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…

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