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.

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