Domenic Stansberry is an old friend. We’ve been locked up together in the Noble Hall faculty dorm at Vermont College of Fine Arts for ten days every six months since time began (it seems). He’s the brilliant Edgar Award-winning author of dark, dark, yes, noir-dark, novels set in the North Beach section of San Francisco. (Naked Moon is his most recent novel, published last year. Click on the image for more information.) His hero is Dante Mancuso, aka the Pelican (because of his nose). I spent a summer reading through the work a couple of years ago and really admired the North Beach series but also loved The Confession, the story of a San Francisco psychologist accused of murdering his wife (the plot twists and surprises are amazing).
Domenic’s “Noir Manifesto” is an essay about crime fiction, the history and metaphysics thereof, literature, politics and art. It’s a fine example of how, if you write knowingly about your passion, you end up writing about the meaning of art in general. This essay first appeared in The New Review of Literature Vol. 1 No. 1, October, 2003, but has not been widely available since then. Now it has found a home at Numéro Cinq, I hope for good.
by Domenic Stansberry
In 1982, after the publication of The Prone Gunman, Jean-Patrick Manchette, the great French crime writer, abandoned the genre altogether. Over the previous decade, he had written ten novels, all in the noir fashion: finely-honed, spare books of great originality and shocking violence. These books—which had made him famous as the father of the neo-polar, the New French crime novel—took the old plotlines of noir and recast them into hard-nosed political critiques. But after The Prone Gunman—having taken his style to its limit—Manchette gave it all up.
Manchette’s biographer, Jean-Francois Gérault, implies the reason for the novelist’s silence is there was simply nothing else to say. He had exhausted the genre. And though it is tempting to say that this exhaustion was Manchette’s alone—an artist at the end of his tether—the truth is the dilemma was not unique to Manchette. And is not. For writers of crime fiction find themselves in much the same situation today. With the present exhausted, the past littered with cliché.
Manchette was a socialist, disenchanted by the failure of French radicalism. When he turned to the crime novel in the early ’70’s, he recognized in the form—as Hammett had recognized before him—a reaction against modernism, with its dependence upon literary allusion, formal experimentation, and elevated diction. The crime novel, with its roots in the pulps, was a deliciously sub-literary form, born of the masses, and in that lack of pretension Manchette found a raw determinism that disdained the sentimental humanism of the bourgeois novel and exposed the corruptions and falsities of the established order.
At the time Manchette began working in the form, the crime novel in France had gone stale, dominated by stuffy procedurals that focused on the mechanics of crime solving. Manchette reinvigorated the form, partly by infusing his characters with an existential morality reminiscent of Camus, but also by refusing to romanticize or give purpose to the blunt violence that dominated his fiction.
Manchette’s novels have become available in America only recently, and Ben Ehrenreich, writing for the Village Voice, has been among the reviewers who have helped introduce Manchette to the American audience. Ehrenreich makes particular note of the narrative voice which Manchette uses to depict the noir landscape: how that voice grew increasingly sparse over the years, cinematic and unreflective, until by the time of The Prone Gunman, Manchette’s narrator all but refrains from depicting the interior life of his characters, instead focusing almost entirely on objective reality—a style that takes Hemmingway’s dictum of show-don’t-tell to a level of supreme detachment.
The result, in the end, is a chillingly violent, hard-paced narrative—much like that in Paul Cain’s The Fast One. But unlike Paul Cain, whose strength as a writer is that of primitivist, Manchette moves his characters with deliberate and complex allegorical intent.
The Prone Gunman, in translation by poet James Brook, is perhaps the best of Manchette’s novels. And the bleakest. It takes as its main character a professional assassin, Martin Terrier, who is employed by an American-run intelligence agency known only as the company. After ten years with the company Terrier returns to his home town to re-claim his childhood sweetheart, daughter of a provincial factory owner. With the money he has earned as a political assassin, Terrier hopes to take his lover away with him to an idyllic life. His sweetheart, though, is now an alcoholic housewife who mocks Terrier when he tries to seduce her; moreover, the company has no intentions of letting Terrier loose. The result is a violent chase culminating in a shoot out during which Terrier takes a bullet in the head. The bullet leaves him functional but without desire. In the end, like his father before him, he lives a somnambulist life, working as waiter in a café, and at night blathers unintelligibly in his sleep.
