Meditations on Noir

We use the French term noir because it was the French who first recognized the deeper social and philosophical work being performed in what were essentially considered commercial, or even “pulp,” crime novels. There’s a reason Albert Camus claimed his inspiration for The Stranger, his bleak novel of a disaffected murderer, drew its inspiration from James M. Cain’s noir classic The Postman Always Rings Twice. Both novels are existentialist masterpieces. With his dark trench coat and a cigarette dangling from his lips au bec, Camus looks the part of a brooding French philosopher. We expect him to be deeply psychological and of course he doesn’t disappoint us.
By contrast, Cain looks every bit the bespectacled journalist he was, but he took sun-drenched Southern California as his milieu for darker explorations. He knew Los Angeles back when it seemed like paradise and you could still smell salty ocean air and the perfume of orange groves above the smog. But he also knew that pretty scenery doesn’t make humans behave any less horribly to each other. Even though we expect (and get) sordid crimes and wicked twist endings from Cain’s novels, we read them primarily for the brisk, satisfying plots and the unethical characters who come to bad ends.

Noir novels are the 20th-century version of gothic potboilers. These books take us behind the scenes of the trashy stories we see splashed across the covers of American tabloids. We expect the cheap titillation of tawdry sex and back-alley murders. We certainly don’t think of ourselves as embarking on heavy philosophical explorations of humanity’s place in a Godless universe. America doesn’t do philosophy, at least not that we’re willing to admit.

However, Cain delivers with both barrels. He’s got one loaded with all trashiness the public has been primed to expect, and the other barrel is packed with the same unflinching self-examination practiced by Camus and Jean-Paul Sartre.

And it wasn’t just James M. Cain who wrote these sorts of things, though he did it first and best with his first three novels, a trifecta of noir brilliance – The Postman Always Rings Twice, Double Indemnity, and Mildred Pierce. But a whole host of other American noir writers emerged during the 30’s, 40’s, and 50’s. Proto-noirist Cornell Woolrich wrote not only a brilliant series of novels with Black in the title but also Rear Window, which Hitchcock adapted into his brilliantly claustrophobic film. After Cain, David Goodis found the most favor with French readers. In 1960, François Truffaut turned his novel Shoot the Piano Player into a brilliant film. The grande dame of noir, Patricia Highsmith wrote her Talented Mr. Ripley series as well as Strangers on a Train and countless other wicked gems. For a delicious taste of Highsmith’s genius for psycho-sexual tension, check out the underappreciated 2015 film Carol which adapts her 1952 novel The Price of Salt. Though his talent was uneven due to his bouts of alcoholism, Jim Thompson wrote a dozen or more indispensible noir classics, including The Killer Inside Me, Pop. 1280, The Grifters, Savage Night, and (my personal favorite) After Dark, My Sweet.


These authors were the luminaries, but many other noir writers emerged in this era. Some wrote quickly for money. Others had just one or two brilliant moments in the sun. Yet, prolific or not, they all still understood the basic premise of a bleak worldview they were promulgating. Living in the wake of World War I with all its fresh horrors, followed by the global grind of the Depression, and then emerging into what Charles Willeford called the “new forms of ugly” manifest during and after World War II with its twin horrors of the Holocaust and the atomic bomb.

In the face of all this, noir authors wrote what came naturally to them, gritty, grinding crime novels that tried to make sense of a world where God is dead, or at least sleeping. Noir became essential because it confronted the fact that we are ultimately alone in the universe. Worse, we no longer have any illusions that anything can save us from ourselves.

Jim Thompson Novels Reissued

I’m thrilled to see that Mulholland Books has reissued such a sizable chunk of the Jim Thompson oeuvre. The time is ripe for a new generation to discover this “Dimestore Dostoyevsky,” as noir scholar Geoffrey O’Brien dubbed him in the afterward to Black Lizard’s 1986 edition of After Dark, My Sweet. The Vintage arm of Random House sensed that Barry Gifford and company were onto something and snatched up the Black Lizard imprint.


Vintage subsequently made quite a few Thompson novels available in the more aesthetically pleasing trade paperback format. Still, those books came out over twenty years ago and can be hard to find. Sadly too, Vintage quit digging so deep into the catalogue of forgotten writers like David Goodis and Harry Whittington and used their version of Black Lizard mostly to produce new editions of Chandler and Hammett who are formidable talents of course but who had already been readily available.

As I argued in my own Master’s thesis a few years back, Thompson still deserves a much larger audience than he’s ever managed to attract in the US, but his vision is perhaps too unrelentingly dark to achieve mainstream acceptance here. Thompson’s Marxist sympathies shine through in his savage critiques of America’s capitalistic positivism and that makes folks uneasy. So too does his insistence that criminal misfits and killers are not the monstrous others we’d like to believe; the ugly face of humanity is right there in the mirror if we’re willing to take an unflinching look. Indeed, Jordan Foster gets it exactly right in the title of her piece for Publishers Weekly: “The Killers Inside Us.” This is the mark of Thompson’s break from our post-Enlightenment pieties.

The French get Thompson, which is perhaps why we still use the French word noir to describe this sort of crime fiction. The best film adaptation of a Thompson novel is probably still Tavernier’s Coup de Torchon, which moves Pop. 1280 to French West Africa. As O’Brien writes in that afterward, the average reader of mystery fiction “wants his anxieties alleviated, not aroused,” which is why cozies are so popular with invalids and retirees. And perhaps it’s true that most crime fiction is essentially “conservative” in that it tends to resolve any rupture in the social order (such as murder or theft) by reasserting that order and ensuring that the lawless are appropriately punished.


But Thompson doesn’t work that way.

A relentless experimenter in literary forms, he continually breaks genre conventions to claw through that paper-and-ink barrier that separates author and reader. The end of Savage Night is a case in point, but there are plenty of other examples. One of Thompson’s crazed narrators unravels so completely that divergent voices occupy alternating lines in the final pages of the novel.

Personally, I’m seizing on this excuse to refresh my memory of some favorite titles and revisit the ones I don’t recall as well. Thompson’s work always rewards multiple visits and he scarcely ever wrote a novel longer than 50,000 words.

Cheers to Mulholland for reissuing these novels with new forewords by a number of today’s best crime writers (with a few curious omissions). Here’s hoping Thompson gets under the skin of a whole new generation of readers.killer-inside-me