Monday, March 26, 2012
Guest Post: Hard-boiled Fiction and Film Noir by Steve Brewer
This week, I introduce eighteen college students to Sam Spade.
We're viewing the John Huston film "The Maltese Falcon," watching Humphrey Bogart outsmart Mary Astor and pals as they pursue "the black bird."
The students are enrolled in a class I teach in the Honors Program at the University of New Mexico. The class is called "Hard-boiled Fiction and Film Noir." I've taught it before, and always come away amazed at how little these very bright students have been exposed to private eyes in fiction and film. Most have never heard of Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler and Ross Macdonald before they take this course. A few have never watched a black-and-white movie before.
They do have a sense of what a private investigator is and what he does, but it's a vague notion of fedoras and trenchcoats and window-peeping. Until we talk about it in class, they're not aware of the place the private eye holds in the fiction tradition of the lone hero facing overwhelming odds and an uncaring society.
For those of us who write contemporary P.I. series, this lack of knowledge in the next generation of readers feels daunting and worrisome. Is there no place for the private eye anymore? Do today's youth only care about Harry Potter and sparkly vampires and Grand Theft Auto?
Here's the good news: It takes only a little exposure to get young people jazzed about private eyes. Once they've read some stories, they uniformly love the Continental Op and Philip Marlowe and Lew Archer. My students will debate long and loud over the merits of other types of hard-boiled stories or films noir, but they always recognize the private eye as a heroic figure, even when he doesn't act heroically. The students respect a man who does his job, no matter how nasty or dangerous it becomes. And that's been the lure of the private eye all along.
(Steve Brewer is the author of 20-plus crime novels, including nine stories featuring Albuquerque private eye Bubba Mabry. The latest in the series is the new novella PARTY DOLL.)