David Brooks has written an ode to the hard-boiled Sam Spade characters as the proper role models for young idealists who try to save the world:
The noir heroes like Sam Spade in “The Maltese Falcon” served as models for a generation of Americans, and they put the focus squarely on venality, corruption and disorder and how you should behave in the face of it.I have bolded the actual message in that piece, the conservative message.
A noir hero is a moral realist. He assumes that everybody is dappled with virtue and vice, especially himself. He makes no social-class distinction and only provisional moral distinctions between the private eyes like himself and the criminals he pursues. The assumption in a Hammett book is that the good guy has a spotty past, does spotty things and that the private eye and the criminal are two sides to the same personality.
He (or she — the women in these stories follow the same code) adopts a layered personality. He hardens himself on the outside in order to protect whatever is left of the finer self within.
He is reticent, allergic to self-righteousness and appears unfeeling, but he is motivated by a disillusioned sense of honor. The world often rewards the wrong things, but each job comes with obligations and even if everything is decaying you should still take pride in your work. Under the cynical mask, there is still a basic sense of good order, that crime should be punished and bad behavior shouldn’t go uncorrected. He knows he’s not going to be uplifted by his work; that to tackle the hard jobs he’ll have to risk coarsening himself, but he doggedly plows ahead.
This worldview had a huge influence as a generation confronted crime, corruption, fascism and communism. I’m not sure I can see today’s social entrepreneurs wearing fedoras and trench coats. But noir’s moral realism would be a nice supplement to today’s prevailing ethos. It would fold some hardheadedness in with today’s service mentality. It would focus attention on the core issues: order and rule of law. And it would be necessary. Contemporary Washington, not to mention parts of the developing world, may be less seedy than the cities in the noir stories, but they are equally laced with self-deception and self-dealing.
But the reason I write about this at all is that a long time ago I wrote a few sentences from the angle of a noir heroine:
Today was a day like all other days that are also called Sundays. The same slowness, the same newly starched faces in all the same church pews, the same drunks at the street corners worshipping in their own way. I wake up with a hangover next to the face of a stranger. The whiskey bottles on the floor are empty, and I have a headache down to my kidneys. Remind me not to go out with gorillas in the future, especially when the keyboard sits there idle, filling me with guilt. I slug down the eau de toilet from the bathroom cabinet and light up a stogie end I find under the sleeping gorilla. Time for some heavy lifting. The audience is out there, somewhere, and one day they will hear about me and even pay me. Until then I'll be ok with the booze and my karate skills. The roads are hard for a gal all alone but you knew that already.Then the doorbell rings and it's a client for my one-woman blogging agency: David Brooks, banging on the door, falling into my arms, sobbing, when I open it (after I hide the stogie under the pillow). Someone is threatening to publish his murky past as a Maoist activist in Nepal* and he wants me to whitewash it all for him. Hmm. That could work as a story.
*This past is my invention. I think.