noir fiction grew from the American pulp magazines of the 1920s and 30s, and became a major strand of the paperback pulp fiction of the 1940s and 50s. There is, in principle, a distinction between the dark, negativistic worldview of noir fiction and the more down-to-earth, cynical pragmatism of what became known as the ‘hardboiled’ school of pulp crime fiction. In practice, however, there is a great deal of overlap. Both genres developed through the pulp magazines – especially Black Mask, launched in 1920.

Black Mask began life as a conventional detective-story magazine, but quickly became a platform for a new type of crime fiction. The 1920s was an era of rampant political corruption and organised crime in the USA, with prohibition laws leading to major criminal gangs taking over many of the institutions of local government, business and law enforcement. The Wall Street crash of 1929 led to the poverty and disillusionment of the great depression, while a rising tide of trade union activism was put down by brutally violent means.

It is not surprising, therefore, that this new crime fiction began to appear: a genre of urban gangsterism, corruption and deprivation, in which the gap between rich and poor was far more significant than the gap between lawless and law-abiding. It was less about solving ingenious puzzles and more about describing what was visible on the streets.

The key figure in the new genre was Dashiell Hammett, whose short stories were appearing in Black Mask from the early 1920s. Hammett served in the first world war, where he contracted the tuberculosis that plagued him throughout his life. He worked for several years as an operative for the Pinkerton Detective Agency, where he gained direct experience of the realities of crime, money and power. He resigned after refusing to murder a trade union leader. Another operative killed the trade unionist three days later.

One of Hammett’s early stories, Nightmare Town, describes a town where murder is commonplace and the police are complicit in cover-ups and framing innocent people. We eventually learn that the entire town is a cover for a national bootlegging operation run from a local factory, as well as for an insurance scam involving hundreds of non-existent citizens whose addresses are empty houses. Everyone – police, local government and business – is a professional criminal. The only non-criminals are the innocent people locked up in jail.

In the late 1920s and the 30s, Hammett published five novels that changed crime fiction forever. The first, Red Harvest, portrayed a town controlled by gangsters whose role is strike-breaking. The Maltese Falcon and The Glass Key were bitter and sardonic examinations of betrayal, desire and the power of money. Later, Raymond Chandler said that Hammett "gave murder back to the kind of people that commit it for reasons, not just to provide a corpse; and with the means at hand, not with hand-wrought duelling pistols, curare, and tropical fish". Hammett made the detective story a form of social enquiry, with the mystery to be solved not simply that of a murder but of the deceit and corruption running through a whole community.

In 1953, Senator Joe McCarthy interrogated Hammett over his political views. He asked whether it was appropriate that a government fighting communism should have books by known communists such as Hammett on its library shelves. Hammett replied: "Well, I think – of course, I don’t know – that if I were fighting communism, I don’t think I would do it by giving people any books at all".

In the 1930s and 40s, the development of hardboiled crime fiction was intertwined with what would eventually be called ‘noir’: a literature of despair, paranoia and alienation. In some ways, noir was safer for authors and film-makers who did not want to be identified as critics of American capitalism. But it also enabled Hammett’s critique of society to be carried into other areas: marriage, sexuality, the creative imagination, the American dream, and the tensions of urban living.

The classic noir novelists of that era made great popular literature out of disillusionment, fear and pain. James M Cain’s 1934 novel The Postman Always Rings Twice contrasts the naïve aspirational criminality of a young man who murders his lover’s husband with the sanctimonious press myth-making that surrounds their trial, providing a blueprint for Albert Camus’ existentialist novel L’Étranger. Horace McCoy’s chilling novella They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? (1935) portrays young people physically and spiritually destroyed in the dance marathons of the 1930s – the reality TV of its time.

A reclusive alcoholic called Cornell Woolrich wrote a series of compelling suspense novels about obsession, jealousy and paranoia. In Deadline At Dawn (1944), the female protagonist declares: "It’s the city itself. You think of it as just a place on the map, don’t you? I think of it as a personal enemy, and I know I’m right… I only know there’s an intelligence of its own hanging over this place, coming up from it… and when you breathe too much of it for too long, it gets under your skin, it gets into you… Then you can go anywhere – home or anywhere else – and you just keep on being what it made you from then on". In John Franklin Bardin’s novel The Last of Philip Banter (1947), a man apparently undergoing a schizophrenic breakdown is really being manipulated by people who want to drive him mad in order to help themselves to his money.

The noir fiction of the 1950s continued to weave the personal and the political, while the shadow of the cold war gave a new intensity to the genre’s concerns. Jim Thompson’s The Killer Inside Me (1952) portrays a small-town deputy sheriff in Texas whose conversation is an endless stream of inane platitudes and vacuous pieties. By this means he disguises the fact that he is a cold, emotionless murderer. Thompson’s novel The Getaway (1954) ends with its fugitive villains cheating death only to end up in a secular afterlife – a mountain retreat for big-time criminals where everyone is literally trying to consume everyone else.

My favourite of the classic noir writers is David Goodis, who died in a mental hospital at 49, and whose fiction revolved around issues that dominated his short life. His early novels are existential nightmares about innocent people trying to escape punishment for crimes they know nothing about. By the early 1950s, he had settled into a pattern of writing beautifully controlled, quietly desperate novels about people trapped in a mesh of injustice and abuse.

Street of No Return (1954) starts with a drunk trying to find a bottle of whiskey. He gets caught up in some local trouble and ends up helping the police to break a vicious gang’s control over the district – in the process confronting his own demons and atoning for his past mistakes. The police chief asks how they can repay him. He asks for a bottle of whiskey.

Dashiell Hammett gave up writing crime fiction in the mid-1930s. Perhaps the noir writers who followed him expressed in their writing what he expressed in his silence. It is a state of social and political awareness well summed up by 1940s poet Weldon Kees in his poem Crime Club:

Small wonder that the case remains unsolved,

Or that the sleuth, Le Roux, is now incurably insane,

And sits alone in a white room in a white gown,

Screaming that all the world is mad, that clues

Lead nowhere, or to walls so high their tops cannot be seen;

Screaming all day of war, screaming that nothing can be solved.


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