Boston noir is an art of darkness, under an overcast sky and fishy salt-air smell of the waterfront. It’s now a sort of signature of our city, in novels that became movies, like The Town, The Departed, and The Fighter. You can hear a lot of it in the broken voice of Robert Mitchum, playing the title character in the movie, The Friends of Eddie Coyle. He’s in a breakfast joint with a rookie gun dealer, warning him that there’s a price to be paid for screwing up, as he did in a botched gun sale, earning a new set of knuckles:
They just come up to you and say, “Look. You made somebody mad. You made a big mistake and now there’s somebody doing time for it. There’s nothing personal in it, you understand, it just has to be done. Now get your hand out there.” You think about not doing it, you know. When I was a kid in Sunday school, this nun, she used to say, “Stick your hand out. ” I stick my hand out. Whap! She’d knock me across the knuckles with a steel-edge ruler. So one day I says, when she told me, “Stick your hand out” I says, “No. ” She whapped me right across the face with the ruler. Same thing. They put your hand in a drawer. Somebody kicks the drawer shut. Ever hear bones breaking? Just like a man snapping a shingle. Hurts like a bastard.
Dennis Lehane, who wrote Mystic River, says noir is working-class tragedy — different from other kinds. “In Shakespeare,” Lehane puts it, “tragic heroes fall from mountaintops; in noir, they fall from curbs.” Noir heroes tend not to be gangsters of Whitey Bulger’s grandeur; not tough cops either: they’re punched-out boxers and junkies, little perps, prisoners, victims reduced to victimizing each other and themselves. Noir is the bottom of underground capitalism, talking to itself. It’s bad things happening to bad guys, giving and getting the punishment they think they deserve.
- Two noir manifestoes, one old and one new. The first is Raymond Chandler’s essay “The Simple Art of Murder“, with its classic vision of the heroic detective:
In everything that can be called art there is a quality of redemption. It may be pure tragedy, if it is high tragedy, and it may be pity and irony, and it may be the raucous laughter of the strong man. But down these mean streets a man must go who is not himself mean, who is neither tarnished nor afraid…
- And Dennis Lehane’s preface to Akashic Books’ Boston Noir, “Knuckleheads and Tribalism“: “In Shakespeare, tragic heroes fall from mountaintops; in noir, they fall from curbs…”;
- Joe McGinniss’s review of The Friends of Eddie Coyle from the New York Times Book Review;
- “The Button Man“, an excerpt from Nick Flynn’s memoir Another Bullshit Night in Suck City (subscription required);
- And two gems from the canon of Boston noir — Dennis Lehane’s “Animal Rescue” and Herald columnist and writer Linda Barnes’s first story, “Lucky Penny”.
More noir images from camera of Leslie Jones, preserved on the Boston Public Library’s Flickr page. Use arrows to navigate, and see more here.