I’ve been playing the videogame L.A. Noire in preparation for the Freshman Seminar I’ll be teaching on #hardboiled literature starting this Tuesday. I am really excited for the class, the subject matter really teaches itself. But one of the themes we’ll be focusing on for a good portion of the class is the vision of the modern city, in particular Los Angeles. I have a few early books on the syllabus that some folks might wonder about. Why start with Ernest Hemingway’s In Our Time? What the hell is John Fante’s Ask the Dust on the syllabus for? I plan on blogging regularly about my rationale to such questions as the class starts (I am working on the Hemingway post now), but in short Hemingway defines the minimalist, taut style that will dominate the literature we read all semester. What’s more, In Our Time squarely locates this style as part of the Lost Generation’s reaction to the mechanization of violence in World War I, a context that only gains more momentum in shaping the genre during and after World War II.
It will be my argument that to understand hardboiled fiction and film during the 40s and 50s as a mainstream genre—an one of the most consistently popular aesthetics up and until our moment—you have to understand the cultural history of the 30 years that leads up to the explosion of these stories in the late 1940s and early 1950s. For me, Hemingway, Fante, and Dashiell Hammett do a brilliant job of connecting the dots from the 20s and 30s through to the 40s (I could have also included Nathaniel West’s Day of the Locusts in this part of the course). Most of the first four weeks of class will be spent building up to the vision that the opening cut scene in L.A. Noire, which does a nice job of succinctly introducing the tropes and themes of the genre, as well as positioning Los Angeles as the quintessential setting for these stories. In fact, the centrality of Los Angeles is where Fante’s Ask the Dust is crucial for understanding the role of Los Angeles in the vision of a new, post-war city of dreams, and by extension dark and seedy undercurrents. I’ll be showing this cutscene at about week four or five as a way to introduce James Caine’s Mildred Pierce as well as Billy Wilder’s adaptation of his novel Double Indemnity.