Noir, Tragedy, and Other Dreary Bummers (Ho Ho)

By David Corbett

First, I want to say that I’m flattered  to be invited to join the Murderati Cabal. The folks who run this joint are not just some of the finest writers but some of the nicest people in the biz. I promise to do my best not to soil the linens, or leave too many surprises in the punch bowl.

To that end: I’ll launch my life as a Murderatero with something I’ve been chewing on for some time, and have written about in one form or another before—on the peculiar perils of being deemed a writer of “noir.” (Don’t worry. It won’t hurt much. Just a tiny little sting.)


The term “noir ” has become so universally misused—like other vague descriptives such as “Freudian,” “post-modern,” and “cute”—that it’s virtually a cipher, obscuring more than it clarifies.

Ask three different people if a certain writer is “noir,” you’ll get three different answers. (Yes. No. Go away.)

Is Charles Willeford “noir?” James Elroy? Lynne Cheney?

This is sloppy, it’s wrong, but mostly it’s annoying—especially when the marketing flacks at major publishing houses slather the term on a book jacket to scare off the pious scoutmasters, breathless virgins and hysteric spinsters whom the publisher fears will fall into palsied seizures in the bookstore aisles if they mistakenly crack the cover.

I speak, sadly, from experience.

If words, like people, can be known by the company they keep, then “noir” might benefit from a higher class of friends. You never seem to see Our Friend Noir without his sidekicks Gritty, Brutal, Grim or the ever-faithful Uncompromising. Throw in Brooding, Dark and Relentless, you’ve got one mean set of dwarves.

And never, never, never be so simple as to believe that calling a book “noir” will boost its sales. One might as well just slap DEPRESSING! on the cover. The only thing conceivably worse than being labeled “noir” is to be considered “political.”

I speak again, sadly, from experience. But I digress.

Getting back to our original question: What exactly is this thing called noir?

To answer these and other questions, I turned to Dark City by Eddie Muller—the “Czar of Noir.” I was particularly struck by his distillation of the noir protagonist’s philosophical dilemma: He can’t choose the world he lives in, only how he intends to live in it. (This leaves out, of course, the question of rent.)

In a way, this formulation calls to mind Sartre’s immortal, “Each of us gets the war he deserves.” Mention of Sartre in turn evokes existentialism, everybody’s favorite easy credit. I have sometimes wondered if the noir protagonist is in fact nothing but the existentialist hero—alone against “the benign indifference of the universe,” stripped of certainty and even a knowable self, burdened by guilt—or, if he plays his cards right, a full-blown psychosis.

Or, put it this way: Maybe the noir protagonist is simply the existentialist hero inserted into—get this— a crime story.

I know. I’m so bright my mother calls me Sonny.

Concerning protagonists: Sophocles is credited with the invention of the tragic hero and he used the word deinos as a descriptive. It is normally translated to mean “terrible, wondrous, strange,” and his heroes were seen as both repellent and admirable.

The Sophoclean hero was also unique at that time for his isolation, especially in relation to the gods, who were largely absent. This absence of divine guidance resonates with the “benign indifference of the universe” I already mentioned (the coinage is from Camus).

Euripides, a contemporary of Sophocles, went one better. His gods weren’t absent, they were regrettably all too present: petty, callous, vengeful.

In many of the plays of both Sophocles and Euripides, the protagonist faces a crisis in which disaster can only be averted by a compromise that, in the hero’s view, would constitute betrayal of something he or she holds to be supremely important. The hero refuses to make this compromise and, as a result, is destroyed.

Put otherwise, the great bulk of Athenian tragedy can be synopsized with: Damned if you do, damned if you don’t. In case you were wondering why Sparta won the Peloponnesian War.

Aristotle, writing a century later in his Poetics, argued that the best tragic protagonist was neither a righteous nor villainous man, but “a man not pre-eminently virtuous and just, [but] whose misfortune . . . is brought upon him not by vice or depravity but by some error of judgment.”

