In 1950, the great mystery writer Raymond Chandler wrote of the contemporaneous critical response to his stories and those of James M. Cain, Dashiell Hammett, et. al. that:
It takes a very open mind indeed to look behind the unnecessarily gaudy covers, trashy titles and barely acceptable advertisements and recognize the authentic power of a kind of writing that, even at its most mannered and artificial, made most of the fiction of the time taste like a cup of lukewarm consommé at a spinsterish tearoom.
We were reminded of Chandler's defensive tone on Saturday at the Palace of Fine Arts, where the Film Noir Foundation and LitQuake combined to present NoirQuake! (exclamation point sic.), "a hard-boiled afternon of noir readings and film clips." The museum-opening crowd, dotted with more fedoras than usual, assembled to sip chardonnay and hear local authors read from their favorite noirs. Chandler's come a long way, baby--these are exactly the kind of people who, 50 years ago, dismissed hard-boiled fiction as trashy, gaudy, and barely acceptable. They had fun Saturday, though; it was hard not to. Joe Gores read from Hammett's The Maltese Falcon, Joyce Maynard read from Chandler's Farewell, My Lovely, Barry Gifford read from Cain's The Postman Always Rings Twice, Joe Loya read from W.R. Burnett's The Asphalt Jungle, Daniel Handler read from Patricia Highsmith's Strangers On A Train, Robert Mailer Anderson read from Cornell Woolrich's "Rear Window," Gary Phillips read from Mickey Spillane's Kiss Me Deadly, Michelle Tea read from Jim Thompson's The Grifters, and Peter Plate read (more like declaimed, actually, from memory, sounding like a poetry slam--interesting choice) from Charles Willeford's Miami Blues. Each reading was followed by the same scene from the film adaptaion of the novel or story.
Although a program that starts with Hammett and Humphrey Bogart and ends with Willeford and Alec Baldwin tells a rather unpleasant story about U.S. culture and progress since the 40s, these books and movies are almost uniformly great. As if to drive home the point about how noir's cultural status has changed, M Is For Mystery bookstore was hawking the high-class Library of America collections of Chandler's and Hammett's work alongside The Life and Times of Sean Penn (Spicoli himself appeared later in the evening to talk about film noir).