Lee Horsley
Crime Files: The Noir Thriller.

New York: Palgrave. 2001.
Hardback, 305 pgs.
ISBN 0-333-72045-8,
$ 55.

It is so obvious: the two Marlowes will finally solve the enigma of the noir thriller. It began with the Marlowe setting off into the jungle, into the ‘Heart of Darkness’, to confront the ultimate evil - Col. Kurtz, who had managed to build up a small barbarian kingdom in the heart of the Congo. Joseph Conrad’s classic novel with the emblematic title actually contains the essence of twentieth century noir-fiction. A Marlowe - actually any Marlowe from there on - will make his passage, his virtual odyssey to face - at least - his own dark heart (4). Therefor William Hjortsberg’s ‘Falling Angel’ Harry - so charismatically embodied by Mickey Rourke in Alan Parker’s brilliantly retitled film ‘Angel Heart’ (1987) - is a logical final point in the history of the noir-detective (232). But let’s start from the beginning ...
Clive Bloom’s Crime Files Series initiated a continuing series of handbooks on the various faces of detective fiction from its start in the late nineteenth century. ‘In novels, short stories, films, radio, television and now in computer games, private detectives and psychopaths, prim prisoners and overworked cops, tommy gun gangsters and cocaine criminals are the very stuff of modern imagination, and their creators one mainstray of popular consciousness’ (Bloom). In this context the ‘Noir Thriller’ - as Lee Horsley’s ‘Crime File’ is called - has the certain position of a key phenomenon for it directly points to the modern paradigm: Noir protagonists fight the fragmentation of their minds, always on the quest for the impossible final solution, to solve the enigma of an eternal crime.
Author Lee Horsley - herself Senior Lecturer at Lancaster University - analyses complex questions: ‘What is literary noir? How do British and American noir thrillers relate to their historical contexts?’ As mentioned elsewhere - secondary literature about noir is legion by today’s standards - the noir phenomenon mainly appears in times of social crisis and depression. This is certainly true for the classical hardboiled school of crime fiction: Chandler, Hammett, Cain, Woolrich, Goodis, and so on. Their lethal fantasies bloomed in the age of depression and war. Then, after World War II, the film noir - as it was named by French critics - established dark audio-visual visions based on the same topics, sometimes even more neurotic than the elder novels.
With films like ‘Chinatown’ and ‘Taxi Driver’ the noir style later proved itself alive and modern in an ultimate sense that even lead to noir being defined as a genre of its own these days. Noir broke the boundaries of the conventional crime thriller and moved towards science fiction (Philip K. Dick’s ‘Blade Runner’-Story, 238; James G. Ballard, 246) and gothic horror (William Hjortsberg, 232). So Lee Horsley’s voyage through the American and British noir thriller as a literary genre is a widespread one - hundreds of novels are examined, some of them on several pages. Horsley’s overall access to noir is via certain aspects such as ‘hard boiled investigators (23), big-shot gangsters and small-time crooks (45), victims of circumstance (67), fatal men (103), fatal women (125), strangers and outcasts (153), players, voyeurs and consumers (197)’ and, very important: ‘pasts and futures’ (228). Horsley is also well aware of the recent noir-discussion based on the books by James Naremore (‘More Than Night: Film Noir in its Contexts’, 1998) and J. P. Telotte (‘Voices in the Dark: the Narrative Patterns of Film Noir’, 1989). Naremore sees the film noir as a an American as well as European phenomenon and he manages to describe a ‘ noir category’. ‘Even if it is not, strictly speaking, a genre (in the sense that, say, the western or science fiction or the detective story are genres), it is a label that at the very least invokes “a network of ideas” that is valuable as an organising principle’(6), as Horsley describes it. In this context she also refers to the many cross-over-pieces, that are connected to noir: ‘cyber noir, tech noir, future noir’ and so on. This makes the creation of a helpful noir-category much more difficult. In addition to Naremore’s access ‘The Noir Thriller’ ‘analyses the noir crime fiction of both America and Britain, where the established tradition of the “serious thriller” [...], the post-war efforts to create British versions of recent decades have all added to the