Or, once again seeking to encapsulate the point in a pithy bon mot, Aristotle considered the major premise of most great Greek tragedy to be: Oops.

But what does any of this have to do with noir, I hear you cry.

Let us review: We have before us a form of drama in which a psychologically and morally complex hero, who is both repellent and admirable, neither pre-eminently virtuous nor just, prone to error, stands alone in the face of an indifferent if not actively hostile universe, confronting a choice between two alternatives, neither of which is acceptable and the one ultimately chosen leads to destruction.

If I may: What’s not to noir?

A great deal, as it turns out. In noir, one often finds a protagonist whose misfortune is brought upon precisely by vice or depravity—his own. Think Frank Chambers in The Postman Always Rings Twice. Think George Neff in Double Indemnity. Think any number of Thompson’s or Willeford’s or Woolrich’s or Goodis’s protagonists. The strength of this approach lies in its ability to submerge the reader in a treacherous, unforgiving world she would normally never visit and, I would argue, a world which the authors believed pretty much resembled what modernity had to offer.

The limitation is thematic: Bad things happen to bad people. Crime doesn’t pay. These motifs are hardly startling, but it isn’t so much the destination as the journey that delivers the pay-off. And besides, as I’ve already mentioned, you can reduce the theme of even the greatest drama of all time to a caustic one-liner.

And though it shares a lack of sentimentality with tragedy, noir discards the necessity for “the moral nobility of suffering” one often finds in tragedic drama. In noir, even nobility is seen as sentimental. And here again the existentialist influence returns. “Existence precedes essence,” the great bumper-sticker slogan of existentialism, means we’re making it up as we go along, there is no transcendental meaning to be had, and there’s nothing inherently noble or degrading about anything. (To borrow a line from Zen: The situation is neutral.)

But another thing noir and the Greek tragedies have in common is their matriculation in the course or the aftermath of a lost war. The “neo-noir” films of the late 1960s and early 1970s—The King of Marvin Gardens, Scarecrow, Mean Streets, Midnight Cowboy, The Killing of a Chinese Bookie, The Friends of Eddie Coyle and, of course, Chinatown—are a case in point. Though America had not yet “lost” Vietnam when some of these movies appeared, there was an overwhelming sense that it had lost something. And this was true of noir as well even after victory in World War II. Battle-scarred veterans recoiled from the notion of themselves as heroes because they knew all too well that pitiless luck and certain varieties of “vice and depravity” were what it took to survive combat.

Then again, maybe this is all just a bunch of cynical—and therefore, sentimental—hooey. “Like all dreamers, I mistook disillusion for the truth.” That’s jolly old Jean-Paul Sartre again. How come nobody ever calls him noir?

 

49 thoughts on “Noir, Tragedy, and Other Dreary Bummers (Ho Ho)

  1. Robert Carraher

    When I am trying to describe a book or story to someone what destinguishes "Noir" from say Hardboiled or just a drama/suspense/etc… is In noir, the
    protagonist is usually not a detective or cop or someone that 'acts' as a detective, but instead either a victim, a suspect, or a perpetrator. He is someone tied directly to the crime, not an outsider called in to solve or fix the situation. Often hsi or her own actions or 'failings' got them into the situation Additionaly, there is at least a pinch of irredeemably to him. He or she is not a moral or ethical paragon. Add to that, noir (as a style) is pretty sparse in language,raw, and realistic; not much melodrama and probably a pretty good measure of violence and sex.

  2. JD Rhoades

    Welcome, David! Excellent and thought -provoking post.

    I think a lot of people (including the above-mentioned marketing flacks) call something "noir" when they mean "hard-boiled." The difference is, as you mentioned, destruction. The noir "hero" doesn't win; all his choices lead to the grave or the prison cell. If it's dark and gritty, but the protagonist prevails, you're probably looking at hard-boiled. Or, as Allan Guthrie so memorably put it, "The crucifixion is noir; the resurrection is hard-boiled." I love watching a room react when he says that.

