Noir has been on my mind lately. Naturally, I turned to Dashiell Hammett when I got the urge for some mystery – picking up The Thin Man from a used book stand near Washington Square Park. Actually, the truth is I saw it and it was cheap and I liked the cover – of course, having read The Maltese Falcon a few years ago I was already familiar with his work, so I gave it a try.
I couldn’t put it down.
What fascinates me most about the noir genre, specifically those books focusing on crimes in the 20s and 30s, is the way in which the mind and clever conversation play the most important role in committing and solving a crime. The action usually occurs out of the scene, and the characters simply talk about it later, most often in the most hilarious ways (I was surprised by the comedy in fact, sometimes laughing out loud.) Some characters are never seen, communicating solely by letter or telephone.
It takes place in an era of technology before ours, when things were advanced but not enough to scrape DNA from hair samples and contact anyone from anywhere by a cell phone, when you sent harrowing letters by telegraph and the elevator boy walked you to someone’s room when you went to visit them (usually so he could become a witness for who has been entering which apartments). I read twenty pages out of a David Baldacci novel once and decided to stop on the grounds that the characters and the settings felt empty. I felt just as bored as the detective must have, waiting around for his DNA samples to be tested and his video surveillance to be analyzed. I don’t believe that crime novels now (and taking place in a contemporary setting) must be boring on account of the technology, and if someone who sees this knows a good one, I’d be very interested, but the advancement of technology certainly seems like a hindrance, especially when it comes to character development. I am not saying it can’t be done, but it seems more difficult. Characters don’t have to be particularly witty or clever or entertaining to commit crimes, they simply have to be sneaky, which is a trait inherent in all of Dashiell Hammett’s characters, guilty or not. This is a large reason for the elevation of language in Hammett’s stories, the need for each character to be extra clever, and for there to be an immediate divide between those who can speak well, and those who cannot.
Noir is a genre that becomes all about the characters – the plot lines remain generally the same; a lot of money is stolen, someone is killed, somewhere two people fall in love – what shines is the creation of characters, their differentiation through language, and the way that the author tells you straight to your face who did it as many times as he possibly can while still managing to keep you guessing until the end. Of course the not knowing is the best part – and still the picture I have of Mimi in my head makes me squirm, and her shady children certainly have something to hide. The mafia man Morelli in the speakeasy probably lied about everything he said, and why did the bar owner Studsy beat the hell
out of the pale man? Will we ever really know who murdered Julia Wolf? But I am intrigued by the title – The Thin Man…I won’t say too much because I don’t want to give it away, but the title is exceptionally clever and the more I consider it the more I find it to be the perfect title. The word “thin” can mean so many things beyond weight, and if you consider the various goals of the various characters in the novel, you will begin to understand what I mean.
What does it take to make new noir? I seem to only be able to turn to movies, which may not be completely considered noir but have the feel – like The Machinist, or Memento, where the solution that puts the focus back on the mind is taken care of by a character not being completely sane; or The Silence of the Lambs, where the crime solving is done precisely in the way it is done in Hammett, by clever dialogue between clever characters. (I have never read the books the movie is based off of, maybe it is worth a try.) There are twenty other films I could name, I am sure, (Fargo, Taxi Driver, Blood Simple, Pulp Fiction, Blade Runner, etc.) but I guess the question is still left at what it takes to write it, what must be present, and what must not be present – or what must be present and yet remain as hidden as possible to the reader. As always, I am very interested in the structure of things, and the only problem with noir is, the point is to make the structure utterly confusing. All the more interesting for investigation, I say.