While Manchette’s earlier work engages in barbed political satire—aimed at the left as much as the right—The Prone Gunman portays, as Ehrenreich puts it “a conquered world bereft of choice and hope.” After the book was completed, Manchette was unable to finish another novel, and spent the remainder of his career writing screenplays and translating American crime writers.
In the trajectory of Manchette’s career as a noir writer it is possible to read the trajectory of the genre itself. In many ways, it is a genre frozen in time, or even gone backwards. In fact, if you examine the best seller racks on this side of the Atlantic, it is not hard to argue that the mainstream American crime novel is today, at the turn of the new century, in a state similar to that of its French counterpart in the sixties: weighed down by its conventions, by the expectations of the audience, and by the inelasticity of its publishers. Reduced to irrelevance, a distraction for bored readers in airports and beaches. A mere commodity.
But of course, crime fiction—with is roots in pulp fiction–has always been a commodity. What has really happened is that the darker world of noir has been displaced in the marketplace by a different kind of crime novel: the commercial thriller (more likely on its jacket puffery to announce itself a literary thriller, though in truth that genre all but expired with Graham Greene). And these thrillers, no matter the surface similarities to noir fiction, have aesthetic and political intentions quite the opposite of Manchette and those writers he admired.
The noir tradition in which Manchette was writing had its roots in the vernacular, and focused on the crimes of desire by people hemmed in by social conditions. Noir writers like Dave Goodis, Jim Thompson, Dorothy Hughes, Chester Himes and Charles Williams were social determinists whose work demonstrated considerable empathy for the little guy, the down- and-outer, the outsider who has been pushed out, excluded, trapped. Who then takes hopeless action to escape that trap—and ultimately fails.
In contrast, the primary ethos of the new breed of crime melodramas does not share such concerns. These books are instead much more akin to the old western dime novels—which focused on the rescue of Pollyanna tied to the railroad track. Pollyanna in the contemporary thriller may take on many forms. She may be a beautiful woman threatened by a serial killer. A boy threatened by an abusive father. Or even America itself, threatened by nuclear destruction, or terrorism, or an insane president. These novels may lobby on the behalf of some worthy cause—they may fall on this side or that of the political spectrum—but there is one thing that can be counted upon. The world can be divided neatly into good and evil. And good shall ultimately triumph.
Some may wager this affirmation, however simplistic, a good thing—but such moralizing is antithetical to the genre’s darkest and truest spirits. The purpose of most contemporary thrillers—with their middle class values and insistence upon illumination—is to marshal and subjugate the very impulses which gave birth to the noir sensibility. Their purpose is to destroy the underworld. And by this I do not mean the mere criminal underworld, but rather the underworld of the imagination, the secret realm of the psyche, the darkest realms of Hades that inhabit and animate the individual soul.
The originators of the genre had intentions altogether different.
In “The Murders in the Rue Morgue,” Edgar Allan Poe created his first tale of ratiocination, as he called it: a story in which the detective made use of analysis to solve crimes. This story engendered a raft of imitators, and a whole new genre sprung forth, of which the contemporary manifestation is the crime procedural, with its emphasis on police and judicial process, and the tracking of clues using inductive logic. If we look back at Poe, however, process and logic—indeed the act of analysis itself—are ultimately viewed as further manifestations of the supernatural. In “The Murders in the Rue Morgue,” C. Auguste Dupine’s methods of crime solving, though espousing an attachment to the analytical, ultimately rely on intuitive leaps and non-rational association. And in Poe’s subsequent tale of rationation, The Mystery of Marie Rogêt, Dupine’s brilliant analytical solution to the murder of a young woman in Paris is in the end overshadowed by a parallel crime, in a parallel reality—not in exotic Paris, but in everyday New York—in which the system of analysis ultimately fails. For Poe, the rational mind not only exists in service of the supernatural, but has its origins there—and his view of the analytic process emphasizes the paradoxical. As an artist, his interest was never in tying up loose ends. Quite the opposite. His interest was in the fissures, in the cracks between the perceived world and the unperceived—and in establishing lines of communication between those dualities.
The paths the crime story takes away from Poe are multitudinous and intertwined. Overseas to Arthur Doyle, and his drug addicted detective. To the American pulps, where its conventions merge with the dime western and find new manifestation in the work of John Carroll Daly, and later Hammett and Spillane. To the French. To Baudelaire, to Maurice Renard, author of The Hands of Orlac. To the German expressionists, Wiene and Lang, whose influences wend their way from German film, to Hollywood, thence back into American roman noir.
