Hard-Boiled Thrillers, Noir, and the Belly Laugh

Recently, I started a discussion here on Crimespace. I posed this question: Is there a place for humor in a hard-boiled thriller/noir? The answers I got were mixed, but there was a hesitancy that trended towards “No.” One Crimespacer quoted Otto Penzler – “Noir requires a sense of bleakness and despair, and characters so flawed, their failure is in their DNA.”

Maybe I’m too much of a black-humor-Eastern European-type gal, but isn’t that level of failure – the kind at the cellular level – kind of funny in and of itself? Raymond Chandler was a master of this kind of humor. His characters were funny – they were wry, off-kilter, even pathetic. A conspicuous longing punctuated their wisecracks instead of the usual punch line; he used the screech of a tire in place of a pa-dum-pum. I mean really, is there a better comic line than, “From thirty feet away she looked like a lot of class. From ten feet away she looked like something made up to be seen from thirty feet away.” Taken out of context, that’s a line that could have just as easily come out of Saturday Night Live.

We’ve all become very serious since Chandler, I think. Sure, we enjoy our comic thrillers like Skin Deep from Carl Hiaasen, but ultimately, when talking about thrillers in and of themselves – what we call real thrillers, we take on the oh, so serious tone of John la Carre, who writes great books, and is not a funny guy. In fact, as good a he is, you’ve got to admit that he often takes on the moralizing tone of an old-fashioned Catholic school principal. Sometimes, when I’m curled up with one of his books and having one of my black humor thoughts, I can almost hear him say, “That’s not funny, young lady.”

But Sam Spade is funny. He looks at the world through a piece of warped glass and laughs at how you can look short and fat when he tips it this way, and noodle-skinny when he tips it that. He might even tell you so before he pops you one. And Raymond Chandler seems like the guy you want sitting next to you on a bar stool. You’d sit there all night if you could, pretending you’ve got no place else to go, just to listen to his take on life.

Maybe we’ve forgotten how some of the funniest people in our own lives are the ones who’ve had the hardest knocks. And maybe those people ought to start making their way back into our thrillers – no matter what’s at stake. Whether it’s just a two-bit heist or the whole damn world.

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Comment by Victoria Dougherty on February 8, 2013 at 8:52am

Right on, Martin :)

Comment by Martin Roy Hill on February 8, 2013 at 8:31am

I've always thought humor was a big part of hardboiled mystery fiction. It's not a LOL belly laugh sort of humor, but a cynical form of dark humor, the kind of humor a person who has seen too much of the dark side of life uses to keep himself from going over the deep. Both Phillip Marlow and Sam Spade were famous for their world-weary, wry cynicism.

Comment by Victoria Dougherty on February 7, 2013 at 9:36pm

Thanks for the tip, ME.

Comment by M.E. Purfield on February 7, 2013 at 11:44am

Some great examples here. Have you checked out Greg McDonald's Fletch series or some works by Jim Thompson? The Fletch series has some awesome humour in the dialog and the Thompson is a brilliant satirist.

Comment by Victoria Dougherty on February 2, 2013 at 12:42am

Thanks, Christopher.

Comment by Eric Christopherson on February 1, 2013 at 1:05pm

Yes, realism is an important part of hard-boiled. Also cynicism and slangy dialog. Here's a good summary: http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/254914/hard-boiled-fiction

Comment by Victoria Dougherty on February 1, 2013 at 8:43am

Yeah, I guess I thought hard-boiled meant real stakes, real violence, real crime - and yes, a certain writing style - and I think Chandler fits that description.  Don't know if my definition is accurate, though.

Comment by Jack Getze on February 1, 2013 at 8:39am

I always thought "hard-boiled" referred to a writing style -- say the opposite of flowery -- not story content, but I've been wrong a lot lately. :)

Comment by Eric Christopherson on February 1, 2013 at 6:28am

I've never thought of Chandler as being hard-boiled (though I suppose that's how he's usually classified) simply because there is just so much humor in his work. Hammett's hard-boiled to me (the originator of hard-boiled, perhaps), and there's humor there too but muted or sly much of the time.

Comment by Dana King on February 1, 2013 at 4:51am

BTW, Jack is right about his books. If you like stories with noir elements and laughs, you should check him out. I've read two and thoroughly enjoyed both.

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