Boston Noir

Howie Winter, Whitey Bulger's rival inside the Winter Hill King, kissing criminal-turned-actor Alex Rocco, with Robert Mitchum in the front at left. (Photo courtesy Howie Carr/Emily Sweeney.)

Howie Winter, Whitey Bulger’s rival inside the Winter Hill King, kissing criminal-turned-actor Alex Rocco, with Robert Mitchum in the front at left. (Photo courtesy Howie Carr/Emily Sweeney.)

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. 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.

Guest List
Nick Flynn
a playwright, poet, and memoirist born and raised in Scituate, son of an alcoholic bank-robber, author of Another Bullshit Night in Suck City and The Reenactments.
Rick Marinick
author of Boyos and In for a Pound, the state trooper turned gangster who served 18 years in prison for multiple armored-car robbery convictions.
Anna Mundow
author of the "Crime and Punishment" column in the Barnes and Noble Review, contributor to The Boston Globe and longtime correspondent for The Irish Times.
Reading List
The Simple Art of Murder
Raymond Chandler
the first and greatest manifesto of the noir detective story, written by one of its best practitioners:
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...
Knuckleheads and Tribalism
Dennis Lehane
Dennis Lehane’s update on Chandler, in a locally-minded preface to Akashic Books' Boston Noir, "Knuckleheads and Tribalism": "In Shakespeare, tragic heroes fall from mountaintops; in noir they fall from curbs."
Real Cops and Robbers
Joe McGinniss, The New York Times Book Review
An early review of The Friends of Eddie Coyle, George Higgins's masterwork.
I don't know what kind of lawyer George Higgins is, but I know now that he's a writer. With "The Friends of Eddie Coyle," he's given us the most penetrating glimpse yet into what seems the world of crime- a world of stale beer smells and pale unnourishing winter sun, and pale unnourished little men who do what they have to do to get along. If that includes robbery and murder — well, as Jackie Brown, the gun dealer says, "Life's hard."
Animal Rescue
Dennis Lehan
a gem from the canon of Boston noir, about an adopted dog and a run-down barkeep.
Lucky Penny (pdf)
Linda Barnes
The one-time Herald columnist and writer Linda Barnes's first fictional story, another fun noirish tale.

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  • Brian Wallace

    Great subject. Dennis wrote the foreword for my book “Final Confession” and he is a great guy. Good luck

  • chris

    George Higgins Lives!

    It’s sweet to feel the revival of respect for the late George V. Higgins, who was a finer and more lasting voice than even fans and friends (like me) realized in his presence.

    Here’s Dennis Lehane in his introduction to the story collection of Boston Noir:

    “… if there’s a more seminal noir novel of the last forty years than The Friends of Eddie Coyle, I don’t know of it. And more than just being a seminal noir, it’s also the quintessential Boston novel. It captures the tribalism of the city, the fatalism of it, and the outsized humor of people who believe God likes a good laugh, usually at your expense…”

    Peter Manso writes to me on Facebook:

    One morning I got a call from George Higgins. I was on the Cape, George in his then Boston Globe office. What he wanted was info on Roy Cohn, the right-wing lawyer who he was doing a story on. I had done a longish Playboy interview on Cohn and gotten to know him somewhat (that whole other story!) George and I had known each other for years so there was a fundamental familiarity to his call. “What d’ya got on Cohn?” he asked. “What d’ya mean, “What do I got?” I replied before started to tell him about the notoriously gay Cohn who kept a house-boy at his place in Connecticut who he called “Sabu.” I then told George that Cohn’s favorite house-drink was a mix of Stolichnaya ad Dom Perinon laced with two or three packets of Sweet ‘n Low. “Oh, that’s fabulous!” George replied, explaining the chemistry of Cohn’s quick-fix, how the sugar got the alcohol into your blood stream lickety-split. “I’ve gotta use that,” he said. I paused, realizing that even as a blind item it could be traced to me. “No, it’s too good. I want it,” George interrupted my thoughts, not waiting for me to back out.” It’s mine,” he said and hung up the phone.

    I blush just a bit to post my own New York Times review from nearly 40 years ago of George Higgins’ venture into political fiction of his own distinctive sort. I didn’t admire him enough! But there’s more praise than I remembered of his peculiar ear and nerve.

    George had a good rejoinder to reviewers (not me) who thought his dialog over-rated:

    Many of my critics seem to feel that they have to say, or strongly imply, that my gift for dialog is all I have; or that writing dialog is not the most important attribute a novelist can have . . . A man or woman who does not write good dialog is not a first-rate writer. I do not believe that a writer who neglects or has not learned to write good dialog can be depended on for accuracy in his understanding of character and in his creation of characters. Therefore to dismiss good dialog so lightly is evidence of a critic’s incomplete understanding of what constitutes a good novel.

    • Cheswick

      A fantastic song recorded by Boston band Buffalo Tom, co-written by Nick Flynn, called “Ink Falling (Father Outside)” from the album “Give Us Your Poor” deserves mention.

  • Mark Aisenberg

    The perfect theme song for the show would be Harlem Nocturne, which was written by Earle Hagen in 1939 as a tribute to Boston’s own Johnny Hodges. It’s a killer noir song.

