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The Light Inside Noir

by Tim Garvin | Dec 18, 2019 | Essay 

The following essay was published in The Strand Magazine

( on December 2, 2019.

In 2010, James Ellroy and Otto Penzler edited an anthology of noir fiction, The Best American Noir of the Century. A writer for the New Yorker asked Penzler what accounted for the popularity of such dark tales. He said, “Have you ever lifted up a rock and seen slugs and millipedes and other ugly creatures come out? We like to watch them.”

I’ve been wondering about that. In the end, I think Penzler is sort of right, sort of not.

But what is noir? It’s the species of the hard-boiled genre that Ellroy, in his introduction to the above anthology, contends “indicts the other subgenres of the hard-boiled school as sissified and canonizes the inherent human urge toward self-destruction.”

Again, for me, only sort of right.

Consider this bit of noir. A gunslinger rides into town (this is old west noir), sees a guy beating a mule with a two by four, tells the guy to quit it. The guy says, it’s my mule, I can beat him if I want to. The gunslinger draws his six-shooter, points it at the guy’s head for a long moment while the guy’s eyes go wide. Then the gunslinger shoots the mule. He says, “You can go ahead and beat him now.” That’s one noir gunslinger. He’s saying, don’t look to me, folks. Find your own way out. Which is a main noir point—life’s a maze, and you’re on your own—and a main noir charm—hang with me, and we’ll sluff off the corny hypocrisy of chumps. Because life’s a tough school, and sentiment is cheating. The gunslinger is a jerk maybe, but he’s a commanding jerk, and he talks cool, and maybe later he tells someone in the bar that he knew the guy was going to beat his mule to death after he left. Or maybe we have to guess that.

Now reimagine that scene. Same deal, except the guy beating the mule is black. The gunslinger draws his gun, holds it on the black guy, shoots the mule. But then he says, “I don’t like to see a (insert racial epithet) with a mule.” He’s still a jerk, but a way worse one. And he’s not even cool. He’s so much a worse jerk he’s no longer habitable as a noir protagonist. In fact, he has sent an invisible summons into the ethers of fiction for Clint Eastwood to hurry over and kill him. And Clint, or the actor playing him, will oblige if he can, and if he can’t (In the nourish No Country for Old Men he couldn’t.) his end will make us sad.

Or consider Out of the Past, the movie hailed as the noir standard. Robert Mitchum (who gets to say that perfect line, “If I’m going to die, I’m going to die last”) is a guy formerly in with a bad crowd and in love with a wrong gal. He’s sarcastic, cynical, and world-weary, but he’s got an inner guide, a line of good he won’t cross for no dame, no cause, no payday. Plus he loves a blond sweetheart now. He’s got a touch of nobility, and we like his company. In fact, the noir in the movie is more in the sultry lighting than the sultry characters, so much so that when a daylight scene occurs it’s faintly disconcerting. Mitchum’s Jeff  Bailey is not noir enough to kill your husband for you, like Frank Chambers in The Postman Always Rings Twice, but even Frank will offer a self-reflective grimace during the deed.

Which for me is a main thing. Because even in noir, at least one of the characters we have to hang with must be made habitable by some humanizing reluctance, even if his descent into depravity is complete. To endure his company, we need a flinch of conscience as he strangles the husband. We need gloom to shroud him as his dissolution deepens. Without the flinch and gloom, he’s just a psychopathic jerk and cries out for the righteousness of a Clint. Of course, in noir, Clint often fails to right things, and that may indeed be the writer taunting: hey, sissies, life too tough? But is that question fair? Because to lure us to the place where our hopes can be dashed, even the noir writer, the audacious beholder of slugs and centipedes, must employ the commonplace of all storytelling—the hero. His heroes may be disfigured by passion, but they must sense a light, however dim or disregarded that light may be. Without that light, they are only villains. Without that light, their end satisfies instead of saddens.

No doubt some experimental fiction attempts to write boldly and solely of villains. But it’s mostly ignored, and not because we are sissies. It’s ignored because, though Penzler and Ellroy are right about our attraction to darkness, that attraction is not due to our latent nihilism. It is because dark stories lead us, via a fallen hero, through the nether regions of our psyche, and there, in our depths, we find the possibility of redemption and new light. We are not looking for the dark. We are looking for the light beneath it. We may not have suffered the hero’s obsession with a tricky femme fatale, but we know, while doing the dishes or helping the kids with their homework, it’s not out of the question for us. It might even be tempting. Not for all, of course. For some, this noir business is unseemly. For others, it may simply be boring. Those who find it unseemly would likely benefit from a bracing dip into the dark waters of noir. As Rumi, in a Coleman Barks translation, says, “Don’t turn your head. Keep looking at the bandaged place. That’s where the light enters you.” Those who have plumbed their own darkness may find noir boring because they know darkness only too well. What they want now is light. Noir, in fact, may be a kind of social barometer that gauges the spiritus mundi of a culture or era. The more noir fascinates a people, the more obsessed they are with their shadow. After all, noir had its origin in the twenties after the vast, anonymous slaughter of the first world war.


And today? There’s plenty noir around, because noir, understood more broadly, is simply the darkness in us all, and that’s the time-honored starting point of storytelling. In noir, it’s generally the ending point too. But however deep and final the darkness, we get where we’re going by looking for the light.

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