The first to use this technique in detective fiction was Edgar Allan Poe. Ever since, these tales have shown generations of crime writers how to integrate the classic genre conventions by heightening the tension between such counter concepts as brains and brawn, the hunter and the hunted, the bohemian but brilliant detective and the bureaucratic but bumbling constabulary. Sherlock Holmes was not the first of the fictional detectives.
At the end of the 19th and the start of the 20th century, he was further popularised by the poetry of Charles Baudelaire and the philosophy of Walter Benjamin, and yet it is Holmes who has prevailed as the most eloquent byword of the fictional detective. In doing so, he related storytelling to science. Watson, read like descriptive accounts of experiments in detection, where the end of every adventure is followed by an explanation of every action.
He is a final court of appeal and the idea that such a court might exist, personified by an individual, was permanently comforting to his readers. This complex creature, after all, was not some cartoonish superhero but the product of a thought experiment based on the philosophy of the Italian Renaissance and perhaps best understood as a Machiavellian bogeyman of the Western middle class and its pseudo-Christian value system.
As a result of removing this complexity, detectives working in the tradition of the eccentric Holmes have often had more in common with the epic Hercules. Holmes, who first appeared in A Study in Scarlet as an instinctive anti-intellectual, returned in The Sign of Four as an intellectual aesthete. Yet throughout two more novels and 56 short stories, he integrated the tension between these two sides of his personality in his search for single causes.
His legacy therefore goes beyond the entertainment value of his tales of suspense. He demonstrated that even the central character can change over the course of a series, and change several times in ways which might invite disbelief or indeed derision if dramatised in standalone stories. One way of reassuring readers that such character inconsistencies can be psychologically sound is to remind them that, while inconsistencies of any sort tend to indicate poor writing when they occur in the span of a single story, in this case the story is situated in an overarching series and thus allows for greater flexibility of characterisation.
Doyle made a habit of offering such reminders by having his investigative team repeatedly talk about their previous cases and long partnership. Demonstrating this emancipation, he dispensed with the consulting detective and decided to be his own narrator and thus define himself in his own voice from a first-person point of view.
Having pioneered this narrative aesthetic, Dashiell Hammett is habitually cited as the founder of the hard-boiled school. Hammett, on the other hand, focused on action, description, and dialogue. Thoughts and feelings he avoided almost entirely. So it is not his style that has earned Hammett the honour of becoming known as the founder of the hard-boiled school. It is his subject. As a former operative of the Pinkerton Agency, Hammett drew on lived experience when he selected as his central protagonist — and as that of most hard-boiled literature to come — a laconic loner.
Hammett replaced the outdated bohemian dilettante of classic detective fiction with a very private investigator who lives by his own code of conduct to be tough yet true in a world that has become as confusing as it is corrupt.
Definitions are further complicated by the overlapping relationship between the two terms. It is a stance, a manner of speaking and behaving that can conceal impaired masculinity; it is no adequate hedge against the loss, disillusionment, fear and despair that are constants in the world of noir.
Neon Noir: Contemporary American Crime Fiction
Within the crime and detective genres, hard-boiled fiction is conventionally traced to the founding of Black Mask magazine in Under the editorship of Captain Joseph T. Dashiell Hammett started writing for the magazine in The traditional British detective Sherlock Holmes, for example, or Hercule Poirot is a detached figure, immune from danger; the hard-boiled investigator, on the other hand, is a man who is very directly involved in this violent, dishonest, unfragrant world of urban corruption and criminality. Although the hard-boiled protagonist does sometimes show up in small towns or rural backwaters, his habitual haunts are the dark alleyways of big cities, sites of confusion and chronic disorder.
The importance of scene is in itself a distinguishing feature of the American tradition, with the uncontainable urban milieu defeating all efforts to impose tidy solutions, forestalling the narrative closure associated with classic detective fiction. The private eye or other investigative figure who struggles to function in this turbulent environment is defined by the nature of his masculine resourcefulness.
Street-wise slang, terse wit and sardonic wisecracks are the trade-mark elements in his protective armory, an assured voice that enables him to establish at least an illusion of control.
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In his more masterful incarnations, this is a protagonist who exacts revenge and dispenses rough justice. The notion of re-establishing order can seem a very questionable proposition when the protagonist himself is so morally disreputable that he is scarcely distinguishable from the criminals. It is commonplace for the tough guy to occupy a liminal position between the cops and the crooks, and to win his victory over villainy without any kind of formal legal sanction. These morally dubious, damaged men are key figures in the evolution of literary noir, which, as it developed in the late s and the s, created out of the hard-boiled idiom a much more unsettling kind of crime fiction.
In addition to battered, alcoholic private eyes, the central characters of the emerging noir tradition included clueless victims, unsuccessful crooks, outlaws, psychopaths and a varied cast of other transgressors, men and sometimes women who are obsessed, pursued, paranoid and, more often than not, doomed.