    By the way, I am totally stealing "Murderatero."

  3. Robert Carraher

    'Or, as Allan Guthrie so memorably put it, "The crucifixion is noir; the resurrection is hard-boiled."…I get so many great tip about who to read here Thanks Guys

  4. Alafair Burke

    Welcome to the gang, David. We should somehow get a trip to London to commemorate this, right?

    As for noir, I have to admit I get turned off by the term for reasons I can't really identify, an example that marketing terms can hurt at least as much as they help.

  5. MaryQuiteContrary

    While I resent the characterization "hysteric spinster," your entry was an otherwise lovely beginnning at the rat. Welcome.

  6. Murderati fan

    So that's where you find virgins.

    I'm going to read this again after my first cup of coffee. I won't need breakfast. Your post has much to consume.

    Welcome!

  7. David Corbett

    Jim Nesbit defines noir as any story in which the protagonist is totally screwed on page one and it just goes downhill from there.

    Alafair, it intrigues me that noir effects you negatively, even more so that you're not sure of the reasons. I have to admit I'm not surprised, because your disposition is basically sunny and you are, or once were, a prosecutor. I think noir appeals more to those who can identify with the lost, the trammeled, the desperate, and the genre as a whole speaks to desperation.

    Mary: I hope you realize that "hysteric spinster" was meant as tongue-in-cheek. My point was that marketing folks tend to be wildly uneasy about matters that one would not find in USA Today.

    Also — and perhaps I should have made this clearer — I do not consider myself a noir writer, and have been trying to crawl out from under that sobriquet for the whole of my career. I do, however, embrace a more tragic vision than marketing folks find appropriate for crime fiction. I don't "repsect the genre" as one editor put it.

    Who knew?

  8. MaryQuiteContrary

    <Mary: I hope you realize that "hysteric spinster" was meant as tongue-in-cheek.>

    Tongue-in-cheek? Despite my protests you continue to remark on my sex life? Appalling behavior. Who told, by the way? I withdraw my welcome and direct you to a literary erotica site where your ribald commentary will be more appreciated. No, I don't have a link.

  9. Robert Carraher

    I think I hate "labels" as a whole,(noir, thriller, literature,urban romance, hard rock, soft rock, folk rock – you get the idea) especially when used to market or advertise. But I think we come to use them as a way of trying to explain why something might appeal to us. For me, the fiction I like most is what most people would call either hardboiled or noir. I like the style of writing, the realism, the lack of flowery language. I am also a big Hemingway fan and I doubt most would call Hemingway "noir or hardboiled". they do label his work 'literature' and I think he'd shoot himself again if he heard that! That doesn't mean I like everything people call hardboiled or noir. Also, I think the term 'noir' has two meanings depending on whether you are talking about film or crime fiction. In film it probably has more to do with "style" than content. Where in fiction it has to do more with subject matter. Although, obvioulsy, the lines blur there, too. I remember reading once that "Classic Noir Film" died with the wide-spread use of color film….that makes no sense! Thats like saying rock n roll died with vinyl records.

  10. David Corbett

    Dearest Gentle MaryQuiteContrary:

    Egad, I have stumbled through the funhouse mirror and come out in a strange land where my every mangled word mocks my benign intent. Woe!

    Yeah, right. I was born with my foot in my mouth and I've been chewing away merrily ever since. (And no, a foot in the mouth is nothing like a tongue in the cheek. Usually.)

    As to who told, I'm sworn to secrecy. But I have the pictures.

    Corbett

  11. Larry Gasper

    David, good to see you on Murderati. I look forward to many thoughtful and interesting posts like this.
    I've never thought of your books as noir. ("Done for a Dime" probably comes closest, but we can discuss that over a beer or six some time) Of course, my thoughts on noir are less organized. They're more like the definition of pornography, "I know it when I see it." I see your books more as literary thrillers. They stand up both as literature and thrillers, which very few of the books labelled as literary thrillers do.
    And I'm with Louise. I love the seven dwarfs of noir.

