Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Série Noire Project: Introduction

What is
noir fiction? The Série Noire Project is a modest attempt to answer that question from one particular historical perspective.

The term noir was first applied to a particular sort of novel by the French publisher Gallimard when they launched their “Série Noire” in 1945. The series is still going strong in 2010, having now reprinted nearly 2500 titles. As a result, the Série Noire today seems less a clearly defined aesthetic landscape than a business. But my interest is not in the long-term success of the Série Noire and the variety of titles they have published. Rather, I am interested to look at the first Série Noire novels and what they have in common. What shared elements resulted in these books becoming the starting point for our understanding of noir?

The Série Noire was the brainchild of Marcel Duhamel, who was also one of its first translators. In 1948, three years after the founding of the series, Duhamel offered this explanation of the Série Noire’s aesthetic:

Reader beware: Novels in the Série Noire can be dangerous if they fall into the wrong readers’ hands. Amateur detectives like Sherlock Holmes have no business here. Nor does the unfailing optimist. The immorality of these books repulses conventional morality. Good intentions have no place here as well. Simply put, this is a world of amorality. The spirit of these books is rarely conformist. You will see cops more corrupt than the criminals they chase. A sympathetic detective will not always solve the mystery. Indeed, sometimes there will be no mystery, and sometimes, not even a detective. And so? . . . What remains is action, anxiety, beatings, massacres—violence in every evil shape and form. As in good films, characters reveal their souls through action, and readers fond of introspective literature will be left to turn backflips. There is also love—preferably brutal—messy passion, merciless hate. Briefly, our goal is simple: to stop you from sleeping.

[To read this passage in the original French, go here.]
The most important points to note in Duhamel:
1. In noir novels, there is no moral center.
2. In noir novels, there is criminal violence.
3. In noir novels, character is revealed through action.
4. From a reader-response perspective, the hallmark of noir is its unsettling effect.
Keeping Duhamel’s comments in mind, my plan is to offer a definition of noir through a reading of the first ten novels in the Série Noire:
1. Peter Cheyney, Poison Ivy (1937; Série Noire 1945)
2. Peter Cheyney, This Man Is Dangerous (1936; SN 1945)
3. James Hadley Chase, No Orchids for Miss Blandish (1939; SN 1946)
4. Horace McCoy, No Pockets in a Shroud (1937; SN 1946)
5. Don Tracy, Last Year’s Snow (1937; SN 1947)
6. James Hadley Chase, Eve (1945; SN 1947)
7. Peter Cheyney, Don’t Get Me Wrong (1939; SN 1947)
8. Raymond Chandler, The Lady in the Lake (1943; SN 1948)
9. Peter Cheyney, You’d Be Surprised (1940; SN 1948)
10. James Hadley Chase, The Flesh of the Orchid (1948; SN 1948)
The most striking thing about this list is that seven of the ten books are by Peter Cheyney and James Hadley Chase, British writers who today are generally considered second-rate imitators of the American innovators (James M. Cain, Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler, etc.). This list, however, suggests that while Cheyney and Chase may not be important to the long-term artistic development of noir, they may nevertheless help us to understand the genre.

So stay tuned. In the months ahead, in addition to the usual Noirboiled stuff, I will be working my way through the ten books listed above and seeing what I can see.

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