What is noir? It’s one of those catch-all concepts, an I-know-it-when-I-see-it designation, as elusive as a Santa Ana wind. It’s an American genre with a French name, a literary style perhaps best understood through the lens of film: atmospheric black and white. As a category, noir dates back to the 1920s and the writers who contributed to the pulp magazine Black Mask. These included Raymond Chandler, who published his first story there in 1933, as well as Erle Stanley Gardner, Raoul Whitfield, Dashiell Hammett—who introduced the Continental Op, an archetypal detective who never reveals his name, in October 1923—and the now largely forgotten Paul Cain, whose brutal, jazzy 1933 novel, Fast One, reconfigured Southern California crime fiction with a bang. “As Kells went through the door,” Cain writes in an early chapter, “the Captain said, ‘Where were you last night?’ Kells turned. ‘I was drunk. I don’t remember.’ ” The exchange recalls a line from Hammett, who in his 1930 novel, The Maltese Falcon, insists, “I distrust a man that says when. If he’s got to be careful not to drink too much it’s because he’s not to be trusted when he does.” Both moments are bleakly funny (cynical humor is among the genre’s hallmarks), but even more, both stake out a worldview in which hope, or even memory, is unreliable and betrayal lurks at the heart of every conversation, every interaction, every exchange or confrontation with the world.
For all noir’s roots in the 1920s, the 1930s were its first golden age. In 1934 and 1936, that other Cain, James M. (a failed screenwriter and former managing editor of the New Yorker), published his first novel, The Postman Always Rings Twice, and serialized his second, Double Indemnity (it appeared as a book in 1943)—not just genre masterpieces but also among the finest American fiction, period, of the decade. Horace McCoy presented murder as an act of compassion in They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? (1935), set at a Santa Monica dance marathon. What such works share, not unlike Fast One and The Maltese Falcon, is an existential outlook: a sense of the universe as a lost place, desperate, where bad things happen and people are taken advantage of—or worse, take advantage of themselves. “They spoke quickly, as though they were saying things that scalded their mouths, and had to be cooled with spit,” Cain writes in 1941’s Mildred Pierce—not a noir, but noir-inflected—describing a couple splitting up. “Indeed, the whole scene had an ancient, almost classical ugliness to it, for they uttered the same recriminations that have been uttered since the beginning of marriage, and added little of originality to them, and nothing of beauty.”
Cain is right; at its core, noir speaks to elemental troubles and frustrations. At the same time, the power of his writing, and of the genre, had as much to do with its vernacular aspects—its accessibility—as with its “ancient, almost classical” motifs. “I make no conscious effort to be tough, or hard-boiled, or grim,” he acknowledged. “…I merely try to write as the character would write, and I never forget the average man, from the fields, the streets, the bars, the offices, and even the gutters of his country, has acquired a vividness of speech that goes beyond anything I could invent.” What he’s describing is the voice of popular imagination, which is the territory out of which noir evolves. By 1939, when Chandler put out his first novel, The Big Sleep, noir had become its own sort of counternarrative, rejecting hope or even aspiration for the darkness and desolation beneath the surface of American life.
Chandler’s detective, Philip Marlowe, is a finely rendered character wrestling with complication and complicity. Like most noir antiheroes, he is a free agent, a man with a rigorous moral code who must nonetheless do right by people who are themselves not always right and good. Corruption drips from the pages of The Big Sleep, beginning with the opening sequence, in which Marlowe visits the Sternwood mansion, reportedly based on Greystone, the Beverly Hills estate where, on February 16, 1929, Ned Doheny, the son of Southern California oil baron Edward Doheny, died in an apparent murder-suicide. Seven years earlier, the younger Doheny had served as his father’s bagman, delivering “$100,000 in a black leather satchel,” notes the writer Richard Rayner, “to Interior Secretary Albert Fall. In exchange Doheny got the lease on a naval oil reserve, worth some $100 million. It all came out as part of the Teapot Dome scandal that brought down Warren Harding’s administration.”
Talk about the darkness and desolation of American life.
Marlowe meets Carmen Sternwood, “twenty or so, small and delicately put together…[with] little sharp predatory teeth as white as fresh orange pith and as shiny as porcelain.” If Carmen is one sort of trouble, her father, General Sternwood, is another—old and sickly, a hothouse flower condemned to a sweltering greenhouse full of orchids, a forest of them, “with nasty meaty leaves and stalks like the newly washed fingers of dead men. They smelled as overpowering as boiling alcohol under a blanket.” In just a few pages, Chandler sets the stage for his entire oeuvre, framing Los Angeles as an artificial jungle populated by feral children and rich men rotting in the heat. His is a vision that lingers, infusing a lot of what comes after, from Joan Didion’s Play It As It Lays (1970) to Bret Easton Ellis’s Less Than Zero (1985). “What did it matter where you lay once you were dead?” Chandler writes. “In a dirty sump or in a marble tower on top of a high hill? You were dead, you were sleeping the big sleep, you were not bothered by things like that. Oil and water were the same as wind and air to you. You just slept the big sleep, not caring about the nastiness of how you died or where you fell. Me, I was part of the nastiness now.”
