I was right. Harry was the last piece. But I needed to examine The Maltese Falcon and The Big Sleep in detail to cement my thoughts. They all work in, along with a fair bit of Chandler’s essay “The Simple Art of Murder.”
So, noir, as I shall declare it, welcoming commentary and criticism, is not related to the protagonist of the work. It is the setting and society of the work. Chandler called them mean streets in his essay, and that is an apt description, but it goes deeper than that. The very nature of reality of a noir book is one that rejects decency, altruism, and the vaunted “happily ever after.” Such things exist in only minute amounts as the world cannot tolerate them. When great morality emerges, the world itself rises to stamp it out. That is not to say that decent people don’t exist in these books, they do, but when they are mingled with the characters of this society, they come to bad ends.
Unless—there had to be an unless, right?—that character is the detective figure. They get a pass not because of their inherent morality, but because they are able to recognize the inherent dangers around them as presented by such a world and the people in that world. Sam Spade knows to give up Brigid, but that’s not all he does. He resists the inquiry of Tom Polhouse and Lt. Dundy because they are police of that world, eager to see everyone as crooked and railroad him for the murder of Miles Archer despite his innocence. They’ve got enough circumstantial evidence to send him up the river, which would allow the real killer to get away. So he rebuffs them, knowing he’ll make enemies.
So Sam knows he has to act out of self-preservation instead of morality. The moral choices he gets to make are small ones. He could readily allow Cairo, Wilmer, and Gutman to flee after the Falcon. They certainly would not return to bother him. But there is a victim that needs justice. Floyd Thursby was a man as crooked as the rest, so his demise is no big thing to Sam, nor does he think much of Archer, but Captain Jacobi was not one of the conspirators. Sam phones the police to alleviate that murder, despite the likelihood that Brigid played the man for a sap.
There’s no grand morality, no truth, justice, and the American way, because to do so would invite destruction, just as it did for Harry Jones.
Harry is, to my mind, what makes a story noir. It would be easy to say that he was motivated by lust for a woman, and so he is no different from anyone else in these books. But I have the feeling that if Chandler had written the story from Jones’s perspective, it would sound very tragic, and not at all because Harry was a villain chasing after vice. He was in the wrong place, associated with the wrong people, at the wrong time, and he died because of it.
Marlowe also cannot be looked at as a paragon of virtue as he witnesses Harry’s death. Harry’s not the client. Marlowe’s interference would only draw Canino’s gunfire.
So, succinctly, what is noir? It’s not a world for knights.
It’s mean streets filled with people pursuing self-destructive vices. Even the PI’s who roam those streets are not moral paragons, not when they walk those streets. They can transition to a more pleasant world, but where they live, where they work, is in that noir world. And they are, perhaps, the most tragic figures in these stories. Sure, most of the time they solve the crime, but they’re seldom better off because of it. They can make a small change in the world, but almost never for themselves.
Sam Spade sent a woman he might have loved to prison. His partner’s dead. He wasn’t even paid. Philip Marlowe waded through half a dozen bodies to find out a deranged girl killed a man. And she didn’t go to jail. His fee was small, and he had to lie to the client. He made enemies of a mobster and the district attorney. And the woman he fell in love with is married to the mobster he annoyed.
These are truly tragic figures along with all of the other noir characters, and it’s only a matter of time before they, too, become one of the victims of the noir world.