  12. Stephen Jay Schwartz

    HOT DAMN, DAVID!

    Fer God's Sake, that was the best blog about noir I've ever set eyes on! Yer a friggin' genius, Sonny.
    Too bad you're such a dark and gritty writer, otherwise you'd be read in public.

    We're so happy to have you. You bring the best out of the worst of us.

  13. Robert Carraher

    All this got me thinking of authors that were put in the wrong 'Pigeon Hole' Kurt Vonnegut- Science Fiction? Really? Douglas Adams the same? Years ago I got caught up in Jack Whytes Camelud series and was surprised to find it filed under Science Fiction/Fantasy to me it was historical fiction-had no magic or mystical beings, even Merlin was a only a craftsman. I got caught up in Diane Gabaldon's Outlander Series and was rather shocked (and embarrassed) to be told it was a Romance. After which I pasted a cover from Mickey Spillane on the books so I could finish the series with out getting knowing winks from the guys in the lunch room.

    That said, I have come up with a new 'motto' for David: "I will not go gentle into that good noir…"

  14. David Corbett

    Folks: I'm having server issues — every time I try to respond, Safari tells me that the server discontinued the connection, try again in a few minutes, etc. I've had five responses eaten so far. If this goes through, I'll try to get my other responses up. Okay, hold on. Here goes.

  15. David Corbett

    Yay!! It went through.

    Okay: Larry — nice to hear from you. The neer invite is always open on this end as well. Hope we get to do that before too long.

    Robert: The style vs. content argument in noir has gone on for a while. Interestingly, the style of film noir largely results from the small budgets those films had. Directors had to get creative because their sets and lighting were so minimal.

    The term "film noir" didn't appear until after WWII. It was used by a French critic to describe the highly stylized American crime films that came out during the war. But the term "noir" also got used to describe many of the pulp paperbacks that came out during the 50s, especially those of Willeford and Goodis and Thompson. The usage there was both thematic and stylistic. As you noted, the writing was unadorned, focusing on momentum and raw simplicity. And the stories almost always centered on a tarnished if not openly immoral protagonist.

    Stephen: You're too kind. But I want this on my tombstone: He brought the best out of the worst of us.

  16. JT Ellison

    Corbett, a tip – aways copy your comment before you hit post – that way you never lose them! (And if you remember that, mama has a cookie for you too.)

    A brilliant analysis of noir today – and great commentary too. I'm with Alafair – I've always had a hard time with noir – it's like pornography to me – I know it when I see it. But this clears it up for me, so thanks!

    But where does the Byronic hero fit in?

  17. Allison Davis

    David,

    Noir means unhappy endings? Or, the hero always dies (Chinatown?)? Always something to chew on whether it be noir or your foot, lovely to have you streaming in my iGoogle. If Camus and Satre lean towards noir, what of Dostoyevsky? Surely the Russians have some noir leanings.

    I can see it now: The Three Murderateroes…er, the 14 Murderateroes! Swashbuckling is NOT noir.

    Even Snow White has noirish issues I see.

    Beer all around (neeringly).

  18. David Corbett

    Q: But where does the Byronic hero fit in?

    A: Somewhere between the moose and the flying squirrel.

    Ahem. I think the Byronic hero is just the chivalric hero without a horse. Oh, and he has that whole brooding loner thing.

    The real predecessor to the noir hero is the picaresque hero. This form of novel grew up in response to the chivalric romance, which had become almost comically predictable. The picaresque novels featured rogues and scoundrels and ne'er-do-wells — to hell with white knights.

    Q: If Camus and Sartre lean towards noir, what of Dostoyevsky? Surely the Russians have some noir leanings.

    A: Interesting question. Do the Russians lean more toward noir or tragedy? I think the Russians, like the Mexicans, take pride in their suffering. They don't consider it meaningless. It defines who they are. As bleak as things get for them — and they get pretty damn bleak — they see an almost operatic grandness to that.

