Neo-noir and Social Critique

Samuel Johnson in his usual moral aptness once remarked:

It may be laid down as a Position which will seldom deceive, that when a Man cannot bear his own Company there is something wrong. He must fly from himself, either because he feels a Tediousness in Life from the Equipoise of an empty Mind, which, having no Tendency to one Motion more than another but as it is impelled by some external Power, must always have recourse to foreign Objects; or he must be afraid of the Intrusion of some unpleasing Ideas, and, perhaps, is always struggling to escape from the Remembrance of a Loss, the Fear of a Calamity, or some other Thought of greater Horror.

– Samuel Johnson, Two Rambler papers (1750)

Not sure what Dr. Johnson would make of our neo-noir age, but if the work he wrote on his dear friend, the poet, Richard Savage has anything to offer it is his unflinching ability to confront harsh facts, even if those facts are in the life of one close by; the life of one’s own friend and the atrocities of the heart that betray even the best of us. I often await the historical crime writer who takes on the mantle of Dr. Johnson and Boswell as the new Sherlock Holmes of the Eighteenth Century. One could imagine Johnson and Boswell traipsing through the sordid districts of London in that delirious age of the early Enlightenment. The indefatigable moralist, conservative to a degree, driven by his gout and ill-health to maddening bouts with writing and talking to keep the dark at bay; he was yet, in his youth a more radical instigator having written certain political pamphlets against the King, The False Alarm and Taxation No Tyranny. It’s this early Johnson we’d love to see detecting crime, solving the deadliest murders of his day, and confronting the criminal acts of tyranny in all its guises.

That I love crime fiction and the subversive hijinks of neo-noir is obvious to my friends, and a debilitating epithet for my enemies derisive musings. That I bear my own company just fine is to the detriment of Dr. Johnson, yet I will agree with him that having recourse to foreign Objects is quite satisfying from the tediousness not of Life but of the ever-productive never-resting pursuits of an over-active brain that endlessly floats between philosophical speculation and familial matters. Many of today’s greatest crime writers and neo-noir fictionalists reside in foreign climes. In Sweden (Stieg Larsson, Henning Mankell) and Norway (Jo Nesbø) and Shetland Islands (Ann Cleeve) and Ireland (Ken Bruen) and Scotland (Ian Rankin) and Manchester (Ray Banks) and London (Derek Raymond) and Italy (Andrea Camilleri) and… many, many more…

That I began reading crime fiction early in life is a telling sign. That I have no clue what that sign tells is another matter. All I can admit too is a love for this cess-pool of human degradation and decrepitude we call hard-boiled pulp fiction. Yet, do not be too fast to judge these strange pleasures, for this subversive fiction opens onto a world that few people are willing to accept much less understand; most of all, they forget that it is the underbelly of their own dark desires, the deadly truth of their own complicity in a capitalistic system of governance that exposes the human psyche to all the terrors of its own fragile existence. Those early pulp-artists of the street, Race Williams, the Continental Op, Sam Spade, Philip Marlowe, Mike Hammer, and Lew Archer, the chief early hard-boiled detectives, each forged links between the daylight worlds of finance, luxury, glamour, the good life and all those darker worlds of drug cartels, prostitution rings, smuggling, pirating, guns-for-hire, etc.. That literary critics have been a long time coming round to this darker world of noir and crime fiction is a detriment, but one that shows a truth as Woody Haut once remarked, given the tediousness of mainstream literary criticism, there may be little reason to regret a culture that considers this kind of writing as marginal at best, and as both low-brow and throwaway:

At the same time, it indicates a class-based separation between writers who have the status of literary artists and those who have been relegated to the status of literary workers. Tied to contracts and deadlines and obliged to include obligatory scenes of sex and violence, these writers, many of them refugees from other professions, were subject to the vagaries of the market.1

Yet, this genre has clearly never died out, it still lives among the streets where it first began, moving through the rubble of our catastrophic end times like troubadours seeking neither refuge nor escape but exacting tribute to the only viable truth we can hold too: the critical eye exposing the underbelly of our capitalist nightmare.

That ours is the age of neo-noir of the postmodern revels of hypercrimes galore, where even governments can no longer hide their own complicity in the darker aspects of the neo-liberal nightmare we find a spectrum of critical awareness in a global reach of crime fiction that is exposing more and more of this twisted tale of international and global catastrophe. What’s at the center of all this? In one word: the redress of unjustice. The need for Justice is the central leitmotif running through almost every nook and cranny of this pulp world. Even if justice is never meted out it is the glue that binds in the dark folding and unfolding of these tales of incest, murder, rage, vengeance.

