Thursday, July 06, 2006

Pessimism in Noir--a question

I think of noir fiction as being characterized by pessimism as much as anything else: there's no assumption of the "goodness" of man or of the possibility of achieving any kind of purity in life. Noir is about the impure streets, and one of the differences between noir and conventional mystery fiction is that the middle-class characters of the conventional mystery drive through the streets without stopping. The "cozy," characterized by drawing rooms, libraries, and the other trappings of Agatha Christie and the Clue board game, is the model for that sub-genre of crime that I'm lumping together as "mystery fiction." Some books, of course, cross back and forth across that line. Simenon, for example, peoples his novels with middle and lower middle class characters, yet there is a pervasive atmosphere of the streets (and of pessimism) in his Maigret novels (though these often hinge on that staple of the cozy mystery, the assembly of all the characters in a climactic unveiling of the Truth), and the non-Maigret novels are often claustrophobic family dramas of the lower-middle class (the home is in these novels a merciless trap rather than a refuge). I'm reminded of my taste for pessimism in noir by one more factor that irritates me in The Priest of Evil, which I've just commented on in the previous post. The villain in Joensuu's novel controls his victims by means of telepathy and hypnotism, unexplained by any other "daylight" version of what he's doing. He is even able to murder one victim through hypnotism, though I've heard that you can't actually make a hypnotized person do something that he or she would not be able to make him/herself do awake. The "spiritualist" aspect of The Priest of Evil harks back to the dawn of the mystery novel, in Poe, Wilkie Collins, etc., and that is not in itself a bad thing. Bringing that sense of menace to contemporary stories is an accomplishment to be envied. However, to speak more specifically about noir fiction, I don't think spiritualism has an appropriate place in this genre; fatalism, yes, even karma. But telepathy? Let me know what you think.

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