“From Noir to Golden Age” (by Carlos Orsi)

Carlos Orsi is a Brazilian writer and journalist with three novels and five short-story collections published in Portuguese. His work first appeared in EQMM in the July 2014 issue, translated for our Passport to Crime department by Cliff Landers. Since then, we’ve learned that the author has a wide range as far as genre; he writes in the mystery, fantasy, horror, and science-fiction fields and has twice won the Argos Award for best science fiction short story published in Brazil. He’s equally versatile when it comes to language, writing fluently in English as well as in his native Portuguese. His work written in English includes stories for science-fiction, fantasy, and horror anthologies and for Mystery Weekly. His new story for EQMM, his first English-language original for us, will appear in our May/June issue. It’s a locked-room mystery in the Golden Age tradition, even if, in atmosphere, it has a slight touch of noir. —Janet Hutchings

I would like to tell you about my intense love affair with Golden Age–style mysteries. I say “Golden Age–style” because I see the Golden Age of Mystery more as a state of spirit than as a period in time, the famously defined interval between the two World Wars of the twentieth century. For me, Soji Shimada, or even Anthony Horowitz of the Magpie Murders, are as “Golden Age” as Agatha Christie and Edmund Crispin.

If I were to try to define this spiritual space, I’d mention an air of serious playfulness; a bold disregard for external plausibility (internal plausibility, however, is a must); a tension between logic and absurdity, with logic finally emerging from the absurdity, as a hero rescued at the last second; and, as far as possible (without spoiling the fun), fair-play towards the reader.

This is a love that came late in my life: I am pushing 50, and my conversion came only in the last decade, when I struggled, amazed, with the third (or fourth?) brilliantly false solution of Ellery Queen’s The Greek Coffin Mystery. For comparison, the first time I recall saying to someone that I wanted to be a crime writer I was just 11 years old.

This late blossoming may perhaps be explained by Brazilian literary culture (I was born, raised, and still live in Brazil). Cultures, literary or otherwise, are complex and multifaceted creatures, so any generalization is bound to be, to some extent, unfair and open to counterexamples.

But, painting the picture with a very large brush and somewhat bold brushstrokes, one could define the Brazilian literary culture, at least since the Modernist movement of the early 1920s, as viciously antagonistic to all kinds of genre writing.

To be considered as literature at all, novels and stories ought to stretch the boundaries of the written language, or to lay bare the cruelty and unfairness of society, or to expose the Freudian scars of the writer’s deranged mind; if a book could do all three at the same time, it would be a masterpiece.

I won’t dispute the fact that many masterpieces were written in this vein, but the attitude also had the effect of pushing genre writing, in almost all of its forms—science-fiction was “crap”, fantasy was “for children”—to the very boundaries of the literary system, and often to toss it out completely.

Crime and mystery were given a kind of double citizenship, though: The murder of someone or the disappearance of something could give a slim thread of coherence to a novel that, otherwise, would be just a jumble of smart-ass musings, and crime breeds paranoia, which sounds Freud-ish. Besides, noir and hardboiled texts often had that “cruelty and unfairness of society” vibe. So, mystery, even if somewhat narrowly defined, got its passport to the Land of the Literati.

To read Raymond Chandler wasn’t as impressive as reading James Joyce, but it was cool enough to discuss with the other literary wannabes of the college in the bar, after class, without people snickering at you.

So, that was the climate in which I came to be a mystery fan and as an aspiring mystery writer. Things had to be dark, hard, cynical. The plot, just an excuse for some fancy footwork in the form of first-person narration and dismal personal insights. Mystery for mystery’s sake, the plot as a problem to be solved, preposterousness and playfulness as goals? Come on, those were old, tired cliches: so much naivete!

But I have a weakness for logic—I spent some twenty years trying hard to write hard science fiction!—and, even if I am as liable as the next guy to be engrossed and hypnotized by fancy first-person narrative footwork, for me, at least, it got tiresome.

As far as cliches go, in my eyes Philip Marlowe became one even bigger than Hercule Poirot; come on, John Dickson Carr’s Dr. Gideon Fell is a much more original character than almost every single wisecracking, raincoat-wearing, hard-as-nails private dick or alcohol-haunted ex-cop you ever saw (or read about). And (spoilers ahead!) the beautiful damsel in distress who really is the mastermind behind every piece of mischief might have been original in “The Maltese Falcon,” clever in “The Big Sleep”, funny in “I the Jury,” but . . . Please. Enough is enough. Then, the overt darkness and cynicism started to feel flat, too. Most of it began to sound like relapsing teenager angst, masquerading as depth.

In view of all of this, the old “realism” card, the engine behind the polemic between Raymond Chandler and Carr, in which Chandler decreed the Golden Age dead and buried, became harder and harder to sustain. (If you are curious about the arguments of both authors, I recommend “The Simple Art of Murder,” by Chandler, an essay that is easy to find. Carr’s riposte “With Colt and Luger” is a little harder to come about. It was originally published by The New York Times in September 1950).

The world of shady dames and guns in trench-coat pockets is no more “real” than the world of country houses and idiosyncratic amateurs; besides, if a drunken ex-cop, with a long rap sheet and a string of unhappy ex-wives can beat a fully equipped Police Department to the guilty party, why not a funny-looking Belgian refugee with a preposterous mustache? And, as far as literary sophistication goes, Ellery Queen, Carr and even Agatha Christie were doing some nice metalinguistic shenanigans back then when the wise guys were only wisecracking and trying to get away with it.

So, my appreciation for logic and the felt staleness of noir (and of much of its multitudinous progeny) drove me to the Golden Age. And I loved it! It was, as I said before, like a conversion experience. From Queen I went to Carr, I revisited Christie, I discovered Crispin and then found out today’s torchbearers—Shimada, Paul Halter, and others. I even became fond of Solar Pons.

Perhaps someday the conventions of the Golden Age will tire me as much as the conventions of noir did. But I don’t see it coming any time soon. I know that there are great, mediocre, and awful pieces in both schools, but it amazed me to realize how the great work that exists in the Golden Age tradition is underestimated, and how easy it is for mediocre stuff to get a free pass just because it happens to contain a dash of disillusion and a pinch of cynicism. And a shady dame wearing a trench coat.

Nevertheless, the idea that “proper” mystery literature is noir literature still goes strong in Brazil. You can see it in the reviews printed in newspapers and magazines, you can see it in the catalogues of the prestige publishers. And you can see it in the way the writers think, too. We are going to have a big national crime/mystery convention down here this April, in the city of Porto Alegre, and it will be called (guess what?) Porto Alegre Noir.

This entry was posted in Books, Characters, Classic Mystery, Fiction, Genre, Guest, History, International, Noir, Pop Culture, Publishing, Readers, Writers and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to “From Noir to Golden Age” (by Carlos Orsi)

  1. Jon L. Breen says:

    A brilliant piece! (I.e., I agree with every word of it.)

  2. Splendid essay. Mr. Orsi’s incisiveness and refusal to bow to convention are evident in every sentence.

    The description of the Brazilian literary culture certainly applies equally to mainstream U.S. culture, and it takes some amount of courage or recklessness for Orsi to identify the political (and decidedly nonliterary and in fact anti-aesthetic) origins of that mentality. It has been heartening indeed to see the communications technology innovations of the past quarter-century overthrow the sclerotic and arrogant cultural elites of the twentieth century. Let freedom ring, and truth will out.

    Realism is the last refuge of a literary scoundrel.

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