  • chris

    A brilliant suggestion, Mark Aisenberg. A haunting tune, both familiar and strange, and conceived in honor of a great saint of our sect, the immortal Johnny Hodges. You get a perfect score, and a question: which of the many recordings do you like best? I am listening on YouTube and iTunes to a lot of fine takes — by the Ellington band, but also Sonny Stitt, Illinois Jacquet, Mel Torme, the BBC Big Band, and many more. Pick one, please. And thank you!

    • Mark Aisenberg

      I am partial the the Mel Torme version. He wrote his own lyrics for his take, which I find more universal and appealing. But then I’m a sucker for any Mel Torme from the period 1954-1963.

      I also like the Illinois Jacquet instrumental version, which connects in my mind nicely to you and WBUR through your mid-90’s interview of him.

  • jm taylor

    One of the best current Boston noir writers is Dave Zeltserman. Check out his book “Pariah.” But I have to take the opportunity to mention my own entry, “Night of the Furies.” It tells the story of a man who’s out to avenge his gangster father’s murder – by killing his own mother. It takes place between the Great Molasses Flood and the losing part of the Red Sox’ 1967 season. Publishers Weekly calls it a “noir gem” and Spinetingler Magazine put it on its Best of 2013 list. For me, noir means little people making big mistakes, for petty reasons.

  • Excellent Radio Open Source offering on this sub world.

    I would have liked to hear a comparative comment about the world of “L.A. Confidential.”
    The author of the original book on which the movie is based, says at the beginning of a documentary about him (1993 James Ellroy: Demon Dog of American Crime Fiction): “I see L.A. as a contained apocalypse.” How would one characterize Boston/Boston noir using this Ellroy comment as suggestive template?

    I associate “Boston noir” as part of a “connected multiverse” that includes:

    1. Edward Hopper’s painting “Nighthawks” (1943?)

    2. Eugene O’Neill’s “The Iceman Cometh”

    3. The “verbal overture” of Scorsese’s 1990 movie “Goodfellas,” where the adolescent “Henry Hill” says something like, “as far back as I can remember, I’ve always wanted to be a gangster.”

    4. One could also mention the earlier Scorsese movie “Mean Streets” as Little Italy/NYC noir.

    5. The comment in the crime/noir classic of yesteryear “Asphalt Jungle” where the Louis Calhern character (“Alonzo D. Emmerich in the movie) opines, ““After all, crime is only… a left-handed form of human endeavor…”

    6. the concept of noir as a kind of enveloping “neon wilderness.”

    Lastly, Louis-Ferdinand Celine’s French masterpiece “Journey to the end of the night” (1932) is about the whole world as noir ie “planetary noir” with Europe in the interwar years as the main locale. The world is depicted in this book as a kind of imbricate nightmare. Boston noir might be understood if one wanted, as a localized franchise of a larger nightmare story.

  • Ron Gustavson

    Home assignment: find and watch Mystery Street (1950)

  • Robert W Peabody III

    Nick Flynn: Prison teaches people to be respectful/polite.
    I occasionally work with ex-cons and that is so true, especially when they consider themselves to be master manipulators.
    I always want to tell them: Yeah, sure you are, you manipulated yourself right into prison.

    Dave Foley: “The only one fuckin’ Eddie Coyle is Eddie Coyle.”

  • dave bernard

    Yeah, you’re back to the old Lydon with this show. Anyway, Boston as London, seemed to need a couple of decades to realize the postWar boom. Though young at the time, I recall the images. I recall being in Scollay station and smelling urine and assuming a cat had gotten in there until my Nonnie explained nooooo. I suppose there must have been vested interests that wanted to keep Boston ‘The Way We Were.’ I love those Nishan Bichajian photos, but seeing them as an adult, I understand the underworld tyranny reflected in them. To this day, I see a lineage. Whenever Boston is at the intersection of Classic or kitsch, it chooses kitsch. Boston has many intelligent (academically) people, but we somehow or perhaps consequently choose the dumb thing. It simply isn’t (aesthetically, racially, etc) a sophisticated city. Watch local Tv news any night. A city of rubes waiting to be exploited by someone marginally more shrewd.

  • nick pearson

    I just enjoyed your program on Boston noir. Now how about a program on Boston’s dead bohemia. I remember fondly the bohemia of the 60’s and 70’s when Harvard Square hadn’t yet been corporatized, when Charles St and even Newbury St in Boston had a bohemian flavor to them. Remember Prescott Townsend, the gay bohemian activist who lived on the back of Beacon Hill? Now it seems to me that Boston has been given over entirely to corporatization. Even the Berkeley School, a longtime hold out in bohemian ways, now seems comparatively tame. How did bohemia die in Boston. There’s you subject.

    • Mark Aisenberg

      Excellent idea. The taming of Boston probably tracks the taming of the country in general, blended with rising college costs and declining worker power.

    • judethom

      It died shortly after I left.

  • Margaret

    I wish that there was a reading list accompanying this article. I heard the broadcast today in my car. Thank you

  • mary

    Hi Margaret,
    There is a reading list at the top of the post. Thanks for listening!

  • chris

    Thanks to Dave Bernard for alerting us to the trove of Boston photos by the late Nishan Bichajian. There are banner shots there for an ROS lifetime. Talk about moving the text and the images forward!