I grew up as a reader in a house full of books. At first I started with children's classics like Robinson Crusoe and Julie of the Wolves. Just as I was entering my teens, though, I discovered my father's collection of mystery novels. I snuck the works of Chandler, Hammett, and others up to my bedroom and read them under the covers late at night, when I was sure that my parents were asleep. Ellroy's The Black Dahlia, which he calls "a valediction in blood," left me sleepless and staring at the ceiling for weeks, sure that I would come to an immediate and gory end if I so much as closed my eyes.
It was only much later that I learned to call these novels noir, or to think about them as part of an American tradition of mystery writing and film. At the time they dominated my inner life.
I identified myself with the characters in these books. They represented a different world from that of my peers, who were just beginning to decide they wanted to be doctors, schoolteachers, and lawyers. Personally, I would have settled for being a gangster's moll, or even a mysterious heiress with a cocaine habit. But my ideal alter ego was the prostitute with the heart of gold, who in a fit of morality turns in her crime connections, or falls in love with the slightly seedy but sexy hero.
I admit that at the time I didn't quite know what a prostitute was, but I did know how they were portrayed. They were heroic: beautiful, sexy, rich and independent. They were women on the move, and I wanted to be just like them. At a time when earth-mother chic was just beginning its resurgence, I wanted elegance. My friends begged their parents for Birkenstocks, while secretly I hoped for red stiletto heels. I practised smoking everything from carrot sticks to toothpicks, hoping to find just the right nonchalant gesture to send a curl of imaginary smoke up past my face. I begged my older friends to teach me how to "slink."
But eventually I decided that this wasn't the best idea. As I read more, I decided I wasn't content to be proved a crook and dragged away by the law, or to flee the scene of the crime, or to die seductively. Even worse was the possibility of fading gently into the back-ground, leaving the hero to morosely slug down several fifths of whiskey and move on to his next case. I didn't want to be a prop anymore. (By this point I also had learned about the other half of a prostitute's job. Suddenly those red heels weren't terribly glamorous anymore.)
I wasn't willing to give up on my fantasy world, though. I just moved my imaginary self within that world and decided that I was going to be a detective. I pulled my grandfather's old hats out of the closet and borrowed a cigar from a friend's father. Standing in front of the mirror, I'd practice saying "Sho, shweethaht" in my best Bogie voice. I carried a pen and pad everywhere and made notes on suspicious individuals (including my eighth-grade science teacher); I bought clothes based on whether you could conceal a gun in them.
Eventually, of course, I outgrew this kind of pretending. But as someone who has been involved with noir for a while, I am surprised by the sudden resurgence of interest in noir film and fiction. The heyday of noir was in the late '40s and early '50s. Between then and the middle of the '90s, the genre was nearly ignored.
In the last three to four years, noir has become culturally rehabilitated. The recent success of L.A. Confidential is one example: the re-release of Purple Noon (based on Patricia Highsmith's The Talented Mr. Ripley, with hunky French actor Alain Delon) is another. In the world of books, James Ellroy's novels are selling well. Ross MacDonald's works have been reissued in a Vintage edition, and the Harvard Bookstore featured a compilation of crime novels of the '40s and '50s only a month or two ago. I am compelled to ask: why now? Why are people suddenly interested in noir again after almost 50 years?
Money, in its various forms, is one of the main subjects of noir: how people get it, use it, keep it, lose it, steal it, and above all kill for it. The world of noir is populated by gangsters, heiresses and thieves. The detective's work is usually motivated more by the promise of hard cash than anything else, though there are exceptions (notably Ellroy's haunted policemen in The Big Nowhere and The Black Dahlia). Now, as in the '40s when noir was at its peak, the economy is booming in an uprecedented way. Perhaps the consequences of money, its slovenly side, only interest readers when lots of money is to be had for the asking. The topics of noir are most easily available to a society with lots of extra money.
But I believe that there is another reason as well. People in the '90s are suddenly being overloaded with information. Between the Internet and the proliferation of beepers and laptops and cell phones, many are constantly getting input and information. Most people have to behave like detectives in order to sift out the useful information from the useless. Similarly, the world of noir is a world of detectives, a world where mere information cannot help, where the world is a labyrinth and the city a maze. In increasingly urban, increasingly over-loaded lives, noir reflects the way that individuals are beginning to define themselves in an information culture.
The reasons noir has been repopularized may be specific to our era, but ironically they give me hope for the future of noir. Whatever the short-term future of the genre, I think there will be another resurgence of interest during the next technological revolution (and the economic boom that accompanies it). We may not be able to imagine what that revolution will be, but I can tell you what people will be reading when it happens.
Jessica, of Quincy House, owns a trenchcoat but has never used it in the line of duty.
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