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Writing About Reprobation

Writing About Reprobation

Writing About Reprobation

J. Mark Bertrand, April 2011

As a crime novelist, I know there’s more than one problem of evil. Setting aside the philosophical question, which has more to do with how to justify evil’s presence in the world, there’s the matter of how to live with evil, how to cope with its ever-present taint.

We can resolve to be good. But when it comes time to measure our actions against a moral yardstick, we’re forced to decide just how pure a deed must be in order to qualify. Nobody’s perfect, after all. If we’re honest, even our whitest whites can look a little gray.

To some, though, to admit even that much suggests despair, or at the very least cynicism. We all make mistakes but, we’re tempted to think, that doesn’t mean we’re all evil. Sure, there are evil people out there, and they do terrible things, but most of us are basically good–aren’t we? Just because things aren’t always black-and-white doesn’t mean we have to surrender to moral ambiguity, looking for ulterior motives behind every good deed.

Which means that when nice, churchgoing people find out the kind of books I write and start offering up creative ways to commit a murder, eyes glowing with delight, I shouldn’t read too much into it.

But I do. Because the tone of my work has been classified as “dark.” The word “gritty” was used so often to describe my first novel, Back on Murder, that I started to wonder if I had sand in my teeth. And there are philosophical––indeed, theological––reasons for this orientation of vision. It reflects my own take on reality, which for lack of a better term, I’ll describe as “noir.”

“Hollow hearts and depraved sensibilities”

The word is French and its use in this context dates back to the mid-1940s. When the German occupation ended and Parisian moviegoers flocked back to the cinemas, they had a lot of catching up to do: several years’ worth of American films hit the screen in short order. Viewing them all at once, cinephiles noticed that something had changed. The moral melodramas of old Hollywood had been displaced. The tone of the stories had grown decidedly dark.

The French coined a phrase for it––film noir––inspired both by the thematic cynicism and the chiaroscuro visual style (itself influenced by a generation of exiled film directors, most notably Fritz Lang). The name not only stuck but came to denote both the movies and their pulp fiction source material, books by authors like Dashiell Hammett (The Maltese Falcon), Raymond Chandler (The Big Sleep), Cornell Woolrich (The Bride Wore Black), and Jim Thompson (The Killer Inside Me).

Although noir was all about cops and crime, it was worlds apart from the classic detective tales of Arthur Conan Doyle and Rex Stout. Because it was so frank about the nature of evil and didn’t pit righteous heroes against despicable villains, many dismissed the new movement as degenerate. But the hard, vivid writing made noir compulsively readable––even though, like any strong style, it was equally easy to parody. Today, we know noir largely through the familiar stereotype. Wherever fedoras and trench coats are worn, wherever cigarette smoke fills the air, wherever femme fatales swish by in their formfitting sheaths, blinking their soft and treacherous eyes, we know we’re in the land of noir.

Film noir reigned supreme from the release of The Maltese Falcon in 1941 until well into the ’50s, and there have been frequent neo-noir revivals both in film (Chinatown, L.A. Confidential) and fiction (such as Denis Johnson’s recent Nobody Move). Grandmasters of the genre like Hammett and Chandler are now widely appreciated for their literary talents, having transcended the pulp label. Graham Greene, who had at least one foot in the genre, has always enjoyed such recognition.

Many authors who have been influenced by the noir tradition write books that don’t fit the gumshoe mold. What they have in common is a tone, a certain attitude toward the pervasiveness of evil. Arguments about what does and does not constitute noir are rife within the crime fiction community (mirroring in many ways the arguments about what is and is not Reformed in our own faith communities). Otto Penzler, editor and owner of The Mysterious Bookshop in New York City, threw a Molotov cocktail into the conversation last summer by insisting that, Sam Spade and Philip Marlowe notwithstanding, noir wasn’t about private eyes.

The protagonists of noir fiction, then, are not champions of a moral order; if anything, they are its victims.

To put it simply, private eyes are good guys, and there are no good guys in noir. No one reaches the end of the story without being compromised. Private eyes solve cases and right wrongs, but in noir there are no solutions. There is no final justice. As Penzler says: “The noir story with a happy ending has never been written, nor can it be. The lost and corrupt souls who populate these tales were doomed before we met them because of their hollow hearts and depraved sensibilities.”

