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 1, 2013 at 2:12am

thanks for your very thoughtful answer, Dana. I totally agree.

Comment by Dana King on February 1, 2013 at 2:09am

Since you brought up Chandler, here's a quote from his famous esay "The Simple Art of Murder:"

It is not a very fragrant world, but it is the world you live in, and certain writers with tough minds and a cool spirit of detachment can make very interesting and even amusing patterns out of it. It is not funny that a man should be killed, but it is sometimes funny that he should be killed for so little, and that his death should be the coin of what we call civilization. All this still is not quite enough.

There's humor, and there's humor. Hard to find a bleaker movie than RESERVOIR DOGS, but parts of it are genuinely funny. Humor is part of life, and context is everything. Even in a noir story, something can be funny to the reader and some characters, though it may not be at all funny to the character who is getting screwed.

Comment by Victoria Dougherty on January 31, 2013 at 11:51pm

Oops - I meant not EVERY spy, etc

Comment by Victoria Dougherty on January 31, 2013 at 11:51pm

Thanks, Jack. We ought to form a mob and storm the editors with feedback from readers and other writers on this topic.  Not very spy, govermnent agent, private eye, cop, victim has to always be a wet blanket. Some of the funniest people I've known - folks with a wicked sense of humor -were holocaust survivors for heaven's sake.


Comment by Jack Getze on January 31, 2013 at 9:09pm

I certainly agree. My Austin Carr series gets categorized as "screwball mystery" because the protagonist is always wise cracking, but it's violent and sexy, too. Definitely not a cozy. I love a little laughter before the shooting starts. :)

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