Sunday, September 18, 2005

Let's talk about noir

Mes Amis

I've been thinking. About noir.

Actually this has been spinning in my head since Bouchercon. And although certain people said that you never hear anything new in panels, its still worth sitting in on them sometimes because those "same old same old" ideas can sometimes set your head spinning in new directions.

I've been thinking about noir and series. I've heard it a few times now: thous shalt not have a noir series (it should be written in a stone tablet). The reasoning is that noir, by what we understand, is about mortality. A series character must, ispo facto, if he is to return, be immortal. Therefore one cannot have a noir series. The character does not neccasarily have to die. But if we know he is coming back in a few books time that sense of danger to his life is lost.

Of course we can have noir "cycles" whereby we stick with the same character for a limited series of books (Royston Blake, of Mangel fame springs to mind) but this is not the same as we know the character will come to an end sometime (not neccasarily death, of course, but still we only know them for a limited number of books rather than the open ended number that can be in a typical series, say Morse or Thorne or Scudder).

This bothers me. It bothers me because I think you can have a noir series *and* an "immortal" character. Because to me, a good series, especially a crime series, is rarely about the protagonist. I mean, the protagonist must feel real. Matt Scudder must have his troubles and his loves and his losses. But simply because he is immortal doesn't mean we lose that sense of danger. Because everyone else is (or at least should be) up for grabs. Matt (or whichever protagonist you wish to think about) becomes the camera through which we view the world. How would you feel if the camera in a movie could be shot? It would be kind of pathetic because you'd never see how the damn thing played out. The good noir series protagonist must be an observer. He must be a camera.

One of the things I always like about the Scudder novels was that the supporting cast are up for grabs. Look at what happens in Everybody Dies. People are put in real mortal danger. And as to the cast who are around for one novel. If they're not stuck in noir, I don't know who is. I mean they're definitely up for grabs and more often than not wind up decorating some slab in some NYC morgue.

But the point is that you cannot say a series is not noir. I think a series can be noir if we accept the central "camera" as immortal. You can tell noir tales with a series character and yet retain their immortality.

Or at least, that's the way I'm thinking on a caffeine high and far too many kit kats than can possibly be good for a man.

Au Revoir



Ray said...

"The good noir series protagonist must be an observer. He must be a camera."

Sorry, Russel, don't agree with that at all. Above all else, I think that a noir protagonist has to be a participant, at least in his own bitter end. Mind you, I don't class Scudder as noir (I've got a pretty stringent definition). Here's the thing, if you're doing a noir series, it has to come to an end. Certainly I think the Big Bad Noir ending can come at the end of the cycle, but there's only so much shit you can put your protagonist through before it becomes daft (believe me, I'm having a dilly of a pickle at the moment, and I've kinda promised myself five and only five books with my series, and I'm itching to kill the sonofabitch).

But I agree with you in the whole "series can be noir" thing. I just can't think of one (bar Jack Taylor) that's worked and continues to work.

Stuart MacBride said...

Hmmm... I dunno - am I doing 'noir'? I have a series, I do nasty, nasty things to my cast, but I'm planning to keep my protagonist around for a while.

But everyone else will probably die.

Al said...

The noir protagonist can't stand at the edge of the pit looking in; he has to have fallen into the pit. If he cries for help, someone throws him a spade. If he manages to scramble out of the pit, he's hardboiled, not noir. The noir protagonist is sick, alone, weak, confused, angry, tormented, indecisive, doomed, screwed, fucked up and fucked over. The noir protagonist is a loser. He doesn't function well in a team, and on Wednesdays he pays a buxom, steatopygous prostitute called Greta to beat him with a bag of turnips.

Anonymous said...

I'm with Ray and Al on this one (although Al, I have to say I usually get paid on Thursdays for my services with roo vegetables). I think noir works for a short series. To use Al's pit analogy, the protagonist can keep scrabbling upwards and every now and again he can take rest on a shitty ledge while he gathers his breath and a bit of hope (just enough to let the poor bastard think that the light at the end of the tunnel is a torch rather than an oncoming train), but each time he sinks back into the mire. Eventually, someone does throw him that spade, but it hits him on the head and he falls right to the bottom of the pit with a nasty fractured skull before someone pees on him from a great height and he drowns in a stream of alcohol fuelled urine (sorry Mum, if you're reading this).

I like Eddie Muller's noir/hardboiled definition which I can't remember exactly but which goes some thing like if a detective is hired by a man to track down his wife who is cheating on him, the detective uncovers long buried family secrets, and at the end the world
is set back on his axis and the detective goes back to his office to wait for his next case then that's a hard-boiled detective novel. If, on the other hand, the wife realises she's being followed, and asks the detective to kill her husband and he does so, then that's noir :o) One is easily a series character, the other...not so much.