    Now, Central Europeans, like the Czechs and Poles, who've been crushed by Slavs or Prussians or their ilk for almost the entirety of their existence — they lean a bit more toward noir. But they've also developed a kind of fatalistic wit that spares them the unrelenting bitterness you get in noir.

    To be honest, I find noir a relatively minor form except in the hands of its best practitioners, precisely because of its thematic limitations. There's not much to lose when you're already at the bottom — unless you see, in the denizens of that dark world, the glimmer of humanity and, yes, nobility that so many refuse to acknowledge. But the more you trend that direction, the further you get from noir and the closer you get to tragedy. (Aristotle would argue that tragedy requires a "preeminent" hero, but I think modernity has kicked that habit. Willie Loman ain't preeminent. Neither is Blanche Dubois.)

    Sometimes I almost wonder if noir isn't farce without the humor. Except some noir writers — Scott Phillips comes to mind — manage to be both noir and funny, without compromising either the humor or the darkness. But that's real hard to do without veering into self-parody. (That's what makes Scott such an exceptional writer, by the way. He's the true heir to Willeford.)

    David

  19. David Corbett

    Allison:

    Your Q: Noir means unhappy endings? Or, the hero always dies (Chinatown?)?

    I think noir is always about the folly of human desire, but there's a class element to it — noir does not feature the powerful or well-off as protagonists. Noir is from the POV of the little guy. He realizes his chances are few, so when one comes along, no matter how misbegotten, he feels an almost desperate need to grab on.

    I heard one definition of noir as: A story in which the hero tries for some sort of meaningful action in the face of overwhelming corruption or conformity. I like this, but I think it's over-broad. I think noir always assumes a certain venality or violence in the heart of its hero. Like I said, its roots are definitely not in the chivalric romance, but in the anti-heroes of the picaresque tradition.

    Using Chandler's formulation: the hard-boiled hero walks the mean streets but is not himself mean. The noir hero may well be mean, or greedy. He's certainly desperate, or feels desperate.

    Corbett

  20. Sandy

    Welcome, David! I have been to two Book Passages' mystery writers' long weekends, to which you contributed your incredible energy. "Noir" for me has always been dark; and I have been confused when reading books labeled "noir" that weren't dark. So I guess, after reading your erudite entry, I have been more influenced by film than by novel. And here I give you my personal definition of "noir": "When you look into the abyss, the abyss also looks into you." (Friedrich Nietsche)

  21. Robert Carraher

    Tho' the Byronic hero with his traits of "mad, bad, and dangerous to know" may at first sound Noir, they are also his goals in life, and everyone knows that noir heros only want to get rich or get laid. Their badness, madness and dangerousness are only the dotted lines drunkedly crossed on the way to a Notell Motel or somebody elses bank account. Furthermore, the Byronic hero is apt to use poetry on the way to his debaucery & doom. Noir heros would never use poetry usless it went bang bang or came out of a bottle of Rye. Noir heros aren't picaresque either since picaresque involves "clever rogues" and noir heros, tho' they think they are clever, seldom actually are. A Picaresque hero would never get a black jack up side the head, and that is all in a days work for the noir hero. As for the Russians, I think Noir is French for "Oh, those Russians". But the Mexicans on the other hand can't be noir. There is simply too damn much sunlight in their country, even after dark. No, the only noir hero in Mexico is possibly the bull. The Checz and Poles however certainly live in a rough neighborhood, so they definitly have noir tendencies.