revolution of literary noir’(6). Along with Telotte the author wishes to define noir beyond the superficial aspects of just look and style. ‘It has to go beyond the visual and other specifically cinematic elements on which discussions of classic film noir have often centred, and instead take account of such things as themes, mood, characterisation, point of view and narrative pattern’(7). Therefor the special literary style of the hard-boiled-fiction is only one pattern of expression. On the other side the novels of Patricia Highsmith (120), Joseph Conrad’s ‘The Secret Agent’ (12) can be considered ‘noir’ as well for invoking a deep-rooted sense for the macabre and the dark side of the human soul - combined with the structure of a criminal story.
The second important aspect of Horsely’s study is the ‘thriller’-aspect. According to Martin Rubin (in his book ‘Thrillers’) the author points out the close relationship of and similarities between thriller and noir. ‘Excess, feeling and sensation’ as well as ‘ suspense, fear and the creation of contrasts’ (Rubin) are the identifying marks of the thriller. Along to these Horsley gives her own key elements of noir: ‘(i) the subjective point of view; (ii) the shifting roles of the protagonist; (iii) the ill-fated relationship between the protagonist and society (generating the themes of alienation and entrapment); and (iv) the ways in which noir functions as a socio-political critique’(8). With these analytical tools in the background it is certainly a pleasure to follow Lee Horsley on her well-written journey from Joseph Conrad to James Ellroy, from the ‘Black Mask’-magazine to William Gibson. Some parts of ‘The Noir Thriller’ are quite inventive as well. Especially in the ‘fatal men’-chapter aspects are mentioned that are ignored in most of the noir-studies so far which mostly lay all emphasis on the femme fatal probably due to a male perspective. So the discovery of the ‘homme fatal’ is absolutely necessary.
Very inspiring is Horsley’s technique to point out the links between literature and film throughout the whole book. She demonstrates a permanent interaction between these two media, for example on page 215-217, where she first describes Ted Lewis’ novel ‘Jack’s Return Home’ (‘a “can’t return home” plot’, 216), which later was filmed as ‘Get Carter’ (1971) by Mike Hodges - today a British noir cult movie. In addition Anthony Frewin pays tribute to this film in his 1997-novel ‘London Blues’, where the protagonist watches this film. Another example: Horsley starts with a description of Michael Powell’s serial-killer-drama and scandal movie ‘Peeping Tom’ (1959) to end in the Hollywood wasteland of James Ellroy’s ‘L. A. Quartet’ (214). On the other side the book ‘Noir Thriller’ is probably the first to locate Bret Easton Ellis’ novel ‘American Psycho’ in the noir-context - and this makes perfectly sense, for this novel is ‘going beyond genre fiction but nevertheless closely linked to the techniques, materials and metaphors of the consumer society thriller’ (221). The film based on this novel shows these noir-elements even more obviously.
What I actually missed in this undoubtedly perfectly researched book are two people: Neil Jordan and Buddy Giovinazzo. The Irish writer and director Jordan became popular due to his British noir-trilogy ‘Angel’ (1982), ‘Mona Lisa’ (1986) and ‘The Crying Game’ (1992). These films seem to be of interest for the British noir tendencies in the eighties. On the other side (of the ocean) Giovinazzo wrote several novels of hardboiled urban thrillers, e.g. ‘Poetry and Purgatory’ or ‘On Broken Street’, which - partly inspired by Hubert Selby - are a very pure vision of neo-modern noir-fiction in the nineties. Even his film ‘No Way Home’ (1997) fits into this context. But anyway - there is so much left to discover in Lee Horsley’s ‘The Noir Thriller’.
Unfortunately the brownish-orange book-cover - using the old paperback cover illustration of Jim Thompson’s ‘Recoil’ - is not quite adequate for this otherwise solidly crafted hardback-edition. But nevertheless the dated picture used here - a Monroe-look-alike and an escaping young man - somehow carries the spirit of the old hardboiled-school... Finally this basic exploration is recommended as a handbook for anyone with deeper interest in classical as well as modern crime fiction, and it may be of use for the audience of the noir and neo-noir cinema for exploring its official sources of inspiration.

Marcus Stiglegger