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Literary Noir 1.Hardboiled: Finding a Moral Compass in Morally Questionable Times. Part 1: The Code

July 5, 2008

Traditional notions of morality have always been central to hardboiled crime and detective fiction. These archetypes have become a part of our cultural heritage; the lone hero and the strict code that governs him is a central part of American storytelling in literature and in movies – Jake Gilles in Roman Polanski’s Chinatown (1974), Clarice Starling in Thomas HarrisSilence of the Lambs, and Hannibal are a couple of examples of how the lone hero, working in or out of the established system, follows a personal code. The classic statement of the hero’s code, however, comes to the American Consciousness from Dashiell Hammett’s private eye hero, Sam Spade, in The Maltese Falcon. When Spade turns in the woman he loves because she murdered his partner, he explains himself like this:

“When a man’s partner is killed he’s supposed to do something about it. It doesn’t make any difference what you thought of him…. Then it happens we were in the detective business. Well, when one of your organization gets killed it’s bad business to let the killer get away with it. It’s bad all around – bad for that one organization, bad for every detective everywhere.” (Hammett, 1929)

Most incarnations of this code work towards a traditional notion of morality: the assumption that the good guys ultimately win and the bad guys ultimately lose. In hardboiled detective fiction, the hero is typically personified as the everyman : a Sam Spade, a Phillip Marlowe; even Harris’ Starling is a common person: West Virginia born, then orphaned, who worked her way through school and into the FBI – she is the archetype of the American Ideal who pulled herself up by hard work and determination. But the genre of hardboiled crime and detective fiction, like every other cultural product, must be a reflection of the time and age that it’s born in. This is why, over the years, the criminal has become just as complex a character as the hero; so-called 3rd generation hardboiled writers like Elmore Leonard, have given us complex criminal characters who, ultimately end up paying for what they do. Take Odell Robbie from Leonard’s novel Rum Punch (which was adapted in a film, Jackie Brown, by Quentin Tarantino). In many ways, he is the central character of the book; his centrality doesn’t change the fact, however, that he dies in the end. (Before you call Jackie a hero, though, consider this: she is a drug mule who ends up tricking Robbie and stealing his ill-gotten gains; in a classic story, she too, would be held responsible.)

Besides movies and books, the hardboiled genre has a long tradition in comics and graphic novels; consider Ed Brubaker’s Criminal comic series. The first volume, Coward follows a professional thief, Leo. Leo is a good thief because he follows a set of rules; he even states in the beginning that many thieves make the mistake of not planning, of not following the rules – which is why they either get caught or killed: “They’re the rules that will keep you out in the world. Safe.” (Brubaker, 2007) This represents a significant shift in how we understand The Code; there’s still that independent everyman element, but at the core of this shift is a kind of moral relativism. The world is not black and white; it is gray.

This relativism plays out in the contemporary world in several important ways. As a country, we have become so accustomed to being at war that news from Iraq and Afghanistan is overshadowed by stories about the sour economy, high gas prices, and increasingly higher prices for everything else. The rhetoric of the war has worn us down to such a point that the notion of the hero is once again popular: consider the number of superhero movies since March 2003 (when we began our invasion of Iraq): three Spidermans, two Fantastic Fours, two Incredible Hulks, an Ironman (set in a post 9/11 world) two Batmans, an updated Punisher, and the attempted resurrection of the Superman franchise. Consider the popular NBC show Heroes, which depicts everyday people discovering they have extraordinary powers, and the new movie release, Hancock, with a similar theme. Culturally, we are attempting to find balance: political and economic fears that we have no control over and a corresponding need to be saved.

And in this cultural environment, the hardboiled genre is enjoying a healthy renaissance. In addition to comics, like Brubaker’s Criminal, Hard Case Crime publishes crime and detective stories by some of America’s best known writers in this genre: Max Allan Collins and Lawrence Block. Regardless of the variety of perspectives on the war, the economy, and the state of the world, we are still seeking to understand and redefine the rules that we suppose govern our lives. Sometimes this is the rule of law; sometimes it means finding another set of rules to order and interpret our world. Hard boiled fiction – the best of it – helps us along because it not only explores crime in a relatively safe way that an audience can plug into, but also because it is continually striving to examine, reexamine, define and redefine our notions of what is moral in an increasingly relativistic world.

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