    I will disagree on the "class element to it — noir does not feature the powerful or well-off as protagonists" parts, but then again, I am biased seeing as how Kenneth Fearings The Big Clock is one of my favorite noir stories and both Earl Janoth and George Stroud were both "well off", though both being irredeemable. It maybe hard to believe that a charcter driven to suicide by a hotile take over can't be a noir hero but I beg to differ. Matter of fact the only character in the book with redeemable qualities was the owner of Gil's Bar (presumabley Gil) with his Personal Museum. Not even the daughter, Georgette and her annoying phone calls for stories was worth saving. Course, The Big Clock may be the exception, and Fearing was a poet – which doesn't by no means tie him irrevokably to the Byronic school! -so that maybe how he pulled it off.

    In closing 😉 I am reminded of a Chandler quote: “What greater prestige can a man like me (not too gifted, but very understanding) have than to have taken a cheap, shoddy and utterly lost kind of writing, and have made of it something that intellectuals claw each other about?”

    RC

  22. KDJames

    Oh geez, it's a test and I DIDN'T STUDY! Nothing like setting the bar just a wee bit high with your first post, Corbett. I hope you realize we're going to expect this level of mental calisthenics from you every time out. Also, welcome!

    Count me among the group who have been enlightened by this definition of noir. So… is Gone With the Wind considered some kind of romance noir? Is there such a thing? And The Heart of Darkness is adventure noir? Just trying to wrap my head around the concept.

    I don't think noir is ever going to be something I seek out. I read for pleasure and escape, and I like to think what I write resonates with people who are more "like" me in that respect than not. Obviously there's a demand for it, but it seems to me life is grim and brutal enough without adding to the darkness in story form. Actually, now that I think about it (never really have before now), I have a good deal of respect for writers who can tell the dark stories and survive the journey. Not sure I could.

    [PS- You do realize that "Cabal" is Neil Gaiman's dog, right? And that when you say you've joined the Murderati Cabal, well, some of us are going to giggle inappropriately.] [Actually, "some" of us don't really need an excuse to behave inappropriately.] [Not that I'd know anything about that.]

  23. David Corbett

    Dear Pari:

    Honestly, I meant not to stuff your brain. I was actually trying for something a wee bit light. Heady, but light. Like champagne. I seem to have stumbled into the gin cabinet by mistake.

    KD: I'd like to respond to this remark: "It seems to me life is grim and brutal enough without adding to the darkness in story form."

    This seems to me to be asking for stories that ignore the elephant in the corner. As someone who's endured his fair share of grim and brutal, I can't find pleasure in art that doesn't address what I know life to be about. Even my "escapist" fare has to resonate with what I consider real or I find it slight, boring, and vaguely insulting. I grew up in a family where denial was coin of the realm. I'm done with that approach. By writing about the darkness one does not add to it. One reminds the reader that humans inhabit that darkness. And sometimes knowing you're not alone makes that darkness bearable.

    Robert: Your comment, "But the Mexicans on the other hand can't be noir." Boy, that's bad news for Paco Taibo, Rolo Diez, and Martín Solares. I'd say the Mexican soul knows suffering perhaps too intimately — and, as I said, I think this tends to make their artistic vision more tragic than noir, but there are times that feels like splitting hairs, especially in crime stories.

    Corbett

  24. Robert Carraher

    David, I try to ignore the facts as often as I can get away with it (and the elephant in the corner), thus the observations on Mexico….I stand by my noirish bull tho'. Also, after much thought (and another scotch) I'd like to reconsider my poetry observation. After all, if Burma Shave signs aren't poetry AND noir, I don't know what is.

  25. KDJames

    David, my apologies. Even as I wrote that I realized it was more than a little glib. And unworthy of this discussion. Of course we all write about the darkness — as a way to make sense of it, or to conquer it and, yes, to not feel so alone in it. If I'm understanding the definition of noir correctly, what doesn't appeal to me as a reader or a writer is the utter lack of hope in the resolution.

    You say, "By writing about the darkness one does not add to it. One reminds the reader that humans inhabit that darkness. And sometimes knowing you're not alone makes that darkness bearable." I agree. But by not offering at least a slim chance of bringing some light to the darkness — and it seems noir with its "unrelenting bitterness" does not — one risks becoming lost in it. More so as a writer than as a reader, perhaps. But maybe that's just me. We all have our elephants.

