The biggest misconception about noir, both in its cinematic and literary iterations, is that it’s a genre. Certain traits unite the disparate works that fall under this title, but noir has always been more of a sensibility than a strictly defined taxonomical distinction. Unlike westerns, the key noir works have been set in Europe (as in Georges Simenon’s roman durs), the Pacific Northwest (Dashiell Hammett’s Red Harvest), upper-crust Manhattan (Otto Preminger’s wonderful 1944 film Laura), lower-depths Manhattan (Weegee’s The Naked City and the Jules Dassin film that shares its name), and of course, Raymond Chandler’s L.A. While a certain violent hard-boiledness unites all these examples, there’s little beyond surface plot points to relate Laura’s dialogue-driven austerity to, say, Robert Aldrich’s masterful, aggressive adaptation of Mickey Spillane’s Kiss Me Deadly. Noir is a term we apply to different works of art that contain certain signifiers—murder, guns, alcohol, money, sex, intrigue, Byzantine plotting—that, in literature, come packaged in Hammett’s earthy, chiseled prose, and, in film, layered in shadowed angles inspired by German Expressionism and Citizen Kane. A genre work—be it western, science fiction, musical, horror, or anything else—can be funny, or suspenseful, or dramatic, or solemn. But noir comes in one flavor, and with one ultimate concern: the darkest reaches of human behavior.
British comic artist Hannah Berry’s Britten and Brülightly and American novelist Denis Johnson’s Nobody Move—both recently reprinted after their original 2008 publications—exemplify this distinction. Both, being artistic products of the 21st century, are self-conscious about their use of noir conventions. Berry’s dark green palette and German-style angles echo Preminger and Aldrich’s era-defining style, and her frames often drift away from a speaker, making their dialogue boxes seem more like a voiceover than we typically get from paperbound noir. But her ethnic detective hero, Britten, and his anthropomorphized teabag partner (Brülightly; get it?) give this comic a contemporary feel even as her art recalls an earlier time.
Johnson, whose novels and stories over the last quarter-century have often felt indebted to noir, and whose last book, Tree of Smoke, won the 2007 National Book Award, originally serialized Nobody Move in Playboy last year, which more or less indicates his goal here. Taking a break from the Beat-inspired, ambling narratives that have made him one of the most interesting American novelists alive, Johnson has set out to write a down-the-middle dime-store crime narrative, one where people talk like this:
“He went for a biopsy Friday, and they took him right into surgery.”
“I hope he dies.”
“Not yet. But I like the way you think."
And that’s a conversation between two women. Johnson’s novel starts with two men, however, Jimmy Luntz and Ernest Gambol, who get in a car together before Luntz shoots Gambol and leaves him for dead. Separated, the two men’s storylines play out in alternating sections before they reconvene, looking for a briefcase full of cash. Along the way, both pick up beautiful women and engage in some characteristically elliptical Johnsonian sex; Luntz meets Anita Desilvera, a well-endowed Native American woman who has her own reasons for hunting down the money, and Gambol is nursed back to health by Mary (her name the only thing nearing an overt religious reference, which is unique in Johnson’s Calvinist fictional world), an ex-soldier and friend of a friend.
This tale of lowlifes and double-crossings doesn’t have an easily identifiable protagonist, and certainly no straight man like Hammett or Chandler’s private eyes; it’s closer in setting and tone to The Postman Always Rings Twice, though Johnson’s purposely dispassionate sex scenes (“he relaxed on the couch while she knelt between his splayed knees with her head going up and down”) bear no resemblance to James M. Cain’s choked, tense eroticism. As in all these stylistic touchstones, the plot is so fast, dense, and complicated that the specifics hardly matter. Indeed, what matters is the tone, which Johnson nails. His gunplay and existential worldview are those of an aficionado (“Accidents were none of his business, just another symptom of the human disease”), and Susan Mitchell’s beautifully trashy book design, with bullet holes in the dust jacket revealing pulpy Lichtenstein-inspired illustrations of the characters, is a perfect fit for Johnson’s project.
Oddly, however, this project contains perhaps the least violence, sex, and lower-class treachery of any Johnson novel to date. Nobody Move is fun and engrossing, but Tree of Smoke boasts greater atmosphere and intrigue, just as Angels, from 1982, describes a similar downward spiral into crime with greater poetic intensity. Johnson’s 1991 novel Resuscitation of a Hanged Man is a detective story set in Provincetown, MA, and Johnson stripped the story of its inherently pulpy elements, making the protagonist a failed suicide instead of a steely Mike Hammer type, and interrupting his investigative efforts with a languid, go-nowhere romance. Hanged Man has glimpses of Johnson’s talent, but the attempts to undermine the detective story feel obvious and occasionally directionless, just as Nobody Move’s adherence to stylistic convention is fun but ultimately staid. Johnson’s best work is naturally imbued with the essence of noir storytelling, which may be why his more overt efforts with the sensibility fall relatively flat.
Berry’s Britten and Brülightly, published in the U.K. last year, is precisely the opposite kind of stylistic experiment; the artist borrows a timeworn detective-story structure only as a means of sneaking in as many self-aware breaks from convention as possible. Britten is a mopey, big-nosed Ecuadorian gumshoe whose new case tangentially involves a key player from a years-old one. It goes without saying that this coincidence opens a Pandora’s box of upper-class lies and unethical business practices, and Berry handles the unfolding of these secrets with well-illustrated gusto. Everything seems pretty familiar… but then there’s that talking teabag.
We’re never told whether Brülightly is a hallucination or a bit of straight-faced fantasy, but he speaks only to Britten, and only in defeatist terms. Just as the private eye is stumbling onto a key piece of the puzzle by illegally searching through old hospital records, the voice from his pocket warns against it: “Face it. There is nothing else. The world is full of bad people—and there is nothing you or I can do about it!” This self-reflexive commentary is no more mature than a movie character saying that something only happens in the movies, but Berry leaves just enough thematic breadcrumbs throughout Britten and Brülightly to reveal the true message here. Britten’s nose gobbles his face, and is bigger than every other character’s by a mile; he also happens to be constantly confused for a Frenchman, a running joke that climaxes with one angry suspect threatening Britten, “If you ever stick your big foreign nose in here again…”
So we have a foreigner, one whose ethnicity remains a mystery to the uncurious natives of his London-like home, and who is perceived by those uncurious natives to be a bother. And it so happens that a teabag, that most English of cultural accessories, serves as both his confidante and his disparager, trying to steer him away from his task. Britten remains glumly persistent, however, and ultimately solves the case, as detective-story conventions would dictate. His character’s adherence to his clichéd role, in the face of literal and metaphorical English opposition, mirrors the foreigner’s desire for assimilation in a multicultural society like Britain’s. Berry therefore uses the forms and imagery of noir as a means for social commentary. She builds upon our recognition of certain archetypes (a dark rainy city, a detective’s voiceover, shadowy murder cases) by turning them into a social parable. The comfort the reader finds in pulp convention is likened to the immigrant search for cultural common ground; Britten and Brülightly echoes older, familiar works without ever fully impersonating them, just as “Britten” is “Britain" but not quite.
Nobody Move shows the roots of Denis Johnson’s fictional enterprise, but Britten and Brülightly shows a new artist’s audacious use of noir tropes for entirely un-pulpy means. It exemplifies why pop sensibilities like noir exist, and why artists and readers alike find comfort in returning to them.
Nobody Move, by Denis Johnson. Farrar Straus & Giroux, 196pp., $23 (hardcover).
Britten and Brülightly, by Hannah Berry. Metropolitan Books, 112pp., $20 (paperback).