For Marlowe, that nastiness has more than a little to do with the Depression, which marks a lot of early noir like a stigmata or a brand. This makes sense, for the 1930s were nothing if not a treacherous decade, in which the prevailing narratives, public and private, grew tangled and the promises were left unkept. Gangsters became folk heroes: John Dillinger, Bonnie and Clyde. Edward Anderson’s 1937 country noir, Thieves Like Us, is built around such a figure, a bank robber who pursues crime reluctantly, even as his outlaw legend grows. In You Play the Black and the Red Comes Up (1938), Eric Knight—better known for the children’s classic Lassie Come-Home—writes about a man who follows his wayward wife from the Dust Bowl to California only to fall into an empty, peripatetic life. Early in the novel, Knight describes a boxcar traveling west: “There was a bunch of floaters inside who were all heading for California because there was a man there going to be elected governor who would take all the money from the millionaires and give $50 a week to every man without a job.” The man, of course, is Upton Sinclair, who ran for governor in 1934 on the EPIC (End Poverty in California) platform but lost, though he did amass nearly 900,000 votes.
California appears to have come into being with noir in mind. Why? Because it was a new place, or perceived as one: “west of the west,” to borrow Theodore Roosevelt’s phrase, where the old rules did not apply. Out here on the edge of the continent, desperation came with the territory—especially if you didn’t get what you wanted. “The sun was shining,” McCoy writes in his 1938 novel, I Should Have Stayed Home, “the kind of sun I’d always been afraid of before when I felt like this because of what it would show me, but now I didn’t care.” The setting is Hollywood, where the narrator, an aspiring actor named Ralph Carston, has come in search of fame or, perhaps, destiny; the title reveals, in no uncertain terms, how that has gone.
McCoy’s is hardly the only fiction to frame the movie business through a noirish lens or the Southern California sunlight as a blighted curse. “Where else should they go but California, the land of sunshine and oranges?” Nathanael West asks in The Day of the Locust, published a year after McCoy’s novel and the same year as The Big Sleep. “…Once there, they discover that sunshine isn’t enough. They get tired of oranges, even of avocado pears and passion fruit. Nothing happens. They don’t know what to do with their time.” The boredom, the dashed expectations, the sense of being trapped in a place once regarded as a paradise…it’s the essence of noir. “They have,” West concludes of these arrivals, “been cheated and betrayed.”
If the Hollywood novel is not noir exactly, there is without question a relationship. What is the motion picture industry, after all, if not a landscape of disrupted dreams? Perhaps the most useful way to consider it is in terms of what Mike Davis calls, in City of Quartz: Excavating the Future in Los Angeles, “the master dialectic of sunshine and noir”—a rubric that explains the genre as not just category but also attitude. Noir is what you get when the sunlight fades but you have nowhere else to go. Noir is the flip side of the paradisal promise California claims to represent. We see it in McCoy and West, in Budd Schulberg’s What Makes Sammy Run? (1941) and Gavin Lambert’s gimlet-eyed The Slide Area (1959). Even Chandler wrote a Hollywood novel of sorts, The Little Sister, published in 1949 and said to have been inspired by his experiences at the studios. (Among his scripts is the one for Billy Wilder’s 1944 adaptation of Double Indemnity.) Then there is Leigh Brackett, who worked with William Faulkner on the screenplay of The Big Sleep (1946) and also wrote a series of crime novels beginning with 1944’s No Good from a Corpse, and Dorothy B. Hughes, whose magnificent 1947 novel, In a Lonely Place (filmed in 1950 with Humphrey Bogart), begins as a man follows a studio worker down the California Incline on a foggy night in Santa Monica. “He knew she heard him,” Hughes writes menacingly, “for her heel struck an extra beat, as if she had half stumbled, and her steps went faster. He didn’t walk faster, he continued to saunter but he lengthened his stride, smiling slightly. She was afraid.”
Hollywood, of course, helped drive noir in another way: by offering pulp writers paying work. In 1957, Jim Thompson (best known for his novels The Killer Inside Me and The Grifters) came to Southern California to work with Stanley Kubrick on Paths of Glory after collaborating with the director on The Killing, based on Lionel White’s racetrack heist caper Clean Break. A decade earlier, David Goodis—the greatest, and darkest, of the classic noir writers—had made a similar move, heading west to sign with Warner Bros. Goodis’s 1946 novel, Dark Passage, set in San Francisco, was filmed the next year as a Bogart-Bacall vehicle; it involves a man wrongly convicted of murder who has plastic surgery to disguise himself after a prison escape. “It was a tough break,” Goodis begins. “Parry was innocent. On top of that he was a decent sort of guy who never bothered people and wanted to lead a quiet life. But there was too much on the other side and on his side of it there was practically nothing. The jury decided he was guilty. The judge handed him a life sentence and he was taken to San Quentin.” That’s as concise and pointed an opening as can be imagined, a vivid example, in both its sparseness and its sense of resignation, of noir style. Yet Dark Passage was less, it turned out, Goodis’s big break than his only one; in 1950, he returned home to Philadelphia, moving back into his parents’ house, where he spent the next 17 years cranking out paperback originals, until his death at 49.