    Yes, I want stories that venture into the darkness, where things start out fucked up and go downhill from there. I don't want rainbows and unicorns, but I need stories to leave me with some faint hope that there's a way through it. I don't want to take that journey only to have it end in abject despair and destruction. That may make my tastes or my writing slight and boring but never, I hope, insulting. Sorry if it came across that way.

    Thanks for being present and engaging us all in discussion. My thoughts have been provoked. 😉

  26. Susan Shea

    "Noir is from the POV of the little guy. He realizes his chances are few, so when one comes along, no matter how misbegotten, he feels an almost desperate need to grab on." Oooh, I like that. But then why aren't books like The Devil's Redhead and Done for a Dime noir? I think both are terrific, but they strike me as being defined by the increasingly desperate attempts of little guys to turn a nasty situation to their advantage.

    So pleased you're going to be spouting classical references and French existentialism on Murderati. We can all use a little intellectual poke now and then. I'm only wondering what you'll do to top your debut in two weeks?

  27. David Corbett

    JD: NO need to apologize. But I did want to make my bid for the darker souls among us. In a country dedicated to "positive thinking" my ilk can often feel not just like outcasts but the enemy, as though we want to strangle babies in their cribs and sabotage all honeymoons just because we tend to prefer the minor modalities.

    I find hope an interesting subject. The fact that when Pandora opened the box of evils she found hope at the bottom has been interpreted two ways. Optimistically, in that despite all those evils there remains hope. Or the way the Greeks themselves viewed it–which was that hope was, after all, among the evils in the box in the first place. They in fact saw hope as the most insidious evil of all, for it tricked men into believing they could escape their fate.

    The Buddhist nun Pema Chodron wrote, "If one wants to overcome fear, one must also surrender hope." Hope and fear are two sides of the same coin–we dread the unknown, or we hope it will be better than we fear. The Buddhist response is: Don't worry about it. It will be what it will be. Fashion your character so that, no matter how things turn out, you can face it with resilience, kindness, honesty, etc. I have to admit, this view appeals to me. Things may in fact turn out terribly–I certainly know how my story will end. But that's no excuse for me to act dishonorably, or unkindly, or in a cowardly fashion.

    Susan: As for topping myself next time, I imagined that I might talk about my efforts to get drooling recognized as an Olympic event. (I've been training.)

    David

  28. Allison Brennan

    Welcome to Murderati David! I'm late to the blog tonight, which is typical for me :/ It's great to have you. I'm rather simple, so after you renamed the seven dwarves you lost me 🙂 jk.Though I do like Brooding, Dark and Relentless . . . 🙂

  29. Robin

    Welcome David,

    I'm one of the die hard reader fans of Murderati. Interesting first post and lot of food for thought. Couldn't the essentialist hero since some are considered unlikable be considered the antihero? The hero we hate? If I have that right. That's what I was reminded of while reading your thoughts.

    I have to admit that I've not read any of your books yet. *blush* I've practically read everyone's stuff here. My goal in life to read all the authors of murderati. So, I'll ask the question because generally the answer is, no don't start with my first novel. Which one of your books should I read first? They all look good by the way. Welcome to Rati. You are a welcome addition.

  30. David Corbett

    Robin:

    Thank you for considering my work, and I suppose you might as well start with the most recent book, Do They Know I'm Running?, because it's the easiest to get your hands on.