Penzler’s use of theological language here is interesting. The souls in noir fiction are “lost” and “corrupt.” They are “doomed before we met them”––predestined to damnation, so to speak––because of their depravity. The protagonists of noir fiction, then, are not champions of a moral order; if anything, they are its victims.

This view of noir definitely fits the work of classic authors like James M. Cain, author of The Postman Always Rings Twice and Double Indemnity. In Postman, lovers Frank and Cora get away with the murder of Cora’s husband, but instead of living happily ever after, she dies in an accident and he is wrongly convicted of her murder. From the beginning, the specter of damnation looms large in Frank’s mind. “Hell could have opened for me then, and it wouldn’t have made any difference,” he says after the murder. “I had to have her, [even] if I hung for it.” Even on death row, where he’s counseled by a priest, Frank’s vision of the afterlife is a fantasy of being with Cora again: “That’s when it seems real, about another life, not with all this stuff how Father McConnell has got it figured out.” Doomed from the start, it seems there was never hope for a guy like Frank, a reality all the more troubling since the reader can sympathize with the man.

The moral failure that noir fiction assumes is not just individual, it is systemic, obsessed not with the bad apple or the single sin, but with a pervasive human corruption that makes a mockery of our pretensions to goodness, law, and order.

By insisting on noir as a literature of reprobation, however, Penzler excludes as many classics as he includes, and restricts the noir label’s use among contemporary authors to those slavishly following James Cain’s damned-if-you-do, damned-if-you-don’t formula. But a more expansive view may be a better fit, which means finding a common denominator in noir other than the protagonist’s lack of moral center. The moral failure that noir fiction assumes is not just individual, it is systemic, obsessed not with the bad apple or the single sin, but with a pervasive human corruption that makes a mockery of our pretensions to goodness, law, and order.

“None is righteous, no, not one”

It’s ironic that Penzler would throw the hard-boiled private eyes under the bus, since Raymond Chandler did the same thing to the consulting detectives of yesteryear. In The Simple Art of Murder, the grandmaster of noir debunked stories by such luminaries as Dorothy Sayers and Agatha Christie. Their scenarios are so contrived, their solutions so unlikely that “they do not really come off intellectually as problems, and they do not really come off artistically as fiction.” For Chandler, it was important to do both. And he saw the difference between his own writing and what had gone before as essentially a question of realism: “If the writers of this fiction wrote about the kind of murders that happen,” he argued, “they would also have to write about the authentic flavor of life as it is lived.”

Writing about the world as it really is would change the moral landscape of the classic detective story, where the trauma of evil is often underplayed in favor of the logical puzzle presented by the murder. When critics attempt to explain the appeal of the classic tales, they often invoke the Garden of Eden. The murderer enters, serpent-like, into the ordered world (creation), and by killing his victim shatters it (fall), casting the sleuth in the role of redeemer setting the broken world to rights. There is an appeal to this structure––certainly to Christian readers––but perhaps there is also a reactionary bent. In an age of lost certainty, readers yearn for what Eugene Peterson describes as “moral and intellectual breathing room.”

The decline of the classic detective tale in favor of hard-boiled noir came about, historically, at a time of great social upheaval. The critic Julian Symons goes so far as to link the decline of the classic detective tale with the decline of religious conviction: “In a detective story, good people and bad people are clearly defined and do not change (except for the bad person who is pretending to be good). Policemen will not beat up suspects, nor will the criminal’s state of mind be considered interesting, since the policemen are on the side of light and the criminal on the side of darkness. Where an awareness of sin in religious terms does not exist, the detective as witch doctor [a figure to expel the guilt of sin] has no function.”

Dividing the world into good and bad people like this, pitting the “side of light” against the “side of darkness,” suggests a Manichean moralism much more than a Christian one. By positing a lost order susceptible to restoration by a lone, rational hero, the classic story offers an escape to readers who fear that, in the real world, no such restoration is possible. Noir fiction, on the other hand, looks that broken reality in the face. Sometimes it revels in the extent of the Fall and sometimes it’s horrified by it––but noir never denies that everything’s gone wrong.

For all its pretensions to realism, of course, noir is still a kind of fantasy. For all the fun he has poking holes in Christie’s plots–– “This is the type that is guaranteed to knock the keenest mind for a loop,” he writes of Murder on the Orient Express. “Only a halfwit could guess it”––Chandler’s own plots could be famously incomprehensible (see The Big Sleep). However, the fantasy does serve a purpose. In the same way that the exaggerated fairy tales of Lewis and Tolkein are particularly adept at bringing certain moral themes into focus, the exaggerations of noir serve a thematic purpose: to highlight the fact of corruption. Noir fiction, then, is a form of anti-escapist escapism. By exaggerating the visible darkness, it keeps us from denying that all is not light.