In our global age crime writers are turning up the heat everywhere. There are now detective series set in Botswana, on Native American reservations, in the industrial Ruhr, in Venice and Florence, in Ireland, in Brezhnev’s or Yeltsin’s Russia, even in contemporary Tibet (Eliot Pattison’s series, beginning with The Skull Mantra, centres on Shan, a Chinese police inspector, exiled to Tibet for political reasons). History also sets no limits: St Petersburg in the ‘golden’ 1880s, Julius Caesar’s Rome, Alexander the Great’s Court . . . There is, of course, a long tradition of eccentric locales in the history of detective fiction. Robert van Gulik wrote a series set in ancient imperial China; Agatha Christie’s Death Comes as the End is set in the Egypt of the pharaohs. However, these settings were clearly exceptions; and part of their appeal was their distance from paradigmatic locations (London and the English countryside for the classic whodunnit; Los Angeles or New York for the hard-boiled novel).1

What we are discovering today is the inner truth of formulaic fiction. Zizek reminds us of Fredric Jameson’s seminal essay  ‘On Raymond Chandler’, which described Chandler’s procedural use of formulaic modes of thought, using the formula (an investigation that brings the detective into contact with all strata of life) as a frame allowing him to fill out the plot with arcane characterizations, social and psychological aperçus and insights into life’s tragedies. Zizek asks the obvious question: “Why shouldn’t the writer drop the formula and give us pure art instead?” And, his answer, not so obvious: “Because dropping the formula would mean losing the ‘artistic’ content that the formula ostensibly distorts.” A Lacanian answer which shows the valiancy of this dark craft.

This is Zizek’s world of the parallax view, divided between the have’s and have not’s, the organized crime of government and State, and the organized under-government of criminal organizations. And, as Zizek so aptly puts it:

There is no neutral language enabling us to translate from one to the other, still less any attempt to posit the ‘truth’ of one from the perspective of the other. All one can do in today’s conditions is to remain faithful to the split as such, to record it. An exclusive focus on First World issues of late-capitalist alienation and commodification, of ecological crisis, of racism, intolerance and so on, cannot avoid seeming cynical in the face of Third World poverty, hunger and violence. On the other hand, attempts to dismiss First World problems as trivial in comparison with the ‘real’ problems of the Third World are no less fake; a form of escapism, a means to avoid confronting the antagonisms in one’s own society.(ibid)

This need for a parallax view is the difficult art of crime fiction in our world today. For the deep significance of the parallax is its uncanny insights into our dark times: “the perspective shifts, and in being deprived of a single point of identification, the reader gains a whole family, a collective identification bound together by a dual sense of vulnerability and solidarity” (ibid). That the world is out of synch, that there are gaps, splits, barriers, walls that separate one zone from another is something the crime writer should hold onto; for as Zizek reminds us “all one can do in today’s conditions is to remain faithful to the split as such, to record it” (ibid).

The crime writer no longer an innocent guest at the banquet, has become in our time a recording Angel. In the Secrets of Enoch the recording angel “whose knowledge was quicker in wisdom than the other archangels, who wrote all the deeds of the Lord…” One also thinks of Walter Benjamin’s Angel of History unable to close his wings and helpless before the infinite storm of progress; yet, with a twist, incarnating himself in the singular modalities of each crime writer’s expressive singularity: “The angel would like to stay, awaken the dead, and make whole what has been smashed.” But, of course, we know that crime writers like angels cannot perform miracles, they can only record the truth of our social catastrophes as best they can by applying that blade of critical reflection necessary for aesthetic judgment. The formula the frames the heart of a mystery, reveals its secrets by distorting the blind spots of rhetoric, and instead of deconstructing their unresolved dilemmas lets the reader enter the gap, the split, the blind spot of the mystery itself affectively, thereby releasing the libidinal energies of material culture.


Check out… Crime fiction around the world!

Some of my old time favorites:

Double Indemnity by James M. Cain
A Hell of a Woman, Savage Night, The Getaway, and A Swell-Looking Babe by Jim Thompson
The Woman Chaser and Cockfighter by Charles Willeford
The Name of the Game Is Death by Dan Marlowe
The Vengeful Virgin by Gil Brewer
Dirty Snow by George Simenon
Fright by Cornell Woolrich
Shoot the Piano Player by David Goodis
Anyone’s My Name by Seymour Shubin
Miami Purity by Vicki Hendricks
Robbie’s Wife by Russell Hill


1. Slavoj Zizek. LRB Vol. 25 No. 22 dated 20 November 2003 (ISSN 0260-9592 Copyright © LRB Ltd., 1997-2008)

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