    As for your question on the anti-hero: It's late and I'm turning a bit thick in the skull, so I'm going to respond by quoting a passage from a book on character I'm writing. I know this is lazy, but it should cover the ground reasonably well:

    This underscores the uniqueness of Homer's depiction of Odysseus as heroic—if not always admirable. There simply would be no character like him in Western literature for centuries, except perhaps for the lovable rogues found in satires and comedies and picaresque novels, who lacked the epic stature of the warrior Odysseus. (The picaresque novel was in many ways a reaction to the sentimental moralizing of the chivalric romance; there are some who consider the knight errant a colossal bore, which is one reason his modern incarnation, the hard-boiled detective, pursues the Grail while also bearing the mark of Cain.)
    One catches glimpses of Odysseus in the modern antihero, who took the stage in the aftermath of a century of skepticism, from Marx to Freud to Sartre, amplified by the shattering horrors of trench warfare, carpet bombing, genocide and totalitarian brainwashing, all of which undermined not just our confidence in verities like human nobility and the forward march of history, but the very notion of the self—a capacity for disintegration captured most trenchantly in dramatic form by Winston Smith in Orwell’s 1984.
    But what made Odysseus so compelling in antiquity, and continues to make him and his modern avatars riveting today, is the fact that his actions are almost wildly unpredictable without seeming irrational. From one moment to the next his caginess, cleverness, amorality and situational awareness render him seemingly capable of anything, without violating his core character—or, even more astonishing, his status as a hero. It’s an incredible feat of moral and psychological legerdemain, one that sadly vanished from the Western imagination for centuries.
    Odysseus’ disappearance was largely due to the fact the Romans despised him—he violated their sense of the preeminence of honor. Virgil in particular never referred to him without the adjectives "cruel" or "deceitful." This is shocking, if not shameful for a poet, especially one of Virgil’s excellence. It smacks not of art but moralism’s destructive contempt for ambiguity. There is nothing dishonorable in taking human nature at face value. In fact, it takes not just compassion but courage to do so.
    Regardless, the heroic saga and chivalric romance provided the template for the hero for centuries, and this influence returned during the Romantic period and can still be seen in the “larger-than-life” characters so popular at the Cineplex. They seem to make the popcorn taste better.
    But the special case of Odysseus continues to intrigue precisely because he lay entirely within the standard heroic tradition—at least as it was envisioned (and transfigured) by Homer.
    The sagas that comprise the Trojan War narrative, including the Odyssey, mark a key turn in the portrayal of the heroic. The Iliad is not just a tale of world-altering battle; it's an account of the passing from the age of heroes such as Achilles, skilled in combat and devoted to honor, to a man like Odysseus, a man who relies not just on his martial prowess but on cunning and deceit. (Think of this transition, if you wish, as the passing of the torch from soldiers to statesmen.)
    And yet there was an uneasiness about Odysseus even among the Greeks. One sees this in some of his more unflattering portrayals—by Sophocles in Philoctetes, for example, and Euripides in Iphigenia at Aulis. And the tension in Athenian society caused by the Sophists, who touted rhetorical skill regardless of truthfulness (one of Odysseus' key attributes), is evident throughout the great dramas of the Periclean Age. Words not backed by deeds remained suspect if not openly scorned, even four hundred years after Odysseus earned Athena's praise through his capacity for lying through his teeth. Once Sparta defeated Athens—and, subsequently, Greek culture succumbed to Roman dominance—Odysseus’ eclipse was all but complete.

  31. David Corbett

    I want to thank everyone for the incredibly warm welcome I received today. You were beyond kind.

    I must retire now to tend to my loved one, who has just returned from Six Flags where she's filming the birth of a baby walrus in captivity — or she will, once the baby decides to leave Mama's pinniped womb behind. Apparently tonight was a bit of a false alarm. But the blessed event should be any day now.

    Ah, domesticity.

    David

  32. David Hewson

    Congratulations on a typically sparkling debut, David. My advice on this subject is it's mainly a matter of pronunciation. You need to start saying the word the way we Brits – who know better than the French how to speak French – say it.

    Like this…

    NOYYAAA

  33. Robin

    Thank you David, for that enlightening answer. Even if you cut and paste from your WIP on character. I saw it last night, but like you couldn't quite wrap my mind around it. Made sense today. The Iliad and The Odyssey has been staring at me from the shelves for weeks. Can see I'm going to have to break down and read them soon.

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