What the World Needs Now
There is no doubt that various groups have been terribly oppressed. This history combined with contemporary politics has produced a strategy in which those at society’s margins describe themselves as victims—a status that ironically confers social power. But is accepting this role the only or best approach?
It’s been said that when the only tool you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail. So what if you have another tool? Say, a Mike Hammer?
Okay, Mike Hammer is more hard-boiled than noir, but I couldn’t resist. From its beginnings, noir has critiqued injustice by exploring life at the dark, gritty margins of society. And it’s done so without the oppressed characters perceiving themselves as victims.
In socioeconomic terms, Phillip Marlowe and Sam Spade were working stiffs. Raymond Chandler parodied classism in The Big Sleep; Dorothy B. Hughes highlighted rural poverty in “The Granny Woman”; and John Jakes illuminated corporate power in “No Comment”.
Robert B. Parker’s Small Vices, features a black, rich killer and a black convict from the projects—the difference being wealth, but the reader is also drawn into racial inequalities. We see another black character, Hawk, deriving power through autonomy and integrity. Similarly, the Chicano anti-heroes of Manuel Ramos’s noir mysteries—Luis Móntez and Gus Corral—refuse to see themselves in terms of racism. Even marginalized white ethnicities have generated defiant characters.
Sara Paretsky’s private investigator, V.I. Warshawski, is Polish and female. But again, she makes no excuses, seeks no accommodations. Sexism abounds, but she overcomes the obstacles by cunning. Of course, noir also incorporates the wily femme fatale (e.g., Brigid O'Shaughnessy in The Maltese Falcon and Phyllis Dietrichson in Double Indemnity). So it is that women are empowered by intellect and strength, not victimized by the norms of society.
In my mysteries (Poisoned Justice and Murder on the Fly), I’ve tried to take on this challenge—Riley is working class, Carol is lesbian, and Dennis is black. My approach, reflecting the literary roots of noir, is to imbue these characters with a blend of Greek stoicism (we cannot control events in the world, but we can decide how we will respond) and European existentialism (no excuses—in the end, we are responsible for our actions). Maybe it’s easy for me—being a straight, white, upper-middle class man—but my hope is that noir points to a path from the margins that does not require people to see themselves as victims.