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.

Review of The Sisters Brothers


Don’t get the wrong idea when you notice that seal on the cover saying that The Sisters Brothers was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize.  Yes, this quirky crime novel dressed up in cowboy clothes may owe more to its high-falutin literary roots than to its “genre” kin, but it tells a compelling and character-driven story for all that.  Reviewers have waxed witty in describing this novel, and a number of them have been right on the money.  The LA Times compares this to something that could be written by the author of No Country for Old Men and The Road, that is “if Cormac McCarthy had a sense of humor.”  Esquire magazine describes this novel as “a kind of True Grit told by Tom Waits.”  Both these comparisons are pretty apt.  Sisters Brothers can be grim and violent at times but it wins you over with its strangely loveable characters and its infectiously funny narrative voice.

Our narrator is Eli Sisters, the more amiable of the two title characters, who are a duo of hired killers from Oregon City in 1851.  Hired by a ruthless boss known only as The Commodore, Eli and Charlie set out on a horseback trek to Sacramento, California, where they are to murder a gold miner named Hermann Kermit Warm.  Along the way, the brothers encounter all manner of colorful Old West characters, but I wouldn’t describe the novel as picaresque, as some reviewers have done.  The initial goal of finding and murdering Warm remains the primary motivation of action throughout the novel, even if Charlie and Eli get into other scrapes along the way.

Charlie Sisters is cold-blooded killer, and even if Eli is slightly less of a sociopath than his brother, he’s not above drawing his pistol when he sees red.  As you can well imagine, there’s plenty of brutal violence in this novel, some of it bizarrely casual.  While it’s never gratuitous, readers should still be prepared for some blood.

But any coarseness aside, this is a beautifully written novel.  The prose feels deliberately awkward, almost angular with its choppy yet poetic phrases.  If you’re at all curious about this novel, try reading the first chapter – it’s only two pages long.  That small taste will let you know if this is a book you might fall in love with because what ultimately draws you in here is deWitt’s gift for presenting Eli’s narrative with grace and clarity.  Through the oddly charming voice of this deeply troubled character, we begin to understand and to sympathize with Eli’s slightly off-kilter view of the world.  As readers, we find ourselves connecting with him as he begins to question this horrible way of life that he and his brother have chosen for themselves.  As we turn the pages, we cannot help but hope that the Sisters Brothers can find a way to escape this darkness of their own making.