Definitions of literary noir have to go beyond the visual and other specifically cinematic qualities on which discussions of classic film noir tend to be based, taking in, for example, subjectivity of viewpoint, the shifting and unstable roles of the protagonist and the ill-fated relationship between the protagonist and society.
The noir narrative is typically mediated by the unreliable perceptions of a character who is confused, self-deceived or dishonest. The roles occupied by this character are not fixed: victim can turn aggressor or perpetrator; the hunted man can become the hunter. Instead of terminating in satisfying narrative closure, they demonstrate the folly of thinking there could be any easy solution. Both literary and cinematic noir can be seen as having been forged in response to a more critical mood in American society, and, more generally, the noir sensibility may be said to come to the fore at times of discontent, tension, fearfulness and disillusionment.
Black Mask and Early Hard-Boiled Crime Fiction Hard-boiled detective fiction and the noir thriller both had their origins in a period of profound political and economic change: Black Mask was founded the year after the stock market crash had precipitated the Great Depression; Prohibition was continuing to generate crime on an alarming scale; large cities were beset by corruption and sleaze.
In fiction representing such disruptions and inequities, the consolatory resolutions of classic detective fiction would have seemed false and irrelevant. The writer whose work more than any other confronts the upheavals of the interwar years is Dashiell Hammett. During his brief period as a crime writer 34 he made an indelible impression on the genre and, for Depression-era readers, spoke forcefully to their sense of the damage and dislocation caused by the anarchic appetites of capitalism.
The senator at the centre of the narrative shows himself capable of betraying his daughter, accidentally kills his son and is willing to murder a friend and ally so that he can be framed for the earlier crime. The Glass Key has a title suggestive of a passage into darker experience through a door which, once opened, cannot be locked again. There is a sense throughout of deep-seated moral disorder as bonds of trust disintegrate, with deceit undermining the possibility of sustaining social relationships and rendering unlikely any lasting restoration of order.
Chandler depicts in detail the corruption that had come with the precipitate growth of California, and these forms of public crime give a larger resonance to his narratives, framing the disordered individual lives of families like the Sternwoods in The Big Sleep or the Grayles in Farewell, My Lovely. Chandler softens the corrupt and brutal scenes we witness by filtering them through a narrator whose self-mocking manner never falters, even under extreme duress.
It was a period, however, during which both the pulp magazines and hard-cover crime novels saw the creation of a wide range of other protagonists: W. Cain, John D.
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In terms of the subsequent history of tough crime writing, the most influential of these writers were unquestionably W. Burnett and Armitage Trail Maurice Coons. Like the private eye, the gangster is a romanticised figure, tough and purposeful, a performer who makes a dramatic show of masculine competence and vitality.
What sets him apart are his upwardly mobile ambitions, the means by which he pursues them and the fictionally inescapable consequences of his overweening ambition — a career trajectory driven by a determination to scale the heights, an ending in which he plummets to his inevitable downfall.
Cain we see the establishment of some of the most recurrent patterns of noir narratives, bringing to the fore characters so damaged and un-heroic that they stand small chance of emerging with their lives, let alone of achieving any of their ambitions. The domestic dramas of James M. His protagonists pursue the American dream of success, and, as the prospect seems to glimmer seductively closer, they reach out to discover that they have secured nothing but defeat and entrapment. Postwar America and the Paperback Revolution In the prosperous years of postwar America, the Depression came to seem like an historical aberration.
Unprecedented affluence and military-industrial expansion, however, took their toll, producing materialism and conformity and generating a national mood of self-righteous aggressiveness, directed against suspected Communists, of course, but more generally against anyone regarded as subversive or otherwise troublesome. Cold war apprehensions and McCarthyite witch-hunts bred the atmosphere of fear and paranoia that is the dominant mood of both cinematic and literary noir from the s on. There are noir elements in the work of Spillane, but they are not predominant, nor were they the source of his commercial success.
He was, in part, quite cynically appealing to the widest possible Cold War audience, and his sales were indeed extraordinary, with over fifteen million copies of his books sold in Signet editions by The Spillane phenomenon is a testimony to the popular staying power of crudely vigorous hard-boiled investigative fiction. Amongst the most important of these writers were David Goodis, Jim Thompson, Charles Williams and Gil Brewer, all of whom joined Spillane in the s racks of cent paperback originals.
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Their work defined the nature of post- war noir, with morally ambivalent victims and criminals acting out the anxieties of mid-century American society. As in the Depression years, characters suffer more than their fair share of weary disillusionment and economic hardship, but the most striking themes of post-war noir are less to do with economic determinism than with the exclusion and displacement of characters who are too deviant to make themselves at home in a normative society. In his break-through novel, Dark Passage , Goodis repeatedly represented displaced characters, in full flight or in hiding, frightened, isolated, losing control of their lives, unable to return home.