Dark Days Are Here Again

Why The Hardboiled Detective Is a Modern Hero

Dark Passages: The Jewish writer David Goodis is one of the lesser-known heroes of noir fiction.
courtesy Lou Boxer
Dark Passages: The Jewish writer David Goodis is one of the lesser-known heroes of noir fiction.

By Ezra Glinter

Published November 06, 2012, issue of November 09, 2012.
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The characters in Ariel Winter’s “The Twenty-Year Death” aren’t quite as dark as Goodis’s, but they, too, exhibit the hallmarks of classic noir protagonists. And so they should. Winter’s novel, which is really three interconnected novels, overtly imitates the styles of three other writers: Belgian detective storywriter Georges Simenon, Chandler and Jim Thompson, who, of them all, could compete with Goodis for sheer bleakness. The book is Winter’s first noir novel — his other professions include bookseller and children’s author — and it’s an impressive debut. The imitations of his predecessors are spot-on without seeming like postmodern pastiche, and add up to a delectable work in their own right.

While the final segment of Winter’s book, “Police at the Funeral,” narrated by a washed-up, alcoholic author named Shem Rosenkrantz, is the most depressing, it’s the second section, “The Falling Star,” that fits with what most people think of as noir fiction. That’s because it’s modeled on Chandler, who not only helped popularize the form, but also brought it to respectability. No less an authority than W.H. Auden wrote of Chandler that his “powerful and extremely depressing books should be read and judged, not as escape literature, but as works of art.”

In Winter’s case, instead of Chandler’s Philip Marlowe, the story stars Dennis Foster, a West Coast private eye who is hired to protect a Hollywood starlet but winds up investigating the murder of a less famous actress instead. Like Marlowe he’s a tough cookie, but full of barely submerged pathos. Consider, for example, where he lives:

My apartment was just one big room with a private bathroom and a small kitchenette in a closet…. The only window was in the bathroom and it was made of pebbled glass.

It’s hardly tripping the light fantastic, let alone the stuff of wish fulfillment. As Auden pointed out, it’s a mistake to think of noir as escape literature only.

Indeed, far from the invincible heroes of Hollywood or the fixers of popular imagination, noir protagonists are usually pathetic, marginal figures. And yet, if there’s a single quality that characterizes them, it’s resilience. They are beaten up, abused, defrauded and taken advantage of — and they stumble on. They absorb pain, disappointment and loss with a wry acceptance not much different from their response to success or pleasure. They are masters of a stoicism bordering on fatalism, and even, at times, seem to take their own lives lightly.

I find solace in identifying with such characters, however depressing they may be. They have their problems, but they deal with them unflinchingly. They may not have any big answers, but they have enough small ones to get by. And sometimes, with a well-timed joke or just a few lucky turns, they can have some fun, as well. It’s a homely philosophy — hardboiled, you might say — but it’ll do in a pinch. Enough, at least, for me to finish my drink and go home.

Ezra Glinter is the Forward’s deputy arts editor.


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