Wednesday, May 18, 2011

A noir numbskull

The only good thing about Hard Case Crime's long break between books--a hiatus, caused by a search for a new distribution partner, that will end in September with a new Lawrence Block novel that features a just possibly NSFW cover--is that it's given me a chance to read some of the earlier books that had fallen by the wayside.

One of those was Honey in His Mouth, a novel that Doc Savage creator Lester Dent wrote in 1956 but never published. It's a fun, bleak little crime novel, but what's most interesting about it is what Dent does with the figure of the noir protagonist. Noir for me is most interesting when it focuses on a relatively ordinary guy who, through bad luck or cupidity finds himself falling through the floor of his ordinary life and into a darker, more dangerous world. Usually, however, a writer--even a very good writer--can't resist the urge to make that everyman just a tiny bit more resourceful, quick-thinking, and calm under pressure than, well, every man. It's understandable: if you're going to put a man under pressure in order to see what it does to him, he can't fold on the first page. But it distances us from the character, encouraging us to project our wishes on him rather than see our failings; it can be fun, but it slights the realism that is in some important sense noir's stock in trade.

Dent doesn't fall victim to that temptation. First, his main character, Walter Harsh, is no hero: he's an extremely small-time con man. More important, Harsh is dumb. Stone dumb. Even more, he doesn't realize it. Instead, like, presumably, all failing con men, he assumes at every juncture that he's in the middle of putting one over on everyone else. He gets picked up by a crew of South Americans who want to hire him to impersonate their soon-to-be deposed dictator, and he barely asks a question, assuming all along that he'll end up on top. Here, for example, he falls for nothing more than a wink:
But Mr. Hassam at once did a thing which set hi min solid with Harsh. What Mr. Hassam did was give the wall safe a knowing glance, then wink at Harsh. He did this so the others did not observe. It had the same effect on Harsh that an orator is striving for when he opens his speech with a gut-buster joke It warmed up the audience, got it interested. The little smoky guy might be an operator, Harsh thought.
Then in this scene, Harsh's stupidity takes a more physical form, an unearned confidence in his fighting ability:
Brother leaned toward him. Hit him in the belly, Harsh thought, but hand him a good one so it would settle things. He brought his right fist up towards Brother's middle, but Brother pushed the hand aside easily.
Just as easily, Harsh gets his eardrums boxed. And, physically or metaphorically, he gets them boxed again and again and again, never letting the lesson teach him his limitations.

A stupid protagonist--a walking example of the Dunning-Kruger effect--is tough to pull off without boring or irritating your readers, but Dent does it, keeping the supporting cast interesting enough and the plot brisk enough that Walter Harsh remains amusing. Most noir plots, if enacted in reality, would end quickly, hero dead; Dent gives us a realistically incompetent lead and still manages to string us along nicely, and keep our interest, for 250 pages. It's quite a feat.

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