Category Archives: History and Characteristics of Crime Noir

Writing the Hardboiled Detective – Where Did Sully Come From?

Unlike the nosy neighbor who snoops into everyone’s business or the ultra observant detective who knows endless amounts of minutia, the hardboiled detective doesn’t usually solve cases with nothing more than his wits. To be sure, sleuthing is involved, but unlike the aforementioned crime busters, the cynical detective is willing to get his hands dirty.

Less concerned with the law and more concerned with justice, the hardboiled detective doesn’t live in a cozy house or in an estate manor. The detective lives in the city, often in the underbelly where crime and violence are a part of daily life. He might frequent nice parts of town and often does when the sordid events of urban life pay visit to those less familiar with the pain these events bring with them.

Life has been the detective’s most valuable teacher. Events have taught the detective life is neither fair nor just and it most certainly has damaged him in profound ways. But life has not broken him and nor will it. He spends his days risking his life to bring justice to those who cannot find it any other way.

Unlike the puzzle-solving investigator of cozy mysteries and cerebral detective stories written the British style, the hardboiled detective lives life in a very real way. His haunts include dirty city streets where the lowly people live, dive bars, seedy hotels, and the industrial district. He knows people in low places as well as the upper crust of society. His acquaintances include bar keeps, prostitutes, petty criminals, and corrupt politicians. Friends are few in number and having them comes with a high price.

Writing hardboiled crime fiction, often known as crime noir, requires a different perspective than required to write other styles of mystery fiction. Violence is ugly. It knows no limitations, visiting the poor and the rich alike, shattering lives. This very ugliness is part of the appeal of hardboiled detective stories. The story is real life in all of its sordid ugliness.

In his essay, The Simple Art of Murder, Raymond Chandler writes at some length about writing mysteries and the differences the author must cope with when writing the hardboiled detective. The likes of Sam Spade, Philip Marlowe, and the Continental Op are a different breed of man. So much so, Chandler felt it necessary to write about the qualities of such fictional men.

In everything that can be called art there is a quality of redemption. It may be pure tragedy, if it is high tragedy, and it may be pity and irony, and it may be the raucous laughter of the strong man. But down these mean streets a man must go who is not himself mean, who is neither tarnished nor afraid. The detective in this kind of story must be such a man. He is the hero; he is everything. He must be a complete man and a common man and yet an unusual man. He must be, to use a rather weathered phrase, a man of honor—by instinct, by inevitability, without thought of it, and certainly without saying it. He must be the best man in his world and a good enough man for any world. I do not care much about his private life; he is neither a eunuch nor a satyr; I think he might seduce a duchess and I am quite sure he would not spoil a virgin; if he is a man of honor in one thing, he is that in all things.

He is a relatively poor man, or he would not be a detective at all. He is a common man or he could not go among common people. He has a sense of character, or he would not know his job. He will take no man’s money dishonestly and no man’s insolence without a due and dispassionate revenge. He is a lonely man and his pride is that you will treat him as a proud man or be very sorry you ever saw him. He talks as the man of his age talks—that is, with rude wit, a lively sense of the grotesque, a disgust for sham, and a contempt for pettiness.

The story is this man’s adventure in search of a hidden truth, and it would be no adventure if it did not happen to a man fit for adventure. He has a range of awareness that startles you, but it belongs to him by right, because it belongs to the world he lives in. If there were enough like him, the world would be a very safe place to live in, without becoming too dull to be worth living in (Chandler).

My own Inspector Sullivan possesses many of the qualities Chandler believes to be essential in the hardboiled detective. It is unlikely, authors of such caliber as Chandler and Hammett could foresee things like a cybernetic eye and hand or crime on an alien planet. Nonetheless, Sully, were he an Earthbound detective, should fit easily into the cities where Spade and Marlowe practiced their craft.

It is good to have something to aim for. One of my own goals as an author is for my stories somehow to approach the quality of Hammett and Chandler, two of my literary heroes. For that to happen, Sully must bear some resemblance to Spade, Marlowe, and the Operative.

Chandler, Raymond. The Simple Art of Murder (Kindle Locations 262-276). Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

The City as a Character

Have you read a hard boiled detective story set in the countryside? Watched a classic crime noir film set in a rural area?

Probably not.

Crime noir stories are set in a city. Not just any city, a large, crowded, gritty city. It’s inhabitants range from the innocent to the most evil criminals an author can imagine.

Not just any city will do.

Most often the cities used in these stories are Los Angeles, San Francisco, New York, London, and sometimes Chicago. Sometimes the city is fictional, often bearing no name.

A well written noir makes the come alive for the reader. So much so the city itself can seem to be one of the characters.

Capital City on Beta Prime is meant to be a character of sorts. It is a cold and inhospitable place, dangerous, dirty, and crowded.

It is also a diverse city. It’s humble beginnings were that of a mining colony using the shipping containers used to bring necessary supplies to the planet. In the better parts of town the architecture is modern and elegant. Suburbs for the middle class have sprouted up. Bad neighborhoods can be found adjacent to middle and working class areas.

Transportation is a mess. Just what you would expect from any large urban city. It ranges from individual hovercars to old fashioned but modern subways. Taxis can be found to take you anywhere.

What makes Capital City unique is the people. Spread throughout the millions who inhabit the futuristic city are characters who make the city what it is.

Joe Maynard for example. The proprietor of Joe’s Place, an Old Earth comfort food joint with great ambiance and music. A place to eat, relax, and do business, legal usually but not always.

