Noir That Feels Like Noir

Urban fantasy as a genre has a lot of features I’ve loved throughout my reading life: a modern sensibility, elements of the fantastic and surreal, hidden worlds, magicians, and vampires.  The first book I remember writing, on a battered suitcase typewriter at age six, was an horror “novel” of about twenty pages that I later illustrated in colored pencil, about a detective named Charles Bulldog (yeah, I know – always me with the funny names) who discovers that his neighbor is Count Dracula.  Of course, Charles discovers in the process that he is a descendant of Abraham Van Helsing.  Triumphant showdowns occur.

I wrote a sequel.

Anyway, growing up, I remained in love with all the old Hammer Horror rogue’s gallery: Dracula, the Mummy, the Wolfman, Frankenstein’s Monster.  They were creepy, compelling, disgusting, charismatic, tragic, evil, redeemed.  At the same time, I developed an enduring respect for the signs and symbols of noir: the cigarette, the fedora, the smoking jacket, the exhausted man of morals in a world that’s forgotten them – or perhaps never cared in the first place.

There’s an often-overlooked element of the fantastic in Raymond Chandler’s world, or perhaps I should say an element of the imaginative: Philip Marlowe’s imagination is powerful enough not only to construct reality from a scattering of clues, but to construct over the top of this reality a moral vision, in which human actors present themselves to us as mortal, imperfect signs of something greater than themselves.

The image of the knight in The Big Sleep is an easy clue to this other, fantastical level of reality.  If Marlowe’s the knight, then the other people around him are queens, pawns, bishops, kings, rooks.  But Marlowe’s LA isn’t a chess board, not really, and its people are more, and less, than archetypes.  The archetypes press against the characters, distorting them or ennobling them as they move through the plot.  This provides another layer to reality, subtler but no less extant than the shadow world that overlays the mundane in UF settings.

Which is a roundabout way of saying, the symbols of good noir point to something, like the symbols of good fantasy.  (I don’t mean that there’s a 1-to-1 correspondence; in fact there probably shouldn’t be, but that’s a question for another time.)  The thing is, urban fantasy that embraces noir as a point of reference sometimes forgets that the symbols should point to something: the divide between rich and poor in society, sexual dynamics, subterfuge, criminality, order and the rebellion against order, whatever works.  A PI should be more than just a guy in a cool hat.

Richard Kadrey’s Sandman Slim hit me like a breath of fresh air for this reason.  The pieces are all there: the dirt, the crime, the conflicts with a ‘respectable’ society that really isn’t, the guns, the women, the magic.  Stark, the book’s main character, feels like John Constantine if John Constantine were based on a scarred, battle-hardened James Dean, rather than on Sting.  Magic, in this novel, stands as a referent for power, and like any other kind of power it’s fickle and demanding, possessing as often as it’s possessed.  Kadrey nails the real-life absurdities, the warped class consciousness, and the ugliness that make the genre work.

This isn’t a perfect book, and it might well be too bloody or gross or weird for some.  But it’s great to read a fantasy noir novel that takes both the fantasy and the noir bit seriously.

4 Responses to “Noir That Feels Like Noir”

  1. Miguel Garcia

    Noir isn’t about a detective in a cool hat?

    • max

      That too! 🙂 Seriously, cool hats are always welcome, but if that’s the only noir element your book has going for it, then I’m going to feel unsatisfied. It’s like a cake that’s all icing – delicious, maybe, and you can finish it if you’re dedicated enough, but you’ll feel sick afterward.

  2. Miguel Garcia

    I can see that. Though, I’ve never really gotten much of a social commentary vibe from noir. For me, the whole “the world is a messy corrupt place” message gets mixed up with a gritty for the sake of being gritty feel.

    Like Blade Runner. Great movie, lots of atmosphere, but does a millionaire really live in a warehouse. I mean, the creepy dolls I get, he’s eccentric, but he can’t afford a plumber for all his leaky pipes?

    Or Sin City, their world is all shades of grey despite being seen in black and white, and functions more as a dark mirror for realty. that grittiness functions more as a way to give the world texture and flavor than any attempt to comment on the real world.

    Maybe I just haven’t experienced “true” noir? Or don’t see beyond the first one or two layers.

    • max

      Not sure how to respond to this, because the idea of making something “gritty for the sake of being gritty” feels wrong to me. The grit in Sin City has a purpose – showing a world in which the good guys lose because they’re struggling against forces more powerful than themselves, and the only victory possible is bloody defiance – and the grit in Blade Runner has another purpose – showing how thin is the line separating the humans from the robots (the millionaire lives in a warehouse, and his best friends are his dolls, who are far less human than the replicants). These images are powerful because we recognize some truth in them, some parallel to the world around us. We have struggled against insurmountable odds, we have been treated like machined products of society. We don’t think that fictional worlds are depictions of reality, but we recognize reality in them – which, in turn, allows them to give us an escapist thrill when the bits we recognize collide with those we do not. Movies with little to no reality human reality (think Triple X) don’t connect with us on any level, and thus feel arbitrary, boring, meaningless. Movies that touch on something real (think Pitch Black, which plays on themes of terror, monstrosity, and abandonment) command attention and respect.

      That’s what I’m talking about here – the difference between soul and trapping.


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