The Noir Thriller: Introduction ~ extract from Lee Horsley, The Noir Thriller (Palgrave, 2001)
Murder. Lust. Greed. Despair...And Literary Criticism. No wonder they called it the Waste Land.
The noir thriller is one of the most durable popular expressions of the kind of modernist pessimism epitomised in The Waste Land. This relationship is wittily suggested by Martin Rowson's comic book version of the poem, conflating Eliot's vision of modern life with the quest of a hard-boiled detective. Condensed into Rowson's opening page of 'Burial of the Dead' (see Fig. 1 in Palgrave edn.) are fragmentary hints of common themes: death without renewal, the past, memories and 'old desires', the mysterious clues and fractured narratives that are part of the atomised urban scenes of modernity, plus a glance back ('Marlowe, Chris Marlowe') to an earlier period of disillusionment and alienation, the darkly violent world of revenge tragedy. As a parodist, Rowson is taking advantage of a noir iconography that can be reduced to the immediately recognisable elements of the private eye and the mean streets, the scene evoked by Chandler's famous pronouncement that 'Down these mean streets a man must go who is not himself mean, who is neither tarnished nor afraid.' The extent to which the image is ripe for parody is evidence of its wide currency. So potent an icon is the private eye that it sometimes seems difficult to detach the popular conception of noir from the compelling figures of Marlowe and Spade and - uniting the roles - Humphrey Bogart. Even in academic studies, a recurrent problem (weakening efforts to analyse later adaptations of the form) is that the tradition of the noir thriller is identified wholly with the tough, resilient individualism of the hard-boiled detective who acts to reconstitute order. I wish in this study to establish a much broader understanding of literary noir and of the many different protagonists who go down small-town Main Streets and country roads as well as down mean streets and dark alleyways. Private eyes play a part, but so do transgressors and victims, strangers and outcasts, tough women and sociable psychopaths. These are characters who are tarnished and afraid, and who find it difficult or impossible to escape from the 'bleakness, darkness, alienation, disintegration', the 'sense of disorientation and nightmare' that are associated with the modernist crisis of culture.
The influence of various strands of European cinematic modernism on American film noir has been extensively analysed. Critics have stressed the impact of the visual style of German Expressionist cinema and of French Poetic Realism, with its 'poetry of wet cobblestones, of nights in the faubourgs and of bleak dawns'; they have related the American phenomenon to European representations of criminal psychology and working-class crime and to the 'noir dynamics' of the British films of Hitchcock. James Naremore, in his recent analysis of the contexts of film noir, suggests that the French critics who, in the mid-1940s, first applied the term 'film noir' might well have agreed on a formulation that defined noir as 'a kind of modernism in the popular cinema'. Modernism might seem to be separated from both Hollywood and pulp fiction by such qualities as its formal complexity and technical display, its aesthetic self-consciousness, its association with high culture and its rejection of classical narrative. But with its 'extraordinary compound' of apparently contradictory elements, modernism did encompass many impulses that found natural expression in a popular genre engaged in undermining the essentially optimistic thrust of other popular forms, such as detective and action adventure stories. Thematic links are the most apparent. Words associated with noir, such as 'angst, despair, nihilism', echo standard summations of modernism. 'The idea of the modern', as Bradbury and McFarlane define it, is 'bound up with consciousness of disorder, despair, and anarchy', with 'the intellectual conventions of Plight, Alienation, and Nihilism'. Strindberg's description of his characters in Miss Julie (1888) can, they suggest, be taken to express the modernist sense of fragmentation and discontinuity: 'Since they are modern characters, living in an age of transition...I have drawn them as split and vacillating...conglomerations of past and present...'. Although the aesthetic sophistication and deliberate difficulty of the modernist response was not appropriate to a popular genre, modernist techniques as well as themes helped to shape literary noir, encouraging, for example, the use of irony, non-linear plots, subjective narration and multiple viewpoints.
