Crime Files: The Noir Thriller.
New York: Palgrave. 2001.
Hardback, 305 pgs.
It is so obvious: the two Marlowes will finally solve the
enigma of the noir thriller. It began with the Marlowe setting off into
the jungle, into the ‘Heart of Darkness’, to confront the
ultimate evil - Col. Kurtz, who had managed to build up a small barbarian
kingdom in the heart of the Congo. Joseph Conrad’s classic novel
with the emblematic title actually contains the essence of twentieth century
noir-fiction. A Marlowe - actually any Marlowe from there on - will make
his passage, his virtual odyssey to face - at least - his own dark heart
(4). Therefor William Hjortsberg’s ‘Falling Angel’ Harry
- so charismatically embodied by Mickey Rourke in Alan Parker’s
brilliantly retitled film ‘Angel Heart’ (1987) - is a logical
final point in the history of the noir-detective (232). But let’s
start from the beginning ...
Clive Bloom’s Crime Files Series initiated a continuing series of
handbooks on the various faces of detective fiction from its start in
the late nineteenth century. ‘In novels, short stories, films, radio,
television and now in computer games, private detectives and psychopaths,
prim prisoners and overworked cops, tommy gun gangsters and cocaine criminals
are the very stuff of modern imagination, and their creators one mainstray
of popular consciousness’ (Bloom). In this context the ‘Noir
Thriller’ - as Lee Horsley’s ‘Crime File’ is called
- has the certain position of a key phenomenon for it directly points
to the modern paradigm: Noir protagonists fight the fragmentation of their
minds, always on the quest for the impossible final solution, to solve
the enigma of an eternal crime.
Author Lee Horsley - herself Senior Lecturer at Lancaster University -
analyses complex questions: ‘What is literary noir? How do British
and American noir thrillers relate to their historical contexts?’
As mentioned elsewhere - secondary literature about noir is legion by
today’s standards - the noir phenomenon mainly appears in times
of social crisis and depression. This is certainly true for the classical
hardboiled school of crime fiction: Chandler, Hammett, Cain, Woolrich,
Goodis, and so on. Their lethal fantasies bloomed in the age of depression
and war. Then, after World War II, the film noir - as it was named by
French critics - established dark audio-visual visions based on the same
topics, sometimes even more neurotic than the elder novels.
With films like ‘Chinatown’ and ‘Taxi Driver’
the noir style later proved itself alive and modern in an ultimate sense
that even lead to noir being defined as a genre of its own these days.
Noir broke the boundaries of the conventional crime thriller and moved
towards science fiction (Philip K. Dick’s ‘Blade Runner’-Story,
238; James G. Ballard, 246) and gothic horror (William Hjortsberg, 232).
So Lee Horsley’s voyage through the American and British noir thriller
as a literary genre is a widespread one - hundreds of novels are examined,
some of them on several pages. Horsley’s overall access to noir
is via certain aspects such as ‘hard boiled investigators (23),
big-shot gangsters and small-time crooks (45), victims of circumstance
(67), fatal men (103), fatal women (125), strangers and outcasts (153),
players, voyeurs and consumers (197)’ and, very important: ‘pasts
and futures’ (228). Horsley is also well aware of the recent noir-discussion
based on the books by James Naremore (‘More Than Night: Film Noir
in its Contexts’, 1998) and J. P. Telotte (‘Voices in the
Dark: the Narrative Patterns of Film Noir’, 1989). Naremore sees
the film noir as a an American as well as European phenomenon and he manages
to describe a ‘ noir category’. ‘Even if it is not,
strictly speaking, a genre (in the sense that, say, the western or science
fiction or the detective story are genres), it is a label that at the
very least invokes “a network of ideas” that is valuable as
an organising principle’(6), as Horsley describes it. In this context
she also refers to the many cross-over-pieces, that are connected to noir:
‘cyber noir, tech noir, future noir’ and so on. This makes
the creation of a helpful noir-category much more difficult. In addition
to Naremore’s access ‘The Noir Thriller’ ‘analyses
the noir crime fiction of both America and Britain, where the established
tradition of the “serious thriller” [...], the post-war efforts
to create British versions of recent decades have all added to the revolution
of literary noir’(6). Along with Telotte the author wishes to define
noir beyond the superficial aspects of just look and style. ‘It
has to go beyond the visual and other specifically cinematic elements
on which discussions of classic film noir have often centred, and instead
take account of such things as themes, mood, characterisation, point of
view and narrative pattern’(7). Therefor the special literary style
of the hard-boiled-fiction is only one pattern of expression. On the other
side the novels of Patricia Highsmith (120), Joseph Conrad’s ‘The
Secret Agent’ (12) can be considered ‘noir’ as well
for invoking a deep-rooted sense for the macabre and the dark side of
the human soul - combined with the structure of a criminal story.