With such diverse influences, the crime novel is in some ways the richest of forms. At the same time, paradoxically, it has over the years become the most codified and conventional, with its numerous sub-genres, each with its own sets of rules and traditions, which writers challenge only at the risk of alienating reader and publisher alike. The result is that crime fiction is no longer the revolutionary medium it once was, but rather propaganda for the status quo. It has, in other words, become almost as conventional as the mainstream literary novel, with its insistence upon character development and the profundities of spiritual transformation.
In such circumstances, it is long past time for an explosion—a sundering of the conventions: Even if we must recognize the impossibility of taking off the shackles without putting them on again—and the fact that this year’s cuffs may admittedly not be at first recognized for what they are, new and glittering as the chains may be.
Over the last three decades, crime writers have sought to transform the genre by changing the face of various elements while leaving the underlying structural conventions intact. By changing the ethnicity and race of the main characters. By making the settings at once more exotic and realistically detailed. By emphasizing realism and logical process, in essence making the crime novel respectable: a kind of laboratory for social study. Such changes—whatever the social merits, or quality of the individual writers—are in the end baroque adornments. A dressing up of the corpse for another run around the block.
It is odd indeed that some of the most recent innovative noirs have been for the most part unclaimed by aficionados of the genre, though well regarded elsewhere. I am here thinking of Denis Johnson’s Angels, a hallucinatory road novel that begins in the Oakland Greyhound depot and ends in the prison death house. Or Paul Auster’s City of Glass trilogy, with its blending of post-modern and noir traditions. Or Haruki Murakami’s Hard-boiled Wonderland and the End of the World, which melds elements of science fiction and hard boiled noir.
It is tempting to argue that there is no choice now for the writer of crime—if he or she be anything other than a hack, an employee of New York accountants—than to turn the genre conventions upon their various heads. To do so in ways both sacrilegious and savage. Take the old icons and beat them into the dirt. Berate them. There may have been a time when Sherlock Holmes was a vital character—but over the years he has become an insufferable bore, with his pipe, his witticisms, his self-righteousness. And the shades of Marlowe and Sam Spade are on the verge of the same nattering senility.
But structural change, formal experimentation, a willingness to spit in the face of publishers, to disregard unintelligent readers, to kill off your lead character in the middle of a series, to bend the lines between fiction and non-fiction, to blur the lines of genre—or even to take the opposite tack, and be a steadfast loyalist, to work within the dying conventions while all around the house burns—all of these in the end are just tactics, addressing the symptoms but not the cause, doomed to fail if they do not recognize the true nature of the failing.
Because that which has been strangling the genre is the mentality that rationalism and logical must prevail. That order must be restored. That good must triumph.
Such are the assertions of small minds, of mercantilism. It is the jingoism of the day world, of the happy ending, of a material world desperately afraid of its nocturnal counterpart.
Poe’s tales of rationation have thus been oddly misconstrued as an embrasure of the analytic method, though the energy of his tales derives not from the airtight logic of their plots—because they are far from airtight—but from the place where the stories fracture, from the giant fission that drives all narrative. In The Fall of the House of Usher, for example, this fracture takes place, both literally and figuratively, at the moment when the House of Usher itself collapses, disappearing into the tarn. In Jim Thompson’s The Getaway, a similar moment occurs when Ma Santis appears from out of nowhere to rescue Doc McCoy and Carol from their pursuers, but instead ends up sending the jealous lovers on a hellish journey, through piles of excrement and watery caves, to the diabolical kingdom of El Rey. And in Dorothy Hughes’ Ride the Pink Horse, it is the moment when Sailor dances wildly in the square of the Fiesta—then turns and shoots the good cop who meant to do him well. It is through such cracks, such fissures in mere logic—when the perceived world and the unperceived overlap—that the reader sees to the other side, and thus falls into conversation with the underworld. With annihilation, with death itself. It is this conversation that is the ultimate goal of noir. Not redemption. Not social understanding. Not moral edification. And if we abandon this conversation—for the sake of mere morality—we who imagine ourselves practitioners will find ourselves rather like Manchette’s Martin Terrier, no longer the dangerous figures we once were, but rather waiters in a café, suffering from a bullet in the brain. Still able to function perhaps: to take orders. But our words will be inchoate, mere froth, and at night, like Terrier, we shall blather in our dreams.