The two modernist writers whose names are most often invoked in discussions of literary noir are Eliot and Conrad. The influence of Eliot is very evident, for example, in the work both of Graham Greene ('Greeneland' has been called' 'a province of the Waste Land') and of Dashiell Hammett, 'the earliest and most radical of the popular modernists', who was reading Eliot at the time that he wrote The Glass Key and talked at length about Eliot with Lillian Hellman. One of the most striking post-war examples of the 'Waste Land' theme is William Lindsay Gresham's Nightmare Alley (1946), which uses Eliot's lines on Madam Sosostris as an epigraph and has chapters named for the Tarot cards. Conrad more directly contributed to the development of the noir thriller. Aside from some of his own literary ancestors (for example, Dostoevsky and Dickens), Conrad, who both exemplifies emergent modernism and combines this with a leaning towards popular culture, is the most notable of the pre-World War One novelists to produce proto-noir fiction. Heart of Darkness (1902) is the novel most cited in relation to noir themes like otherness and the crossing of boundaries into dark, forbidden zones. Marlow's withholding of the truth from Kurtz's Intended presupposes an unbridgeable gap between hard masculine sensibilities and the sheltered gentility of the 'feminine' middle classes, and his show of masculine fortitude in confronting disturbing realities is part of the ethos behind the creation of the noir thriller as a 'tough', male-dominated popular genre. Secret Agent (1907) anticipates popular literary noir even more plainly. It is a text that goes some way towards defining noir sensibility and narrative techniques, with its ironic presentation of the perceptions of guilty and vulnerable characters, its non-linear structure and inconclusive ending. Although it was published near the beginning of the century, Secret Agent was a novel more in accord with the mood of the interwar years. In his 1920 'Author's Note', Conrad looks back on the reasons for the criticisms that were initially made of it. He confesses that he had not guessed how disturbed earlier audiences would be by the 'sordid surroundings and the moral squalor' of a tale dealing with 'the poignant miseries and passionate credulities of a mankind always so tragically eager for self-destruction' (Secret Agent , 7-8).
In a study that begins with Secret Agent as an early example of the defining elements of noir and ends with the 'future noir' of the nineties, I am inevitably parting company with those analyses which see noir as narrowly time-bound. As will also become clear, I do not see it as an exclusively American phenomenon. Many critics of film noir have maintained that the label can legitimately be applied only to a specific cycle of post-World War Two Hollywood films, the limits of which are most often fixed as 1941 (the year of John Huston's film of The Maltese Falcon) and 1958 (with Welles' Touch of Evil marking the end of the cycle). Such firm national and chronological boundaries are problematic even for the classic cycle of film noir. Reflection on an unrealised Welles project suggests some of the difficulties. Had Welles fulfilled his intention of filming Heart of Darkness in 1940, it might now have been regarded as 'the first example of American film noir'. It might equally, because of its date, setting and subject matter, have been relegated to the margins of canonical film noir, rather in the way that Greene's Conrad-influenced The Third Man (Carol Reed, 1949) and Alfred Hitchcock's adaptation of Secret Agent have been. The latter, released as Sabotage, was directed by Hitchcock in pre-World War Two England (1936) and usually finds no place in studies of film noir. But Raymond Durgnat's 'Paint It Black: the Family Tree of the Film Noir', which is one of the early (1970) Anglo-American essays responsible for introducing the concept of noir to an English-speaking audience, does include Hitchcock's film amongst a large number of other European films noirs. These movies - French, Italian, German and English - are all, Durgnat maintains, comparable to the Hollywood films noirs of the forties and fifties. Nevertheless, they are commonly excluded from standard studies of the phenomenon. In extending his range of films, Durgnat argues that noir should be viewed as 'perennial' rather than historically limited and that it should be seen as part of a much wider Western literary tradition.
In recent years, critics have increasingly followed Durgnat 's example. The motivation for a chronological broadening of the term has not only been to draw in pre-World War Two examples (as Durgnat does) but to expand the category sufficiently to include the burgeoning phenomenon of 'neo-noir', which was already beginning to appear at the time that American critics first adopted the French label. Silver and Ward, for example, in their Film Noir: An Encyclopedic Reference to the American Style, choose as their first film the 1927 Underworld, directed by Josef von Sternberg - 'the first modern gangster film in which the heroes are actually criminals'. At the same time, they push their analysis forward, including in their list of canonical films noirs a movie as recent as Scorsese's 1976 Taxi Driver, and separately discussing neo-noir films up to 1992 (twenty-one films in that year alone, including Tarantino's Reservoir Dogs). The 1996 Film Noir Reader (edited by Silver and Ursini) reprints essays that range over noir from Borde and Chaumeton's seminal piece of the mid-1950s to, for example, a 1990 Todd Erickson article arguing that noir really only becomes a genre (neo-noir) in the eighties, when it emerges from its 'embryonic' state in the sixties and seventies. One of the best recent analyses, Naremore's More Than Night, explores 'noir and its contexts' from the classic 1940s films to L. A. Confidential (1997). In terms of its national character, Naremore sees noir as occupying 'a liminal space somewhere between Europe and America': both its relationship to European modernism and the extensive current use of the term suggest that it is 'a phenomenon that transcends national boundaries'. Arguments remain for emphasising American pre-eminence in the creation of noir: the majority of influential films and novels are American, and literary noir, like film noir, has developed in ways closely related to the social, cultural and political history of the United States. But this is only part of the story, and it in no sense detracts from the 'American character' of much that is best in literary and cinematic noir to consider this body of work in relation to other lines of development.
