I've been ruminating lately on something I once heard about the inimitable Dashiell Hammett, and how his 1929 novel THE MALTESE FALCON "took murder out of the drawing room and dumped it in the alley where it belonged." The upshot of this statement for me was that it took the Agatha Christie/Dorothy L. Sayers approach to crime and set it on its ear, because Hammett, who had actually been a Pinkerton detective and had some experience with both criminals and solving the crimes they committed, insisted on writing crime fiction that was "realistic."
This position opposed the then-fashionable literary conceit (employed by Christie, Sayers, and countless others) of having one's master detective gather all of the suspects together at the scene of the crime, then spending pages upon pages scrolling through the ebb and flow of the investigation (and of course demostrating the astonishing brilliance which made said "master detective" the "master.") before coming around to the twist ending, wherein an unlikely suspect was unmasked, to the collective astonishment of those gathered (and the collective delight of many a reader). Enjoyable? Surely, especially for younger readers just experiencing the genre for the first time (although I can re-read MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS over and over again, I can't be twelve and reading it over the summer between my 7th and 8th grade years), and for readers who relish what some would call the more "cozy" end of the crime fiction spectrum. But "realistic"? No, not realistic at all.
In the years since Hammett flourished we've seen the rise and demise and rise and demise and rise again of the hard-boiled/"noir" school of writing, much of which traces its collective roots back through a series of immortal writers like John D. MacDonald, Sara Paretsky, Ross MacDonald, Geoffrey Holmes, Leigh Brackett, Dan J. Marlowe, Mickey Spillane, Chester Himes, Jim Thompson, David Goodis, Walter Moseley, Robert B. Parker, Dorothy Hughes, Cornell Woolrich, and of course, Raymond Chandler, to such innovators as Hammett and contemporaries like James M. Cain and Carroll John Daly (note: I did not say "good writers," I said "contemporaries," and while I find Daly's stuff completely unreadable, he was a contemporary of Hammett's).
And "noir" these days is hot-hot-hot. How do I know this? Aside from looking at the sales that "noir" titles are generating, look at the attempts of many new authors to categorize themselves as "noir." I recently read the BSP of a very nice lady on one of the historical mystery lists which I frequent touting the pending release of her "medieval noir," and the announcement by another that her ancient Roman physician/detective would be walking the mean (and I'm assuming un-paved) streets of 1st century AD Londinium.
Are these efforts "noir" writing? No clue until/unless I read them, but they do serve as examples that buttress my point that there are writers out there attempting to cash in by branding thier work as "(insert appropriate hyphenated word here) noir."
Since noir writing is so hot right now, can there be any wonder that there has been bleed in from so many other sub-genres? Of course not. However, I think that noir writing might be a victim of its own success, in that the writing of some newcomers (relatively speaking) is blurring the line between noir and what I would have categorized as horror fiction. The irony (and with noir, irony ought to be busting out all over anyway) is that some of these new trends which I find somewhat troubling are, in my opinion, taking "noir fiction" out of the realist school in which it has existed side-by-side and cheek-by-jowl with hardboiled writing for decades.
Why? Simple: the fetishization of violence.
I did not read Thomas Harris' HANNIBAL, but did hear about the portion of it wherein Hannibal cooked up part of the brain of one of his victims and fed it to him while the man was drugged. Sue me, but I didn't want to read the grim details of that. And in that sentiment, I don't seem to have a lot of company among noir/hardboiled afficionados. For me, stuff like this, and like what one will see in such horror movie franchises as SAW and HOSTEL is nothing more than what our own Kevin Burton Smith refers to as "Torture Porn."
I guess what I'm saying is that I'm reading a lot of new stuff coming out of the gate these days and the violence in it is:
B) Utterly impossible, to say nothing of improbable.
C) Irrelevant to the action/plot of the work in question.
D) Gratuitous, in that it does nothing to set up the character/action in the book.
Now, I have nothing against violence in literature, and I'm no one's idea of a moral censor, but I can't help but wonder 'What the hell's the point?" If it doesn't advance the plot, or give us insight into the characters, it's dead air. For me, anything that takes me out of the scene is that much more likely to make me not only stop readiing that book, but to also forego reading the work of the author of said book again. For me this is true of any variety of excess: dialogue that's chatty and tells you all about the type of shoes the character wears but doesn't tell you anything else, and so on, in addition to this fetishistic, gratuitous "titillating" violence.
I know that it is frequently a delicate balance, deciding how much and which variety of violence to add to one's story in support of the plot. I recall one of Ken Bruen's books, THE KILLING OF THE TINKERS, displaying the after-effects of a man having all of his teeth knocked out of his head. I had no problem with this example, because it fit into the ebb and flow of the plot, and there was no loving, extensive discussion of the teeth flying out, the blood flying, the screams, etc. All that aside, as I said, it *fit*, and was all the more effective for how Ken (disclaimer, like many here, I am not only an ardent admirer of Bruen's work, I consider him a friend) described it after the fact.
Edgar award nominee Al Guthrie is another author known for violence in his work who also strikes me as someone who only gives us violence with a point (my disclaimer about Ken also goes for Al). In his latest, HARD MAN, Al has two big fight scenes with punishing results within the first ten pages (and I won't even get in to what happens to the dog), but they help set the tone, they reveal a lot about the collective character of the participants in each dust-up, and they're not cartoony. In other words, people get the crap kicked out of them and it shows afterward, rather than enduring punishment that would have likely killed them and actually walking around afterward.
This leads me to my last point. I can't help but wonder (as some people have with other forms of "pornography") who it is that reads this so-called "torture porn" and enjoys it?
After all, we know why people enjoy sex scenes. Why do some others view violence in the same light?
Just a few thoughts.
Your Mileage May Vary-