Saturday, April 05, 2008

Noir Con 2008, Part II — No boundaries?

OK, maybe some boundaries, though no one at NoirCon 2008 seemed to be able to figure out precisely what noir is and isn't. Happily, no one seemed to worry much about this, and the confusion gave rise to some pregnant thoughts on Day Two, Year Two of this fine Philadelphia crime-fiction convention.

And why should I worry about what is international crime fiction and what isn't at a conference with a French name ("Noir") devoted to an American art form that honored an Irish author (Ken Bruen) and a publisher (Dennis McMillan) whose offerings have included seminal Dutch and Australian crime writers?

Highlights from Day Two:

1) Jason Starr's observation toward the end of his Friday panel discussion with Ken Bruen that "The French have a much wider definition of noir" than do Americans. Could he have meant that the French critics who coined the term as applied to film and fiction in the middle of the last century emphasized atmosphere more than today's writers do?

I recall a television interview with the director Jean-Pierre Melville and the star Alain Delon included as a DVD extra with one of Melville's movies. In today's terms, Delon was a laughable parody of cool, literally staring into space and blowing smoke while Melville talked about the movie. From the viewpoint of, say, any time after maybe the early '70s, that looks more kitsch than noir.

Maybe he meant that French writers have taken noir in directions more political than American crime writers have explored (Jean-Patrick Manchette, Jean-Claude Izzo, Didier Daeninckx)?

2) Bruen's declaration during the same discussion that, after having written a few "straight" novels, "I really wanted to write a crime novel, but I wanted to see if I could write it the way the American hard-boiled school writes."

3) The award for the publisher Dennis McMillan, whose offerings have included books from Janwillem van de Wetering, Robert van Gulik and Arthur W. Upfield.

4) News from Akashic Books that another novel from Juan de Recacoechea, author of American Visa, is being translated into English as we speak.

© Peter Rozovsky 2008

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4 Comments:

Blogger Xavier said...

1) Jason Starr's observation toward the end of his Friday panel discussion with Ken Bruen that "The French have a much wider definition of noir" than do Americans. Could he have meant that the French critics who coined the term as applied to film and fiction in the middle of the last century emphasized atmosphere more than today's writers do?

I can't read into Mr. Starr's mind so it's only my guess, but maybe he just alluded to our rather indiscriminate use of that word? Whilst "Noir" in the English-speaking world refers to a specific brand of crime fiction, we French often use it also as a synonym for hardboiled and, increasingly over recent years, crime fiction as a whole - authors like Ruth Rendell, P.D. James or Harlan Coben are routinely dubbed queens/kings of noir, even though their works are nothing of the sort.

April 05, 2008  
Blogger Peter said...

Mayhem Parva? Vous êtes amateur de Colin Watson, sans doute; bienvenue chez Detectives Beyond Borders.

You could be right about Jason Starr's intention -- or perhaps not. Comments from the audience and panelists at several sessions concerned confusion, lack of consenses or misunderstanting of the words noir and femme fatale. Another panel dealt largely with the difficulty North American audiences, publishers and critics have defining noir.

Why have the French used the term to encompass a wider variety of fiction than do the English-speaking world? Does French crime fiction have anything like English "cozy" mysteries, for example, something 180 degrees opposed to noir?

April 06, 2008  
Blogger Xavier said...

Mayhem Parva? Vous êtes amateur de Colin Watson, sans doute; bienvenue chez Detectives Beyond Borders.

Merci beaucoup! Je suis effectivement un grand fan des chroniques de Flaxborough, même si cela fait un petit moment que je ne les ai pas relues.

Why have the French used the term to encompass a wider variety of fiction than do the English-speaking world?

I don't know. The term is often said to have its roots in the famous "Série Noire" which was a huge success after the war and brought both hardboiled and proper noir fiction to French audiences. Also, the French language is a most curious one, both overtly fussy and quite wooly at times so that a single word can be taken to encompass a wide range of meanings.

Does French crime fiction have anything like English "cozy" mysteries, for example, something 180 degrees opposed to noir?

Non-noir mystery writing does exist in France and enjoyed a new flame in recent years after three decades of "noir" domination, but we have nothing like "cosies" - even Paul Halter, arguably the most traditional-minded of all French mystery writers, is a dark fellow writing about serial killers, psychopaths, incest and such charming things. When the French want something cozy they either watch "Midsomer Murders" or read Dame Agatha.

April 06, 2008  
Blogger Peter said...

Snobbery With Violence is such an interesting and useful social history of English crime fiction and reading that perhaps Mayhem Parva is worth a visit from time to time even if you have never reread the Flaxborough Chronicles.

Why not settle the noir issue and ask the Académie Française how it defines roman noir and film noir?

That's an interesting comment about Paul Halter. I would say that writers such as Daniel Pennac and Fred Vargas, whose tone is lighter than that of hard-core noir, write about psychopaths and gruesome killings, sometime graphically described.

April 06, 2008  

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