This broadening of the term, of course, complicates one of the questions that critics continue to debate. That is, what kind of classification is 'noir'? Is it a visual style, a tone, a genre, a generic field, a movement, a cycle, a series - or just a helpful category? Naremore argues that having a 'noir category' serves an important function, and his position over the matter of generic status serves also for this study. 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. Such is the 'flexibility, range, and mythic force' of the concept of noir that it belongs 'to the history of ideas as much as to the history of cinema' and is too useful to abandon as a means of textual classification. Whatever its generic status, the word 'noir' has become widespread both in academic discourse and as 'a major signifier of sleekly commercial artistic ambition.' In the cinema alone, there have been over three hundred noir-influenced films released since 1971, and the term is applied not only to films and novels but to television programmes, comics and video games, a growth in usage that has spawned 'fusion phrases' such as 'cable noir', 'TV noir', 'pop noir', 'cyber noir', 'tech noir', 'future noir' and 'digital noir'.
This study analyses the noir crime fiction of both America and Britain, where the established tradition of the 'serious thriller' (Conrad, Greene, Ambler), the post-war efforts to create British versions of American popular fiction and the distinctively British thrillers of recent decades have all added to the evolution of literary noir. The discussion begins with American 'hard-boiled' noir thrillers of the 1920s and takes in a wide range of American and British literary noir through the end of the 1990s. I consider both constant elements and changing patterns in the noir thriller and work towards a definition of noir applicable to the range of texts that have been included. In his study of the narrative structures of film noir, J. P. Telotte argues that noir is 'a narrative form with specific conventions and concerns which bulk beyond the cinema's limited confines'; these conventions and concerns are evident not just in films but in the novels of writers like Hammett, Chandler, James M. Cain, Cornell Woolrich, Jim Thompson, David Goodis and Dorothy B. Hughes. As Telotte says, a definition appropriate to novels as well as to films must be based on something other than the 'look' of noir. 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.
This study will also, for reasons I return to in Chapter 1, separate the definition of noir from literary style, in particular from the distinctive stylistic attributes of hard-boiled fiction. Like the visual style of film noir, the hard-boiled style is only one means of expressing the noir vision. The popularly recognised stylistic traits of noir that Rowson draws on for his parody are the look (the dark shadows and claustrophobic scene) and the tough manner ('the old dame in the doorway coming in like a mean martini'). These signal what are clearly important forms of noir - classic film noir and hard-boiled fiction - but they by no means exhaust the possibilities. There are many other settings, from sun-drenched small towns to snow-bound mountains, and many other styles of speech. Cornell Woolrich, for example, in Waltz into Darkness (1947), concludes his despairing final scene with the lines, 'The soundless music stops. The dancing figures wilt and drop. The Waltz is done' (310). Patricia Highsmith, describing her murderer-to-be, Ripley, as he embarks for Europe, writes: 'His mood was tranquil and benevolent, but not at all sociable...He was courteous, poised, civilized and preoccupied' (The Talented Mr Ripley , 31), and the style of her narrative is always in keeping with her protagonist's aspirations to poise and civility. The narrator of J. G. Ballard's Cocaine Nights (1996) assures us that 'Nothing could ever happen in this affectless realm, where entropic drift calmed the surfaces of a thousand swimming pools' (35). Although they are no less 'noir', there is little in the style of such passages to connect Woolrich, Highsmith and Ballard with Hammett and the tough guy 'hard-boilers' of the thirties.
