‘But down these mean streets a man must go who is not himself mean, who is neither tarnished nor afraid.’
— Raymond Chandler, The Simple Art of Murder
One of our readers expressed an interest in my literary zip code of America’s mean streets, crime fiction, which led to me to spinning the wire racks—er, electronic shelves—of the American Library to see what caught my eye. I’m partial to that particularly atmospheric corner of the genre called noir or hardboiled fiction, which sprung from the pages of pulp magazines in the 1930s and found its way into novels (mainly of the luridly illustrated paperback sort), which were then adapted for the screen in that indelible style called film noir, with its shadowy street corners, cynical fast-talking private eyes and treacherous femmes fatales.
Chandler wrote of the style he helped to originate in the The Simple Art of Murder, pinpointing the departure of American crime fiction from the posh country homes of English detective stories, with their ‘hand-wrought dueling pistols, curare and tropical fish’. He credits his contemporary, Dashiell Hammett, the creator of the iconic private detective Sam Spade, with giving ‘murder back to the kind of people that commit it for reasons, not just to provide a corpse’. Chandler called this style ‘the American language’ and I don’t disagree. Having long been a fan of the American realist fiction of that era, I think that’s what first drew me to noir: it always seemed to be about something else, just below the surface. Not the murder, but the reasons for it. Not the crime, but the consequences of it. These social conditions and criminal motivations may change over time, but noir as a genre has proven flexible enough to keep up with them. For example, Chandler’s vivid descriptions of Depression-era Los Angeles (a character in and of itself) retain the prejudices of his time, particularly the assumption that only straight white men get to stride heroically down noir’s mean streets to battle corruption and where the women are either deadly knockouts or dishwater drabs. This assumption discounts the fact that even then, a number of influential books in the genre were penned by women, authors like Dorothy B. Hughes (In a Lonely Place), Vera Caspary (Laura), Margaret Millar (Beast in View) and Patricia Highsmith (Strangers on a Train).
There are a few of Chandler’s books in the American Library, but you can’t go wrong with The Big Sleep, the first of the Philip Marlowe series, in which the wealthy but decrepit General Sternwood hires Marlowe to investigate blackmail over the alleged gambling debts of his youngest daughter, when it’s the older daughter who will prove to be Marlowe’s toughest adversary. Chandler plants the seeds early on when he has Sternwood observe that neither he nor his daughters ‘has any more moral sense than a cat.’ The Big Sleep is arguably one of the first and most rewarding detours on the long road trip of the American detective novel, the intersection where it kicks its way out of the pages of formulaic mystery and into the streets. As Vivian Sternwood says to Marlowe when they meet: ‘So you’re a private detective … I didn’t really know they existed, except in books.’
–post by Suzanne Solomon