Boston Noir



No matter what you may hear to the contrary, noir is not a genre defined by fedoras, silver streams of cigarette smoke, vampy femme fatales, huge whitewall tires, mournful jazz playing in the gloomy background, and lots and lots of shadows. Nor is it simply skuzzy people doing skuzzy things to other skuzzy people, a kind of trailer park opera. One could argue that what it is, however, is working-class tragedy. Aristotle, when he defined tragedy, mandated that a tragic hero must fall from a great height, but Aristotle never imagined the kind of roadside motels James M. Cain could conjure up or saw the smokestacks rise in the Northern English industrial hell of Ted Lewis's Get Carter. In Shakespeare, tragic heroes fall from mountaintops; in noir, they fall from curbs. Tragic heroes die in a blaze of their own ill-advised conflation. Noir heroes die clutching fences or crumpled in trunks or, in the case of poor Eddie Coyle, they simply doze off drunkenly in a car and take one in the back of the head before they have a chance to wake up again. No wise final words, no music swelling on the soundtrack.

Eddie Coyle is a good example here because if there's a more seminal noir novel of the last forty years than The Friends of Eddie Coyle, I don't know of it. And more than just being a seminal noir, it's also the quintessential Boston novel. It captures the tribalism of the city, the fatalism of it, and the outsized humor of people who believe God likes a good laugh, usually at your expense. Boston is a city that produces guys--or, in the city's vernacular, knuckleheads--who once stole the replica of a cow that sat in front of a Braintree steak house. The cow weighed what a car weighed, and yet these knuckleheads had the industry to get it onto a pickup truck, drive it back to South Boston, and deposit it in the middle of Broadway. They did this solely so they could then call the Boston Police Department and ask them to respond to a "beef going down on Broadway."

In Boston something doesn't simply hurt, it hurts "like a bastid." Pisser is a noun that means something funny, but pissa is an adjective (and sometimes an adverb) that equates unequivocal greatness, although it's often equivocated with wicked, as in, "Big Papi hit a wicked pissa homa against the Yankees. Musta hurt them like a bastid."

So we have our distinct humor and our distinct accent and our distinct vocabulary. All of which--sadly, possibly--is now endangered by progress. Because one can't ignore that Boston has been beset by a new class war of late, one you'll see reflected in the stories herein. It's a war of gentrification. As the city continues to lose its old-school parochialism and overt immigrant tribalism, it's also losing a lot of its character. Whether that's a bad thing or a good thing is up for debate, but what can't be argued is that it is, in fact, happening. South Boston is no longer dominated by buzz cuts and bar brawls; these days, Charlestown's only "code of silence" pertains to failing to tell people about a new restaurant on Warren Street because you don't want to have to start waiting for a table. The Italian tongues of the North End are being phased out by voices questioning why there's no Crate & Barrel beside the Paul Revere House. It's a less violent city now than it ever was, but a beiger one too. I have no doubt the old Boston will rear