In this study (as the reader will have observed from the title) 'noir' is coupled with 'thriller'. A label such as 'the noir crime novel' also describes the texts I have included: as defined by Julian Symons, the crime novel (as distinct from the classic detective story) need not have a detective (and hence does not need clues or forensic details), makes characters and their psychological make-up the basis of the story and often radically questions 'some aspect of law, justice or the way society is run'. All of these characteristics are to be found in the texts discussed, and 'crime novel' will be used interchangably with 'thriller'. 'Thriller' also, however, carries other connotations which perhaps make it the more apposite term. The definition set out in Martin Rubin's recent book, Thrillers, suggests how closely related the concept of the thriller is to noir, and how the addition of the adjective 'noir' can be seen as intensifying some of the defining characteristics of the thriller. In Rubin's formulation, the identifying marks of the thriller include: excess, feeling and sensation, as opposed to the rationality implicit in the structure of the classic detective story; suspense, arising from the involvement of the protagonist in menacing events (in contrast to the detachment of the traditional detective); the evocation of fear and anxiety; the creation of contrasts due to threatening eruptions in the normal; ambivalence; vulnerability; and a sense of being carried away (control-vulnerability being 'a central dialectic of the thriller, closely related to sadism-masochism'). In reflecting on the meanings of 'noir', it will be apparent how inextricably linked it is to this idea of the thriller, and how noir accentuates fear and anxiety, ambivalence and vulnerability (for example, by the destabilising of roles and emphasis on the protagonist's weakness and limitations). The main elements in my own definition of noir are: (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.
Silver and Ward's observation that 'The most consistent aspect of film noir, apart from its visual style, is its protagonists' could be taken to imply that in literary noir it is the creation of the protagonist that is of paramount importance. Two things should be brought into focus here. The first is the representation of the protagonist's subjectivity - his perceptions (both accurate and deluded), his state of mind, his desires, obsessions and anxieties; the second is the nature of the roles assumed by the protagonist, that is, the extent to which he functions as victim, transgressor or investigator. The need for attending to the handling of perspective in film noir is concisely summed up in Fritz Lang's explanation of his subjective camera work: 'You show the protagonist so that the audience can put themselves under the skin of the man'; by showing things 'wherever possible, from the viewpoint of the protagonist' the film gives the audience visual and psychological access to his nightmarish experiences. In literary noir, this effect is often discussed in relation to the use of first-person narration, many noir thrillers being narrated by the protagonist. It is more to the point, however, to say that, whether the narrative is first- or third-person, it is kept close to the mind of the character who is immersed in the action and struggling to make sense of what is happening. The noir narrative is frequently focused through the mind of a single character who is bemused or disingenuous; it ironises his evasions and disguises; it calls into question his judgements; it foregrounds the difficulties of interpreting a mendacious society. Alternatively, noir writers create several unreliable narratives: Kay Boyle's Monday Night (1938) presents the stories of supposed murderers which turn out in the end to be the fabrications of a mad 'dispenser of justice' (133); Jim Thompson, in The Criminal (1953) and The Kill-Off (1957), employs multiple narrators who contend for control of the narrative and in the end leave the reader unsure of the truth of the matter, suggesting the futility of trying to arrive at any objective understanding of events. The disturbing subjects of film noir are made doubly so by the fact that crime, corruption, psychosis and desire are channelled, as Telotte says, 'into an unprecedented concern with how we see, understand, and describe our world'.
As in Conrad's Secret Agent, noir plots turn on falsehoods, contradictions and misinterpretations, and the extent to which all discourse is flawed and duplicitous is a dominant theme. 'Like high art,' James Sallis writes, 'these stories...unfold the lies society tells us and the lies we tell ourselves.' Although Conrad's complex prose and his chilly, detached third-person narration differ greatly from the immediate, colloquial style of the American hard-boiled writers, he in fact achieves a similar effect by allowing us to see events from multiple viewpoints. Each character's angle of is vision ironised, but we are nevertheless given extended insights into the highly subjective perceptions of Verloc, Winnie, Ossipon, the Chief Inspector and so on. Conrad builds to scenes of complete and blackly comic mutual incomprehension: 'He wished only to put heart into her. It was a benevolent intention, but Mr Verloc had the misfortune not to be in accord with his audience' (203). The sustained irony of style serves not just to make us aware of characters' misjudgements and misconceptions but, in the broadest terms, to create a picture of a society in which everyone is a 'secret agent' and no one is to be taken at face value, in which no appearances actually correspond to realities and in which supposed order is revealed to be anarchy.
The unsettling effect of the manipulation of point of view is heightened by the unstable position of the protagonist. The iconic figures of noir are more complex and ambiguous than the traditional detective, the cowboy or the action hero. In Story, Robert McKee writes that the subgenres of crime story 'vary chiefly by the answer to this question: From whose point of view do we regard the crime?' Noir, he suggests, is characterised by the 'POV of a protagonist who may be part criminal, part detective, part victim of a femme fatale.' The femme fatale is a stereotype more prevalent in film noir than literary noir (and victimisation certainly need not be at her hands), but this in other respects succinctly captures one of the essential aspects of noir narrative. That is, we are brought close to the mind of a protagonist whose position vis a vis other characters is not fixed. Treacherous confusions of his role and the movement of the protagonist from one role to another constitute key structural elements in noir narrative. The victim might, for example, become the aggressor; the hunter might turn into the hunted or vice versa; the investigator might double as either the victim or the perpetrator. Whereas the traditional mystery story, with its stable triangle of detective, victim and murderer, is reasonably certain to have the detective as the protagonist, noir is a deliberate violation of this convention. In noir, victim, criminal and investigator can all act as protagonists: combinations or reversals of roles and the destabilising of identities mean that, as McKee's brief formulation suggests, it is rare for central characters to occupy single fixed positions in the narrative. So, for example, another of the distinctly noirish qualities of Conrad's Secret Agent is the way in which changing roles undermine any sense of a traditional character triangle. Even the most innocent or altruistic action (Winnie's sisterly protection of Stevie, her mother's self-sacrificing removal of herself) contributes to death and disaster; a victim (Winnie) becomes a murderer; the inadvertent murderer of Stevie (Verloc) becomes Winnie's victim; the motives of the investigator are suspect, his apparently miraculous insights are in large part accidental, and he precipitates deaths (Verloc's, Winnie's) in ways he could never have anticipated. Guilt for the disasters that befall is distributed amongst the characters: since virtually everyone is guilty, there is no single 'guilty party' as there is in the classic detective novel. An exploration of guilt is at the core of noir, and there can be no clear distinction between guilt and innocence.
Shared guilt is often the only common bond amongst noir characters, who are usually doomed to be isolated and marginalised. The main themes of the noir thriller are generalisations of the ill-fated relationship between the protagonist and his society. Characters suffer either from failures of agency (powerlessness, immobilising uncertainty) or from loss of community (isolation, betrayal). Obsessed, alienated, vulnerable, pursued or paranoid, they struggle with fatality, suffering existential despair as they act out narratives that raise the question of whether they are making their own choices or following a course dictated by fate. The forces affecting the protagonist can be perceived as a manifestation of the world's randomness and absurdity. But the historical dimension of noir fatality is strong. The protagonist feels his course to be shaped by society's injustices, failures, prejudices or pressures, and this historical specificity accounts for marked changes over time in the nature of the noir narrative. The forces controlling the lives of the characters are conceived in terms of the dominant conceptions of social-political determinants. Thus, in the interwar years, characters' fates are repeatedly seen as the result of deprivation - economic injustice obviously being a primary concern. In the post-World War Two period fate is recurrently associated with difference, with alienation or exclusion from a conformist and prejudiced society. Although both of these patterns are still to be seen in contemporary noir, there has been a tendency, particularly post-1980s, to think of an individual's fate less as the result of deprivation or difference than as a consequence of dependence on a consumer society. Instead of being tempted into a dangerous demi-monde, protagonists are lured by a seductive commodity culture and a society of spectacle. Collusion, complicity and assimilation become significant sources of anxiety.
The noir narrative confronts the protagonist with a rift in the familiar order of things or (particularly in contemporary noir) with a recognition that apparent normality is actually the antithesis of what it seems to be: it is brutal rather than benign, dehumanised not civilised. In the course of the story, it becomes clear that the things that are amiss cannot be dealt with rationally and cannot ultimately be put to rights. The protagonist is often, at best, offered (like Conrad's Marlow) a 'choice of nightmares' (Heart of Darkness, 89); he has 'no exit, no options.' This entrapment is frequently conveyed through surreal images of being imprisoned by irrational impulses or external compulsions. Marlow, telling his listeners in Heart of Darkness that he is trying to convey 'that notion of being captured by the incredible which is the very essence of dreams' (39), evokes the oneiric quality that noir often possesses. In those plots set in motion by the sudden intrusion of the 'incredible' into ordinary experience, the protagonist becomes involved in a futile effort to restore order to a life that has been captured by the forces of unreason. As readers, our own sense of disorientation may be reinforced by the fact that we only gradually, by means of a non-linear narrative, discover causes and consequences.
Our piecemeal discovery of information corresponds to the protagonist's difficulties in arriving at any secure knowledge by means of orderly enquiry. The bloody and fragmentary remains of Stevie, whose violent disintegration is the central event of Secret Agent, can only gradually be interpreted by characters who, like Conrad's readers, have not witnessed the tragedy. The impact of this event in turn shatters what had seemed (to those who did not enquire too deeply) a safe society and a stable domestic world, which, like Stevie himself, can never be reassembled: the novel ends with Ossipon still struggling to interpret the 'impenetrable mystery' of Winnie's death, her 'act of madness or despair' (249). What has broken through an apparently secure social structure is the criminality, cruelty and brutality which in the noir vision are always there. They are not just the 'dark secret' of respectable society but an inescapable part of it, only thinly disguised by civilised pretence. The dispersal of guilt, the instability of roles, and the difficulties of grasping the events taking place all mean that there can be no 'simple solution'. Even if there is a gesture in the direction of a happy ending, the group reformed is damaged and cannot return to prior innocence. It is in the nature of noir that guilt never disappears, and any resolution will be coloured by the 'cynical, existentially bitter' attitude that is generally taken to be one of the hallmarks of noir, creating a tone that can be blackly comic but that, if it modulates too far towards light humour, or becomes upbeat or sentimental, will lose its 'noirish' quality.
The guilt represented in the noir thriller is both individual and social, and the narrative is thus both transgressive and critical. Noir is 'the voice of violation', acting to expose the inadequacy of conventional cultural, political and also narrative models. It expresses fears and anxieties but also has the potential for critique, for undermining complacency and illusions (the false promises of the American dream; the hypocrisy of the British establishment). The fact that film noir was created in the post-war United States is often attributed to an atmosphere in which American society 'came into a more critical focus.' More generally, the noir sensibility may come to the fore at any time of discontent and anxiety, of disillusionment with institutional structures and loss of confidence in the possibility of effective agency. The transgressions represented can be a mirror, the damaged self as an image of the society that caused the deformation or the unbalanced mind as a metaphor for society's lunacy (the burden of the past carried into the future as inescapable fatality). They can also be a protest, an attack on corruptions or injustices in the wider community. Each section of this study will sketch in the social, political and cultural circumstances to which noir thrillers were responding - for example, the unprecedented disruptions brought by two world wars, economic crises, the rise of aggressive ideologies, racial conflicts, Cold War paranoia, the emergence of the consumer society, the Thatcher-Reagan years. The noir thriller is rooted in its own time and place. Social realism and the choice of contemporary society as subject, a sceptical attitude towards received opinions and established institutions, and a strong satiric edge are all characteristic features. The ironies can, of course, be relatively unsophisticated, operating to expose obvious discrepancies between appearance (admired establishment figures and law enforcers) and reality (underlying criminality). In much literary noir, however, more subtle ironies proliferate and produce an essentially modernist undermining of conventional values and 'moral meaning', unsettling confidence in our ability to interpret and judge the world, and broadening the noir critique, prompting a sceptical distrust of the whole of society. Literary like cinematic noir often moves towards a universal sense of absurdity - towards what Alfred Appel calls noir's 'black vision of despair, loneliness and dread - a vision that touches an audience most intimately because it assures that their suppressed impulses and fears are shared human responses.' But the immediate causes of pessimism and despair are grounded in the lies and corruptions of a particular milieu. The outcome of the noir narrative may be the utter disintegration of the human - imaged in Stevie's violent death. Its substance, though, is almost invariably a specific, time-bound struggle with doubtful meanings in a world of deliberate deceptions. This constant theme is epitomised in the question that rises in Stevie's mind when Winnie persuades him that the metropolitan police are not 'a sort of benevolent institution for the suppression of evil': 'What did they mean by pretending then? Unlike his sister, who put her trust in face values, he wished to go to the bottom of the matter' (143-4).