Noir--Like the Genre of Mom and Apple Pie

In 1945, the literary critic Edmund Wilson penned an eye-rolling put-down of detective stories titled "Who Cares Who Killed Roger Ackroyd?" His question (he was referencing a 1926 Agatha Christie title) was rhetorical, just a snide way of saying that crime fiction was worthless. But if he were around today to pose the same question, he might do so a little more gingerly. Or he might not ask the question at all, because the answer is so glaringly obvious: darn near everybody. The number of us who have witnessed a crime firsthand may be tiny, and the number who have seen a gun fired in the commission of such a crime even smaller. But the number of people who watch these acts, day after day, night after night, in TV shows or movies, or read about them in books—that's pretty much all of us. When it comes to crime onscreen or in the pages of a book, we can't seem to get enough. Would those numbers be enough to make Wilson change his mind about crime writing? Probably not. As far as he was concerned, tripe was tripe. But if Wilson read some of the contemporary authors practicing in the genre he despised, he might not so quickly rush to judgment. Writers such as James Ellroy, Richard Price, Dennis Lehane, Donald Westlake, Walter Mosley, Laura Lippman, James Sallis, Megan Abbott, and George Pelecanos have managed to infuse crime novels with a quality of writing not seen since the days of Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler, and James M. Cain (writers who, to be fair to Wilson, were the exceptions who proved his rule). Those authors from the '30s and '40s would surely be proud to keep company with the best writers in their field today. It might also tickle them to see that crime stories—especially those in the noir genre, where you can't tell the good guys from the bad and where hope and happy endings are the first things tossed overboard—have made it into the American literary pantheon. The Library of America devotes multiple volumes to the work of Chandler, Hammett, and assorted other noir novelists, as well as a true-crime anthology. Black Lizard paperbacks showcase classics in these adjacent genres, and Hard Case Crime publishes a splendid line of reprints, forgotten gems, and new work, all boasting wonderfully lurid cover art (half-clad dames, snarling gangsters, and guns going off all over the place) inspired by old paperbacks. But what might most surprise the old masters is the number of A-list literary authors who are invading their territory.

Literary novelists, the very people who usually scorn genre writing, have been slumming with noir for the better part of a century. William Faulkner (Sanctuary) and Theodore Dreiser (An American Tragedy) may have been the first, but Norman Mailer and Truman Capote tried it, and so has Cormac McCarthy. Just this summer, two more heavy hitters have stepped up—first Denis Johnson with Nobody Move and now Thomas Pynchon with Inherent Vice, a novel set in post-Manson California, which his publisher aptly calls "part noir, part psychedelic romp, all Thomas Pynchon—private eye Doc Sportello comes, occasionally, out of a marijuana haze to watch the end of an era as free love slips away and paranoia creeps in with the L.A. fog."

At its best, noir—books or films, it doesn't matter—is an elastic category, and like elastic, it's gone slack with age. There is not always a private detective; sometimes he's just a man with more trouble than brains or luck. Sometimes the locale is not a big city at night but a sun-baked small town. Sometimes the femme is no fatale. There's always something at stake—usually a fortune in (take your pick) jewels, inheritance, or blackmail—but winning, when there is any, is at best a matter of cutting your losses. The world these characters inhabit is ruled by malevolent gods, if there were gods who ruled.

It's hard to say where this dystopic view first found root in American letters, but you see it as early as Poe and then again in Melville and Twain. It surfaces again during the Depression, when economic hopelessness cast a long shadow over the work of such writers as Horace McCoy (They Shoot Horses, Don't They?), James M. Cain (The Postman Always Rings Twice), and Edward Anderson (Thieves Like Us). The French were the first to label the genre, in the '40s, but the stories and movies that caught their attention were mostly American, and hopelessness, futility, and, most important, failure were not supposed to be part of the American Dream. At the time, all this fell below the ra-dar of American tastemakers. Most of the films that so beguiled the French were B movies ground out by lower-rung studios. Most of the authors were pulp novelists. Never mind that a few were genuine artists (Jim Thompson, David Goodis, Patricia Highsmith, Walter Tevis). In this country, these writers were the Rodney Dangerfields of literature, ignored by American critics and serious readers until years after they were dead. But their best work possessed a rude vitality and a persuasive sense of doom, not to mention heists, shootouts, and snappy dialogue that were clearly the envy of authors who got better reviews.