The second important aspect of Horsely’s study is the ‘thriller’-aspect.
According to Martin Rubin (in his book ‘Thrillers’) the author
points out the close relationship of and similarities between thriller
and noir. ‘Excess, feeling and sensation’ as well as ‘
suspense, fear and the creation of contrasts’ (Rubin) are the identifying
marks of the thriller. Along to these Horsley gives her own key elements
of noir: ‘(i) the subjective point of view; (ii) the shifting roles
of the protagonist; (iii) the ill-fated relationship between the protagonist
and society (generating the themes of alienation and entrapment); and
(iv) the ways in which noir functions as a socio-political critique’(8).
With these analytical tools in the background it is certainly a pleasure
to follow Lee Horsley on her well-written journey from Joseph Conrad to
James Ellroy, from the ‘Black Mask’-magazine to William Gibson.
Some parts of ‘The Noir Thriller’ are quite inventive as well.
Especially in the ‘fatal men’-chapter aspects are mentioned
that are ignored in most of the noir-studies so far which mostly lay all
emphasis on the femme fatal probably due to a male perspective. So the
discovery of the ‘homme fatal’ is absolutely necessary.
Very inspiring is Horsley’s technique to point out the links between
literature and film throughout the whole book. She demonstrates a permanent
interaction between these two media, for example on page 215-217, where
she first describes Ted Lewis’ novel ‘Jack’s Return
Home’ (‘a “can’t return home” plot’,
216), which later was filmed as ‘Get Carter’ (1971) by Mike
Hodges - today a British noir cult movie. In addition Anthony Frewin pays
tribute to this film in his 1997-novel ‘London Blues’, where
the protagonist watches this film. Another example: Horsley starts with
a description of Michael Powell’s serial-killer-drama and scandal
movie ‘Peeping Tom’ (1959) to end in the Hollywood wasteland
of James Ellroy’s ‘L. A. Quartet’ (214). On the other
side the book ‘Noir Thriller’ is probably the first to locate
Bret Easton Ellis’ novel ‘American Psycho’ in the noir-context
- and this makes perfectly sense, for this novel is ‘going beyond
genre fiction but nevertheless closely linked to the techniques, materials
and metaphors of the consumer society thriller’ (221). The film
based on this novel shows these noir-elements even more obviously.
What I actually missed in this undoubtedly perfectly researched book are
two people: Neil Jordan and Buddy Giovinazzo. The Irish writer and director
Jordan became popular due to his British noir-trilogy ‘Angel’
(1982), ‘Mona Lisa’ (1986) and ‘The Crying Game’
(1992). These films seem to be of interest for the British noir tendencies
in the eighties. On the other side (of the ocean) Giovinazzo wrote several
novels of hardboiled urban thrillers, e.g. ‘Poetry and Purgatory’
or ‘On Broken Street’, which - partly inspired by Hubert Selby
- are a very pure vision of neo-modern noir-fiction in the nineties. Even
his film ‘No Way Home’ (1997) fits into this context. But
anyway - there is so much left to discover in Lee Horsley’s ‘The
Unfortunately the brownish-orange book-cover - using the old paperback
cover illustration of Jim Thompson’s ‘Recoil’ - is not
quite adequate for this otherwise solidly crafted hardback-edition. But
nevertheless the dated picture used here - a Monroe-look-alike and an
escaping young man - somehow carries the spirit of the old hardboiled-school...
Finally this basic exploration is recommended as a handbook for anyone
with deeper interest in classical as well as modern crime fiction, and
it may be of use for the audience of the noir and neo-noir cinema for
exploring its official sources of inspiration.