Goodis’s experience is a reminder that some noir novelists lived it as they wrote it, on the fringes of the culture, their work disposable, not regarded as respectable, their reputations marginal at best. As the critic Edmund Wilson opined in a 1945 piece for the New Yorker, “the reading of detective stories is simply a kind of vice that, for silliness and minor harmfulness, ranks somewhere between crossword puzzles and smoking.” Wilson was wrong, but that perception lingered well past the 1940s and 1950s; it only began to shift in the 1980s, after Barry Gifford, who would go on to write Wild at Heart (1990), founded his Black Lizard imprint at Berkeley’s Creative Arts Book Company. “I purchased 13 Thompson titles right off the top,” Gifford told me once. “Some of them had been out of print for 30 years, and there was no demand at all.” From 1984 until 1990, when it was sold to Random House, Black Lizard issued more than 80 titles, most so hard to find that they might as well have been lost. The list features work by Goodis—including Down There (1956), source for François Truffaut’s 1960 film, Shoot the Piano Player—and Thompson, as well as Steve Fisher’s Hollywood thriller I Wake Up Screaming (1941); Charles Willeford’s Pick-Up (1955), which recounts an interracial relationship in 1950s San Francisco; Fast One; and You Play the Black and the Red Comes Up.
For many readers, myself included, Black Lizard was an inflection point. It reintroduced the genre, but it also updated the terms. Like the 1930s, the 1980s were a troubled decade, marked by recession, political conflict, the pandemic of AIDS. In California, this carried over into the 1990s, with Rodney King and O.J. Simpson, earthquakes, fires, floods. A culture of disruption requires a literature of disruption. This is what noir provides. Wilson to the contrary, the genre has long had an air of cultural critique or, at least, commentary; just think about all those floaters sitting in that boxcar, taking the long passage to California to collect their $50 a week.
That’s the tradition in which Walter Mosley began writing his first Easy Rawlins novel, Devil in a Blue Dress, which appeared in 1990; the series, comprising 14 books thus far, takes its Black detective from 1948 to 1968, a period that encompasses redlining, housing covenants, the Red Scare, and the Watts Rebellion. It’s a strategy inspired by Chandler, who in his last great work, The Long Goodbye (1953), shows us a vulnerable Philip Marlowe, reckoning with growing older, living with the burdens of his past. Still, even Chandler didn’t conceive of detective fiction as a social document in the way that Mosley and his contemporaries have. After three novels about Juniper Song, a Korean American feminist investigator who idolizes Marlowe, Steph Cha pushed the bounds of her own vision and the genre with last year’s Your House Will Pay, which builds from the unrest of the 1990s to investigate the lingering wounds and unresolved tensions that scar two families, one Korean and the other Black, in present-day Los Angeles. Naomi Hirahara’s Mas Arai is a gardener who came to California after surviving Hiroshima; a second Hirahara series, involving a rookie Los Angeles police officer named Ellie Rush, unfolds in the city as it is now, with light rail and a revitalized downtown and a deep understanding and recognition of Southern California’s many overlapping communities. Berkeley’s Owen Hill, a longtime buyer at Moe’s Books, is the author of two novels, The Chandler Apartments and The Incredible Double, that revolve around a bisexual detective and book scout named Clay Blackburn; the books pay homage to, and upend, the conventions of the genre. “She was a bundle of clichés,” Clay confides knowingly in the latter, “but again, I wasn’t noticing. Or maybe it’s that in Berkeley we live with a different set of clichés.”
This is not a break so much as it is an evolution—or maybe it’s just that noir is infinitely flexible. Rather than “silliness and minor harmfulness,” it is in fact a living literature. Like Cha’s, Hill’s path begins with Chandler; he coedited The Annotated Big Sleep in 2018. But like Cha, he (or Hirahara or Mosley) understands that noir is as expansive as it needs to be. “I don’t know how long I stood there,” Mosley writes in Little Scarlet, his novel of the Watts Rebellion. “I was in no hurry. I had death and sex and race on the brain. No matter which way I turned in my mind, there was one of those vast problems.” Vast, yes. Insurmountable, perhaps. But the legacy of noir is that we can’t avoid them. Even—or especially—in a universe where redemption is elusive and there is no way to set things right.
David L. Ulin is Alta’s books editor.
Read more from Alta‘s Fall 2020 Noir Special Section.