So what happens when mainstream novelists tackle noir? More often than not, they find it's harder than it looks. Mailer's Tough Guys Don't Dance contains some brilliant passages, but mostly it's a mess (paradoxically, when Mailer took on real crime in The Executioner's Song, he wrote arguably his best book). McCarthy's No Country for Old Men is also occasionally wonderful, but it might be his worst novel—who would have thought that we would ever accuse him of sounding preachy?

Denis Johnson has similar problems with Nobody Move. Jimmy Luntz is a compulsive gambler who owes more money than he can hope to pay back. After he shoots the man who comes to collect in the opening pages (Luntz, a member of a barbershop harmony group, gets collared by the collection agent as he's coming out of a performance), he spends the rest of the story on the run and over his head. Nothing wrong with that formula, but somehow Johnson never gets it quite right. That's surprising in a way, since any sentence of, say, Jesus' Son, Johnson's classic collection of short stories, is more genuinely noir than all of Nobody Move. (The same is true of Cormac McCarthy: he was always a noir novelist, until he deliberately tried to write one.) Johnson's problem is, he never seems to care much about anyone, and in noir, you've got to care. A talented author may think that genre crime is all about plot and bad endings, but the great noir writers, those hacks who couldn't write half as well as Johnson on their best day, knew better. It's not the mechanics that make noir work. It's the emotional core of the story that has to ring true.

No one will ever accuse Pynchon of wearing his feelings on his sleeve, but in Inherent Vice there's no mistaking his affection for his private detective, Larry (Doc) Sportello. Using Chandler territory as inspiration, Pynchon launches a tale as complicated as anything he's ever written, a tale that involves rotten cops, a missing girlfriend, a murdered developer, and a sinister menace called the Golden Fang, which is a mysterious schooner used for smuggling, but also the name of a shadowy holding company and maybe even a Southeast Asian heroin cartel. There are times when the false starts, red herrings, dead ends, and duplicities get so tangled that all a reader can think of is the story about Faulkner and Leigh Brackett, who, in the midst of writing the screenplay for The Big Sleep, had to call up Chandler to ask who killed the chauffeur—and he couldn't remember either.

An uncurbed reflex for complication is not all Pynchon shares with Chandler. Both men wrote about paradise lost, with Los Angeles as exhibit A. Both Doc and Marlowe are loners and outsiders. In several ways, Chandler's greatest novel, The Long Goodbye, a sad, beautiful book about friendship betrayed, is the template for Inherent Vice. But Pynchon's clearest link with Chandler is a love of language. His rococo stoner dialogue is the equivalent of Chandler's fondness for tortured similes. You can pick up a Chandler or Pynchon novel, open it anywhere and get lost in the wordplay. Pynchon's prose is so casually vernacular, so deeply in the American grain, you forget that someone composed it. Inherent Vice feels fizzily spontaneous—like a series of jazz solos, scenes, and conversations built around little riffs of language. Does it add up? Maybe. Do you get lost? Lured down a long linguistic dark alley is more like it. It's always weird but always fun.

In one of his many throwaway set pieces, Pynchon gives Doc an aria of disgust at a trend just then getting traction: the transition on television and in movies from dramas starring private eyes to shows and movies where cops are the heroes. "Once there were all these great old PIs—Philip Marlowe, Sam Spade, the shamus of shamuses Johnny Staccato, always smarter and more professional than the cops, always end up solvin the crime while the cops are followin wrong leads and gettin in the way…But nowadays it's all you see anymore is cops, the tube is saturated with f---in cop shows, just being regular guys, only tryin to do their jobs, folks, no more threat to nobody's freedom than some dad in a sitcom. Right. Get the viewer population so cop-happy they're beggin to be run in. Good-bye Johnny Staccato, welcome and while you're at it please kick my door down, Steve McGarrett." Pynchon doesn't spell it out, but that passage is his noir obituary. The whole foundation of noir is the alienation of its heroes; alienated insiders, antiheroes with badges and medical plans, that's a stretch. Or was. Isn't Jimmy McNulty on The Wire really closer kin to Marlowe and Spade than Joe Friday? Maybe contemporary life has eroded individualism, which would seem to be Pynchon's larger point. That doesn't mean the world we live in is any less shadowed or less complicated. More likely, noir has just expanded its territory to include cops and crooks and all those so-called innocent bystanders caught in the crossfire. Noir isn't a genre any longer. It's claimed its place as one of the twin strands of our cultural DNA, the dark side of the American Dream.