Raymond Chandler Is Not Noir: Get Over It

Noir is the punk rock of the book world. It’s a niche genre that has been exploited to the point that the term it is meant to describe has been so watered down as to be unrecognizable and indistinguishable from the mainstream it rebels against.

And, if Noir is punk rock, then Raymond Chandler is The Ramones. One of the firmament. The founding fathers. Except, he’s not. He’s Talking Heads. Playing at the same clubs at the same time, but in actuality, doing something very different. 

Chandler’s novels have been incredibly influential and are some of the most important books of the mid 20th century. They are essential reading for any mystery fan. One thing they are not is noir, yet they are continually lumped into that category. Please, just stop it.

First off, most P.I. stories aren’t noir. We all need to get over this notion. Mysteries that get solved in the end by a heroic (even a flawed hero) character are about restoring order to a chaotic world. Noir is about staring into the darkness and seeing only more darkness.

Phillip Marlowe always solves the crime. No matter how convoluted and nonsensical the outcome may be, he does not succumb to the fickle finger of fate. Order is restored in Chandler’s world. Marlowe lives to fight another day. The same can’t be said for many noir heroes.

James M. Cain is noir. Most of his protagonists don’t make it out alive, and even when they do—see Walter Huff in Double Indemnity (the novel not the film)—they live on in a world almost more bleak than the one they have suffered through over the course of the novel.

So, what is he if not noir? Raymond Chandler is Hardboiled. He is the one, alongside Dashiell Hammett, you should reference when someone asks “what is the hardboiled style?” He should be the apples to noir’s oranges when you compare the two styles. 

Marlowe may embody the cynical worldview we associate with Noir, but compared to a writer like Cain or William McGivern, the Marlowe novels are fairly upbeat. 

Chandler’s writing is bright and colorful with his use of similes that earn a grin as well as a cringe. 

“Her face looked like a catcher’s mitt after a tough season.”

I mean come on, that’s so good. He’s a great writer, just not a noir writer.

Not that he was incapable. Many of his short stories skew more noir. And, his screen adaptation of Cain’s own Double Indemnity upped the ante on Walter and sent he and Phyllis to their violent deaths instead of on a cruise as Cain did in the novel, even if their deaths are looming over the horizon. 

But, we need to stop calling Chandler noir. If someone calls Chandler noir or—as so often happens—holds him up as the paragon of the genre, you know you are dealing with someone who does not know exactly what noir is. Same as if you talk to someone who refers to Talking Heads as punk; you know they are an idiot who is regurgitating what they heard someone else say. The dreaded “conventional wisdom,” which seldom contains much wisdom at all.

None of this is to diminish Chandler’s importance or influence. He had a tremendous influence on noir writers as well as hardboiled writers. 

Noir too often gets lumped into an age. Anything written during the 1930s or 1940s gets tagged as noir, same as any crime film in black and white gets packaged as noir. This does a disservice to people discovering what noir is for the first time. It’s like someone asking about baseball and you show them a cricket match. Well, it’s got a stick and a ball. Close enough, right.

No.

So let’s let Raymond Chandler be the foremost practitioner of Hardboiled, or at least share the trophy with Hammett. Hold him up in high regard, but do it for what he is, not what he isn’t.

Stop spreading the myth, because we’re dangerously close to having to print the myth as legend. Lucky for you I’m here to stop you sounding foolish. 

 
Images via The Telegraph & Wikipedia.

The Contrarian is here to break you free from the conventional wisdom. The Contrarian is here to show you when you are wrong. The Contrarian is right, and you know it.

Comments

  1. Kevin Burton Smith.

    I’m not sure noir is a zero sum game, or that THE BIG SLEEP, for example, has all that happy an ending.
    A work of art, be it film or television or literature, can verge on noir without going all the way down. Marlowe’s “part of the nastiness” soliloquy at the end of THE BIG SLEEP looks over the precipe at noir, and is all the more powerful because he doesn’t succumb. But he does realize how far he’s fallen.
    But I see what you’re getting at. The flipside of it, of course, are all these juvenile, humanity-free neo-noir shockfests aiming to offend everyone, filled with the one atrocity after another that inevitably end in secondhand nihilism and oh-so-predictable cynicism, all eagerly scrabbling to be labelled “noir.” These cartoons aren’t noir either, no matter how sad or tragic the endings are. Or how many paper thin stereotypes (A junkie! A hooker! An alcoholic!) they trot out, instead of real characters.
    As for the notion of punk rock as noir, well, following that, I don’t buy Chandler as Talking Heads. Too prissy and arty. Maybe Graham Parker. Darker, more subversive and contrary. And wittier.

  2. Adam Wagner

    Great response, Kevin!

    While I like the comparison to music, things always get sticky when you try to box everything into more-and-more specific subgenres–especially when dealing with an artist as a whole, rather than one particular book/song/album.

  3. deadcha

    This was good, fun, and well written. It deserves to have somebody’s name on it.

    I wasn’t aware there were people running around calling Chandler “noir” (or The Talking Heads “punk,” for that matter) but I like the distinction being drawn here. Especially that line about “Noir is about staring into the darkness and seeing only more darkness.” It reminds me of Jim Thompson’s stuff.

    As Kevin noted, I think it’s easily possible to run into trouble though by this definition. “Farewell My Lovely” has a hot mess of a plot and it reads like a tour of hell. There’s maybe one or two odd villains in the book who get some kind of comeuppance, but the rest are unscathed. Marlowe solves nothing and saves nobody, least of all himself. It’s a nasty little book and a nasty little story.

    It’s also beautifully written, but disturbing.

  4. NickF

    Saying that Marlowe books end with anything solved is to miss the point entirely. Some criminals go to jail or die, sure, but the world is always worse off than when it started, and Marlowe more tired, cynical, and world-weary. He lives to fight another day, sure, but he does so reluctantly.

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