There’s the crooked (bent) cop Markeson. A strange duck if you ask me. Markeson’s as bent as they come but he’s a skilled detective who periodically takes great offense to other criminals breaking the law in his city.

Weather makes a city unique. Chicago is the Windy City. It rains in San Francisco and the fog rolls in. Capital City is the frozen city. The fog in Capital City is a bit different though. When it’s a bluish green, evil lurks.

Everything necessary for a thriller can be found in Capital City. Transportation to get away, goods and property to steal or smuggle. Innocent people to be murdered and plenty of not so innocent people to do the killing. Corruption is everywhere and so are people who hate it. Most of all, there are plenty of people who just want to take care of their families and live their lives.

Capital City is also home to many who wouldn’t want to live anywhere else. It is more than just the backdrop for a story. It’s integral to it.

The Classic Film Noir Protagonist and Inspector Sullivan

Brooding, hard-boiled, anti-social loners who take up the profession of detective. It’s the very definition of the male protagonist in classic film noir productions. Think your job is tough? Compare it to the standard working conditions of the noir male lead. His daily life is spent in the toughest part of towns, usually at night and almost always alone, hunting down dangerous individuals who are just as ready to betray our male lead as kill him. Our detective’s world seems to nothing more than a life filled with crime, betrayal, danger and loneliness. The very city our man lives in dehumanizes him with its tall, concrete buildings, shadowy alleyways and rundown neighborhoods.

Caught up in this confusing moral swamp, the male in the noir story is often filled with inner turmoil. What is right? What is wrong? Thus it is that our male lead becomes by necessity his own man. He lives by his own code. So long as he stays true to his code, he is true to himself and what he believes is right, or in many instances, justice.

Given this grey code of truth, the noir detective is often finds it perfectly acceptable to break the law in order to arrive at the truth, protect his client and if there is such a thing, the innocent.

As with any genre, there is leeway in how a character can be written, so long as the basics are adhered too.

Inspector Sullivan is certainly no exception. His past is filled with violence, betrayal and pain. Pain inflicted both by others and himself. Sullivan stands apart to a small degree from the traditional noir lead for he is a man with a conscience. Not one, but two as I would have it, his own and that of the bothersome Anglican priest, Father Nathan, who befriends Sully whether he wants a friend or not.

Sully is capable of incredible violence, some of which he is perfectly indifferent about and other times troubled by his actions. In his mind the moral difference is determined by whether or not justice was served. The law is nice, but justice is what Sully seeks in his world. In his life he has seen far too much injustice with far too few people who seek to provide justice, particularly for those who cannot defend themselves. That source of injustice could be a single criminal or an entire system aligned against the hapless individual.

Life lived alone means a life that has fewer opportunities to be hurt and more important to Sully, fewer opportunities for others to be hurt. Guilt is Sullys constant companion and belies his tough exterior and attitude of indifference. So is his defined sense of responsibility for those who, for better or worse, become part of his life.

It has been Sullivan’s experience that women are trouble, making him the typical noir protagonist. In the case of the mysterious Sarah, Sullivan is at best confused. She certainly has some of the elements of the femme fatale. Sarah is beautiful, mysterious and as the reader learns, potentially dangerous. It turns out Sarah and Sullivan share a painful secret from their past that tortures them both.

Indifference towards Sarah is not possible for any man. In Sullivan’s case, their relationship is a confusing one on a good day. He feels like a father figure towards the strange, aloof young woman yet cannot help but notice her alluring charms. For her part, Sarah sends as many mixed signals as is possible for a woman, all of which seems to draw Sullivan in deeper and closer to the troubled young woman.

As the series unfolds, the pair grows closer in ways neither could have foreseen.

Despite his desire to live his life alone, Sullivan as a character diverges from the norm for a noir protagonist. He develops a few close friends, excluding Sarah, all of which but one are male. His is a male world and Sully likes it that way.

If you like thrillers and classic noir stories, you’ll like the Inspector Thomas Sullivan series.

Roger Ebert’s Ten Characteristics of Noir Films (Novels for that matter)

The late film critic Roger Ebert liked film noir movies. Let’s be honest, some of Hollywoods best films from the Golden Era were noir. The film many critics say is the best American film ever made, Casablanca, is a noir.

Ebert penned a list of what he believed to be the ten characteristics that made a story a noir. Not all film noir movies fit all ten and the same is true for novels. The list however is a great starting point to determine if a film or novel fits the noir genre.

Here’s Ebert’s list:

1. A French term meaning “black film,” or film of the night.
2. A movie which at no time misleads you into thinking there is going to be a happy ending.
3. Locations that reek of the night, of shadows, of alleys, of the back doors of fancy places, of apartment buildings with a high turnover rate, of taxi drivers and bartenders who have seen it all.
4. Cigarettes. Everybody in film noir is always smoking, as if to say, “On top of everything else, I’ve been assigned to get through three packs today.”
5. Women who would just as soon kill you as love you, and vice versa.
6. For women: low necklines, floppy hats, mascara, lipstick, dressing rooms, boudoirs… high heels, red dresses, elbow length gloves, mixing drinks […]
7. For men: fedoras, suits and ties, shabby residential hotels with a neon sign blinking through the window, buying yourself a drink out of the office bottle, cars with running boards, all-night diners […]
8. Movies either shot in black and white, or feeling like they were.
9. Relationships in which love is only the final flop card in the poker game of death.
10. The most American film genre, because no society could have created a world so filled with doom, fate, fear and betrayal, unless it were essentially naive and optimistic.

To read more visit this site, Roger Ebert.com

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