Skip to content

Hard-Boiled Thrillers, Noir and the Belly Laugh

January 31, 2013

Recently, I started a discussion on Crimespace (a crime/thriller uber-fan sight I highly recommend for those obsessed with city lights, cigarettes, bad women and rye whiskey). 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.

  1. What a great take on the subject! I don’t write “dark” but I do have dark aspects in my books. The murderer is always a dark character in some way or the other, but I can always find a way to inject a little humor into my books. I think that the reader, like the author, needs a bit of comic relief to break up the bad acts of the criminals and crazies in the story. Just my opinion. With it and a dollar, you can get a cup of coffee.

    • Thanks Eileen. I had a writer friend tell me that his publisher promoted his work as a “screwball” mystery – which he thought was bizarre. His main character, yes, was a wisecracking guy, but that was the only comedy in it. His readers, subsequently, would not have labeled his work as “screwball” either. I’m looking forward to reading your work, btw.

  2. Maybe we’ve become reluctant to show our “dark” sense of humor in a world where bona fide crazies are studied non-stop in the news. Ain’t life grand?

  3. Tim, that’s a really interesting point. I see this trend more among editors than readers, though, and I’m wondering if it isn’t a bias similar to the one in the motion picture industry – where few “comedies” are ever chosen for best picture because that’s deemed a “serious” category. And that makes me wonder if perhaps the lack of experience with the underbelly of life makes some people wary of making light of duplicity, murder, etc. After all, Raymond Chandler was writing at a time when most men were no strangers to war. All I have to think about are some of the comments my grandfather used to make – and he had seen a lot.

  4. byrogers1 permalink

    Think of the film noir movies you have seen. Which ones did you like best? Bogart in the Maltese Falcon or McMurry in Double Indemnity? I enjoy both movies but there is an edge with Bogey, because of his sarcasm. Hence, there is a place for humor. At the end of the day, write what you want to write and to hell with the critics.

  5. Great post.
    Isn’t there always a place for humour?

  6. Chris B. permalink

    I like bad whisky and rye women, myself.
    But for noir humour check out some brit grit authors: Paul Brazill and Tony Black are masters at it, not to mention Charlie Williams’ Mangel series and the hilarious Barney Thompson books.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: