In which we begin moving forward by going backward.
By Kevin Comer
I pitched the idea for this guest post to D. R. with what seemed at the time to be a simple and self-evident declaration: “McGee is not noir.” I knew what I meant and I think D. R. did, too. As soon as he gave me the green light, I dove in, going a dozen different directions. And in no time, I found myself in a confused muddle—a state I’m not entirely unfamiliar with.
I had conceived of this post as a kind of mapping of the history of modern American crime fiction, tracing “the thread” running from Hammett to MacDonald. As is so often the case with preconceived notions, the reality proved more complex and a good deal less straightforward. Even my notion of “Noir,” while valid in some respects, was naive, which requires me to begin with a bit of a philological digression.
“Noir” is the French word for “black.” It came to be loosely associated with crime fiction in America when it was imported from French film criticism, describing certain visually distinctive black-and-white American movies made in the ’40s and ’50s. The French film critic, Nino Frank, dubbed these movies “film noir” because of their shadowy, evocative lighting and dynamic compositions. The plots of film noir were often borrowed from contemporary hard-boiled American crime fiction. To name just a few: The Glass Key and The Maltese Falcon by Dashiell Hammett; Double Indemnity and The Postman Always Rings Twice by James M. Cain; The Big Sleep and Lady in the Lake by Raymond Chandler. Given this, it is easy to see how “noir” could come to be associated with stories of this sort, although, technically, “noir” was not applied to literary fiction until the 1980s, when once again we are indebted to the French.
In France, the American hard-boiled crime novel is called “roman noir,” or black novel. In 1984, Barry Gifford, who founded Black Lizard Books, used the term to describe the work of Jim Thompson and others (such as David Goodis), whom he had rediscovered on a shelf labeled “Roman Noir” in a French bookshop. The stories of Thompson and others represent a particularly disturbing brand of hard-boiled thriller. The first-person protagonist, instead of being the usual detective, is a victim, a suspect, or a perpetrator, and frequently self-destructive, if not outright psychopathic. In America, this hard-boiled sub-genre has subsequently become known as noir fiction. If you read Thompson’s excellent Pop. 1280, as I did as part of my research for this post, you’ll discover just how “noir” noir fiction can be.
Although examples of what is now called noir fiction go as far back as W. R. Burnett’s Little Caesar (1929), it was the so-called second-generation crime writers—such as Thompson—who took the form to new levels in the explosion of original paperback novels that began in 1950. This blast of paperback fiction is where we can begin to tie in John D. MacDonald.
In 1950, Fawcett created Gold Medal Books to publish original stories in paperback. This is an early example of creative destruction in the publishing industry. Until the establishment of Gold Medal Books, paperbacks were almost always reprints of books originally published in hardcover, and as such had been deemed sufficiently literary and mainstream to merit publishing. Gold Medal Books blew the doors off this business model.
Gold Medal Books was not constrained by the judgments of traditional publishers. Much of what Gold Medal published was considered somewhat sleazy at the time. For example, Gold Medal published the first lesbian pulp novel, Women’s Barracks by Tereska Torrés. Nonetheless, Gold Medal Books was an immediate success, revolutionizing the publishing industry of its day and eventually ending the long run of the pulp magazines, which hitherto had been the primary outlet for writers such as Thompson and JDM. After selling more than two hundred short stories, JDM had his first novel, The Brass Cupcake, published by Gold Medal Books in 1950.
Stay tuned for Part Two, wherein we consider McGee’s origin.