One of fantasy literature’s great strengths is its ability to use magic, the supernatural and the uncanny to dramatize lived realities in a way that strictly realist works can’t. Noir, on the other hand, is notable for its willingness to delve into the shadows of our everyday lives. Together, these two genres have the potential to illuminate our world in powerful ways. In my novel Trouble the Saints, the magic system of saints hands is a little finger on the scale of justice, a way in which people whom society has disenfranchised can push back. And though it might seem counter-intuitive, I came to deeply appreciate the anti-racist potential of the noir genre through my relationship with one of its most racist—and celebrated—works.
A few years ago I became obsessed with Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe novels—his incisive character portraits, his evocative prose that occasionally veered elliptical and every once in a while solidly stream-of-consciousness. I was fascinated by this world-weary, cynical, doggedly moral detective wading through a world of endless crime and corruption. But unfortunately, despite everything that pulled me in, there was always something else that pushed me out: brutal racism, relentless homophobia, a constant need to judge women by their sexual availability, looks and whatever magnet was pulling at Marlowe’s moral compass that day. For a genre that names itself after the French word for black, it has historically been remarkably white. There are notable exceptions, of course, like Walter Mosley’s Easy Rawlins novels (which upend Chandler’s racist tropes to far better purpose), but the classics define our cultural expectations of the genre: dark in tone and white in worldview.
I nearly stopped reading the books after the sickening opening scenes of Farewell, My Lovely, which features the murder of a black man that no one, not moral Philip Marlowe and certainly not the deeply corrupt police, cares is dead. Marlowe even describes a black man being thrown out on the street in tones of such dehumanization that the man is not ‘he’, but ‘it’. The story moves on from there; the unnamed dead man’s loved ones are unmentioned, his death unremarked-upon except as a stepping stone to the bigger (whiter) story. It struck me as interesting that Chandler could understand that the white cop’s racism was part of his corruption, but not make the leap that Marlowe himself was part of the same system in his behavior and attitudes. It seems particularly apropos given our current cultural moment to consider that police corruption is as much a staple of the noir genre as murder, theft and beautiful women with suspect motivations. You can’t go ten pages without encountering corrupt cops in a Marlowe novel; nevertheless, one of the principal avenues by which that corruption is expressed—maintaining the racist systems upon which their society is built—is depicted in only glancing, incidental moments. The real moral issues, according to Marlowe’s worldview, are when the police go beyond harming the black community and let their rot spread among good, hardworking whites. You cannot dismiss this as attitudes of the times—for one, Marlowe himself would rain contempt upon you for judging him by the worst of his fellows. For another, the text itself, by placing the brazen and unpunished murder of a black man in the opening act, invites you to think of racism and the mistreatment of black victims in the context of police corruption as a whole. The problem with Farewell, My Lovely is not the black victim. It is the lack of black justice, or even an attempt to achieve it. White victims in this novel are mourned. Police corruption affecting hardworking whites is deplored. The unnamed black man, his family, his story never come back. They are an afterthought, a joke, a prelude to the real story. And black women—well, they don’t even exist. Certainly not in a speaking role. Mighty white of you, Chandler.
Noir was the perfect genre for the story I wanted to tell, not in spite of its white and racist history but because of it.
What I understood after reading the Marlowe novels, and Farewell, My Lovely in particular, is that noir is not only a genre about darkness, but about light. Not only about corruption, but about a desperate, often failed search for justice. Noir was the perfect genre for the story I wanted to tell, not in spite of its white and racist history but because of it. Noir was that odd stepchild of a genre whose very premise undermined the racist conclusions of its most popular writers. So when I set out to write Trouble the Saints, it was with this goal in mind: to write a deeply black noir story that dealt with all of its classic themes of corruption and brutality and the often futile search for justice.
And that’s where the magic came in. In the context of Trouble the Saints, magic illuminates the often invisible but insidious white patriarchal power structure that imprisons them all, one way or another. It imprisons even Phyllis, who passes for white at the start of the novel—perhaps especially Phyllis, who has chosen to use this tiny gift of supernatural resistance, an uncanny ability to throw knives, to serve the interests of a white mob boss as his “angel of justice”—his assassin. When she repents—and what would a noir novel be without regret for things it is far too late to change?—the hands start to speak to her in the voices of her ancestors. They demand justice that she cannot give. But however much her choices have corrupted her, there is still hope. Black hope, black justice, black love in a noir novel? Finally centering experiences that have always lurked in the background of these stories has been a liberating experience. This isn’t Chandler’s genre any longer—it’s ours.