Last Thursday 17th March, we launched an anthology titled: Bangkok Noir. Six of the twelve authors were able to attend the launch at the Foreign Correspondents Club of Thailand. We had a full house to an enthusiastic audience of expats and Thais. As the editor of Bangkok Noir, I had some comments about the ‘noir’ movement worldwide.
Here’s a partial list of cities which currently have a volume of short fiction published about and set in the city in the title: The noir fiction: Manhattan, Berlin, Los Angeles, Brooklyn, Boston, Queens, Bronx, Seattle, Wall Street, D.C., San Francisco, Chicago, Phoenix, Baltimore, Haiti, Delhi, Barcelona, Paris, London. Havana, Dublin, Mexico City, Rome, and Moscow.
Bangkok Noir includes tales of love and betrayal, the supernatural, the far distant future, hitmen and gangsters. Stories in this collection include: Tew Bunnag’s The Mistress is free, Vasit Dejunkorn’s The Sword, Burdett’s Go East, Cotterill’s Halfhead, Hallinan’s Hansum Man, Leather’s Inspector Zhang and the Dead Thai Gangster. There are hired killers and jazzmen, drunks and dreamers, corrupt cops and ticket scalpers and junkies.
Why has noir fiction become popular worldwide?
A case can be made that crime arises from the lowest groups in a society. The middle-class finds a way to express political discontent with protest and demonstrations. Criminals have far less faith in a system that offer them few advantages and opportunities. Crime has mostly been thought of as a short-cut to gaining inside a system stacked against the criminal and people in his/her class. Crime has also jumped the class line into banking and finance. Greed knows no class boundary. Only the opportunity presented for the big score is class-defined. If a ruler runs a country without any accountability or transparency, the magnitude of crime registers 9.0. As we see in the Middle-East, the dictators become the new ‘noir’ criminals who seem to have no way out. So yes, we love noir for different reasons than earlier writers and readers. And that is because we have a new idea of who are the real criminals.
There are noir readers who still love the classical noir story. In these books, we follow criminals who appear from dense urban areas where an underclass is left to languish. Many of the stories in noir fiction are hardboiled crime stories. There is a ray of hope that something good can emerge from the chaos and suffering. Crime in this world is upward mobility and status for those locked out the political system and living in grinding poverty. We watch such a criminal struggle, and ultimately find his/her efforts come to nothing as he/she is pulled back under the waterline in true noir fashion, or that person survives to fight another day.
Crime fiction also taps into the race, religion and ethnic divisions. These divisions in the third-world are a source of resentment, anger and hatred. These ‘hot’ emotions feed anti-social behavior against the ‘others’ who live on the other side of the racial, religious or ethnic divide. It is much easier to steal from, murder or rape the ‘others’ who because of skin color, faith, or ancestry, are different.
Criminals are not the only ones who feel alienated in the modern world. A lot of people feel frustrated, shut out, marginalized and hopeless. Crimes stories draw upon our deepest fears that there is no way out. The old perception is that the police and courts and politicians act for a narrow class of people and repress anyone bold enough to challenge their interests. The new perception is the ruling class has become a dangerous criminal class. In the old noir there is no escaping the fate of the criminal who is also a victim. In the New Noir, it is old powerful elites who are trapped and looking for an escape. It is that sense of doom, uncertainty and dread that many people are curious to read about. Where the hunter becomes the hunted, the tables are turned. In the New Noir, the attention of the world is on whether the old criminal rulers will suffer a similar fate.
And how is noir set outside the Western world different in content, story, and conflict?
In the West, as imperfect as the press and governments are, there remains a base-line that is only rarely crossed. In flawed democracies—and there are many examples—the daily disappearance, extra-judicial killings, torture, illegal detentions ten years ago would have barely registered in the consciousness of most people. With the rise of social networking, this harsh, brave new world of power that operates with immunity and impunity in many parts of the world is accessible and visible. Modern noir fiction set in the so-called third world have helped many to understand the cultural stage on which the actors parade private violence, corruption and cheating.
Crime fiction sows the seeds that criminal behavior is a label used by ‘criminal’ regimes to repress those who challenge their authority. Crime is always a challenge to authority. By its very nature, crime is subversive undermining the existing order and intuitions. But if the authority itself is involved in criminal behavior and isn’t viewed as legitimate, the moral force against crime is lost. This absence of consensus about values and norms leaves a vacuum and it is filled with instability.
There is another reason ‘third world’ New Noir is gaining a worldwide readership and it has do with the problem of dictatorships and the growing sense that democracy may not ultimately succeed as the model for the future. Modern social networks remain in their infancy but all the evidence suggests digital communications may be the pushback chance against dictatorship. Dictators have historically succeeded in isolating people inside their private fear and that keeps most everyone docile. Those who don’t toe the line are branded ‘criminals’. That consensus held together by fear is breaking down just about everywhere.
Real criminals have never been docile and dictators hire thugs to be their secret police and prison guards as it is better to co-opt the violent criminal class for the dictator’s purposes than to fight them one-by-one, hoping that somehow they don’t wake up one morning and find they gathered into a low-grade insurgency. People and criminals are manageable, as long as are atomized, broken up into individuals, estranged from each other, permitting dictators to sleep easily.
Crime fiction is about criminals who to varying degrees employ plans, organization and violence to achieve gain or revenge. In the end, though, is a message that such people aren’t ever going to succeed. The larger powers will destroy them. We love Noir fiction because it dares. Hard men and women act in subversive ways and defy authority. Thinking about a class of criminals as low-grade rebels against an overwhelmingly corrupt system gives the reader the thrill of going against the system from the armchair.
The challenge of New Noir is for readers to imagine criminals as victim but the kind of victim that refuses to submit to dictatorship but goes down fighting. If these political struggles end in blood and tears, is it better to die on one’s feet than to live on one’s knees?
Fear has always been the dictator’s best friend. If they have the guns and bullets and show the willingness to use them ruthlessly against those who rise up, an isolated, frightened population will fall back into religion, consumption, or hedonism. Or they might pick up a crime fiction and discover the exploits of a new underclass of criminals trying to break free of a system that forced them into crime. A lot of readers can relate to that impulse and in the New Noir they see the possibility of courage to defy.