From time to time I like to go to a bar on the Lower East Side of Manhattan called The Magician. It’s the décor that draws me. The Magician has the straight lines, dark wood and high polish of early-to-midcentury art deco style that make me feel, for an hour or two, like the hero of some hardboiled detective novel. A Sam Spade, say, or a Philip Marlowe — strong men who are savvy and self-sufficient, men who know their own minds.
The truth is, I’m a lot less confident than they are. Like everyone else, I worry — about money, work, relationships, the usual things. In good moments I feel like I’ve got it pretty much together. In worse ones, it seems that disaster could be just around the next corner. That’s when it’s good to sit at The Magician and pull myself together, preferably with a good crime novel by my side.
I’m not the only one who has the noir fantasy, and it’s not just a question of finding the right furniture. Since the Black Lizard imprint began reissuing forgotten crime novels in the 1980s, other publishers — some quite prestigious — have piled on. The Library of America has issued a bundle of anthologies, including a recent collection of novels by Jewish writer David Goodis, and The New York Review of Books has come out with a new edition of “The Expendable Man” by Dorothy B. Hughes, one of the few female noir authors. Then there is the retro-style Hard Case Crime house, founded in 2004, which recently published its 108th book, “The Twenty-Year Death” by Ariel S. Winter. And there are plenty of other titles, besides.
Whereas crime fiction was once strictly for the pulps, nowadays it’s high culture. “Goodis is a crime novelist, but only in the way that Herman Melville is a nautical novelist and Cormac McCarthy is a writer of westerns,” Nathaniel Rich wrote recently in The New York Review of Books. On The New Yorker’s website, Christine Smallwood recently claimed of Hughes that “her brilliant descriptive powers make and unmake reality.” Some on-the-pulse literary journals, such as the Los Angeles Review of Books, even have dedicated critics just for noir.
These praises are deserved, and not particularly controversial. The rediscovery of overlooked writers is a long-standing hobby of the literary world, and the popularization of past aesthetics a hobby of the culture at large. (Think of the midcentury inspiration for TV shows like “Mad Men,” or the speakeasy setting of “Boardwalk Empire.”) The stigma of pulp magazines has, for at least a few decades now, become a selling point. But there is something about noir novels and their protagonists that strikes just the right tone for a worried age. Since noir was invented, it seems as though each generation has rediscovered and reinvented it — from the war-torn 1940s to the post-Reagan ’80s. No wonder it’s popular again in our own recession-prone time.
In their archetypal form, pioneered by writers like Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler, hardboiled stories followed the detective model, with a private eye hired to investigate some shady goings-on. These are men’s men who speak in clipped sentences, crack dry jokes and drink and smoke with earthy vitality. Though pursued by women, they are as likely to turn down sexual favors as to take advantage of them. Actors like Humphrey Bogart (“The Maltese Falcon,” “The Big Sleep”) and Elliott Gould (“The Long Goodbye”) portray them on film. Chandler wrote in his 1944 essay, “The Simple Art of Murder,” that this character “must be a complete man and a common man and yet an unusual man…. He must be the best man in his world and a good enough man for any world.” In short, “He is the hero, he is everything.”
Yet this formula is the exception as much as the rule. Plenty of noir novels are narrated by the criminal, or by narrators who are neither cop nor robber. “The Big Clock,” a 1946 book by pulp novelist, poet and Partisan Review founding editor Kenneth Fearing, is told from the point of view of nearly every character in it. Even the more typical noir protagonists are better exhibits of 20th-century alienation and anomie than they are of big-city bluster (a reason, perhaps, that American noir was always more appreciated in France than at home). Though they may be smart and tough, they live marginal lives with few real friends. They may put on a show of indifference when it comes to money, but they are usually in need of it. They may get the girl, but they rarely keep her. Despite an aura of self-assurance, they are astonishingly vulnerable.