Sunday, April 26, 2009

The task of noir mysteries

Quite often the darkness of life is difficult to accept, difficult to express and occasionally impossible to survive. Each generation lives through times when many of the events, possessions--today’s ipod will one day be yesterday’s cassette--and even people one feels are vital are reduced to less than a historical footnote, a fading memory, or erased completely.

Of course, this happens for various reasons. I am not certain, but feel that motivations remain the same throughout history, but play out differently through time rather than being easily identifiable. If that were not true then the odds would not favor repetition. As society and the forces driving it adjust to the times, cause and effect adjust and change too.

In the 1950s, postwar America was wracked with social turmoil. However, it played out as fear of Communism, or fear of drug abuse, while the reality was high unemployment, homelessness, women who worked during the war forced into the home with doors to other options slammed in their faces, men--returning heroes--driven into jobs both mundane and unsatisfying. In fairness, I should say that many people of the time did not feel that way, but I think the underlying current ran opposed to what showed on the surface.

Writers of the time, such as Mickey Spillane--he once had 8 out of 10 books on the best-seller list--must’ve felt or sensed the turbulence, and translated it into serious noir mysteries. However, focusing on the roots of the problems systemic to society at that time in history would not have produced the needed outcome. Who wants to read a noir mystery about unemployment unless the unemployed man is a senseless killer driven by nightmares of war?

Noir or dark fiction is without vampire fangs. People, as we read everyday, can find a spark of evil, or reach deep into their despair and turn ordinary life into chaos without the twin needle marks in the side of their necks. Your neighbor mowing his lawn, the woman you pass on the sidewalk every lunchtime, may harbor resentment, twisted memories, a pain impossible to cure so that it festers and explodes unexpectedly.

The task of a noir mystery writer is to understand social ills, make them more palatable by viewing them through the eyes of a private investigator, or a cop, solve them with whatever means necessary--usually fists and gunfire--and destroy their source. For the hours we immerse our lives in these stories, we find release and relief.

Noir fiction, with its roots deep in the 1930s, has served that function and still does today. Read some of the authors I have mentioned in previous posts. You may find their writing styles dated and at times difficult to read, but look beyond it and discover the characters, their motivations and the underlying social messages.

They knew human nature has not changed in thousands of years and may never. They also knew that the good among us outnumber the bad a hundred thousand to one, but that single individual has the power to change all of our lives if not stopped before he or she commits the worst atrocity. What do I mean? The 1960s was drowned in the blood of their conclusions. Today, society suffers as deeply, due to the decisions of a small handful of like-minded men no different from their predecessors and blood again runs in the streets.

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