Compared to the real world, noir fiction is highly stylized. But next to the stylized world of the classic detective tale with its drawing rooms and butlers and obscure poisons, the hard-edged world of noir seems real indeed. Chandler is best understood in the context of Christie, and noir’s insistence on total corruption is best understood in the context of a world that insists on its fundamental justice and orderliness.

It’s no accident, then, that noir has proven such an effective vehicle for political novelists wanting to criticize oppressive law-and-order regimes. Many of Graham Greene’s later novels illustrate this, as do the noir novels of French author Jean-Patrick Manchette and (one example among many) Manuel Vázquez Montalbán’s Pepe Carvalho books. Wherever a charade of goodness and law and order is perpetrated, noir-inflected fiction is likely to spring up.

Which is perhaps why noir can be such a beneficial influence now. An affluent church proclaiming a message of health and wealth projects its own illusion of order, propagating its own set of moralistic assumptions, dividing the world up according to its own criteria. In such a context, a message of reprobation (even an exaggerated one) might be what is required to bring the real depth of human depravity into the light.

“A sense of anguish and a feeling of guilt”

In their history of American film noir, Raymond Borde and Etienne Chaumeton note that some critics have even argued for the operation of an essentially Christian morality in noir. After all, in noir evil never goes unpunished. The problem, they argue, is that noir grants an attractiveness to evil that Christian moralists never could. In The Postman Always Rings Twice, Frank knows it’s a sin to commit adultery and murder, but he never repents. He doesn’t throw himself at the feet of Father McConnell, confessing in tears just how wrong it all was. Instead, right to the very end, only erotic visions of Cora have any real meaning to him. This is not how a Christian moralist wants to see evil depicted, any more than he wants the forces of order (the police, the judicial system, the church) to be represented ultimately as tools of injustice. Whatever evil he allows in the story needs to be balanced by the end, or so Borde and Chaumeton seem to think.

I would say that depends on the type of Christian theology in view. What is true for a christened moralist does not apply to one who sees the corrupting effects of the Fall as all-encompassing, who sees man’s depravity as total and therefore regards man’s institutions as structures in need of direction, not good in themselves.

Where Borde and Chaumeton shine is their description of the moral context of noir––a description that jibes with Raymond Chandler’s description of “life as it is really lived”: “It is one of the genre’s traits to be neither moral nor immoral, but ambivalent vis-a-vis morality (the ambivalence being more or less pronounced, depending on the case). [Noir’s] social universe is a world in which morality is breaking down: it retains the power to disturb our sensibility and to distort our vision of the real, but it no longer has the power to inhibit or to convince; and, in this twilight world, no new moral outlook is really in sight. In it, “vice” is seductive; it is nevertheless experienced as “vicious,” and the lawbreaker seems obsessed by a sense of anguish and a feeling of guilt. Set against this, the policeman, even when he doesn’t stink to high heaven, never smells very good: but one doesn’t see how to dispense with his services.”

This strikes me as a good description not just of a genre but of the world we inhabit. Our social universe is ever broken, ever breaking down, and knowledge of punishment––whether temporal or eternal––has little deterrent effect. We are seduced by vice, delighted by viciousness, and while this isn’t the only story to tell about us, it is a story we can’t lose touch with, as much as we’d like to.

So noir exists as the fiction of moral breakdown, the fiction of corruption, and yes, the fiction of reprobation. To its practitioners, this also makes it realistic fiction, because it depicts the world–this side of Christ’s coming–as it truly is: not a realm of Newtonian regularity on the path to an ever brighter future, but a shattered, dystopian place only putting on a show of law and order. And for an unreconstructed Calvinist, a hint of noir helps capture a world where it rains on the just and the unjust alike, where fools are rewarded and wise men punished, and where to the making of many books there is no end.
J. Mark Bertrand is the author of two crime novels, Back on Murder and the forthcoming Pattern of Wounds, and the nonfiction title Rethinking Worldview: Learning to Think, Live, and Speak in This World. He’s the writer behind Bible Design Blog, a site dedicated to “the physical form of the good book.” Bertrand is also a ruling elder in the Presbyterian Church in America.

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