When I first started writing fiction, I read a how-to book. Most of it was bullshit, except for one piece of advice and one exercise. The advice was to read tons and tons of the kind of novels you like. The exercise was to make out a list of the things you prefer to see in a story. Here’s my list. I think it points to why I write noir.
Stuff I Like in Stories
- Crafted story lines
- Characters fighting chaos
- Prose that bites your head off
- Relentless conflict
- Tension rising to the level of torture
- Dialog that ignites character
- Sudden violence
I figure it’s ironic a genre as tough as noir has a French name. Hell, even genre is a French word. Henry James used to say the English-speaking peeps had no theory of literary criticism, that all the groundwork was laid by the Frogs. Ol’ Henry and others tried to catch us up, but we still lagged behind right through the nineteen fifties. By then, lots of classic dark fiction by guys ‘n gals like Cornell Woolrich and Patricia Highsmith had been adapted by Hollywood into movies with striking black and white cinematography and got labeled as film noir. Even though Yanks and Brits pioneered this stuff, the Frogs were the first to dissect, describe and label it. Finally, after all these influences seeped into the consciousness of a new generation of crime writers, the noir novel became recognized as a sub-genre of hardboiled fiction.
From here on, I promise not to use the word ironic any more, quote classic authors, or talk about French literary criticism. Sorry. You’d be reading the fucking New York Review of Books if you wanted the taste of that stale horseshit. But somebody a long time ago (it was Tony Black – blame him) asked me to expound on noir – maybe define it a little, maybe talk about other genres bleeding into it. And that’s what this is all about: my thoughts on noir – what it is and what it isn’t.
Like I said up front, noir seemed to spill out of hardboiled detective fiction like a necessary evil. Over and above the urban atmospherics and tough-as-nails patter of operatives like Spade and Marlowe, noir featured obsession, tortured romance, private and public corruption, and a fatalistic attitude in the lead characters.
My personal definition for the noir novel has five elements: Crime, Fatalism, Obsession, Perversion and Betrayal. When I find these five in service to a story that falls into the mystery, suspense, or thriller category, I’m in noir territory – and the only thing that might screw it up is a happy ending.
The very best noir stories share the kind of climax that rips the mask off the plot problem – only to reveal the darker evil that lies in wait to confound the protagonist and confirm the rigged nature of things. “It’s Chinatown, Jake,” was how Robert Towne and Roman Polanski nailed this concept on film.
Is hard-boiled the same as noir? Well, no. The hard-boiled private eye is certainly a staple in film noir, but he’s not a necessary (or even a desirable) element in the noir novel; I’d even argue that the femme fatale (oh shit, pardon my French again) is a more important element of dark fiction. And it’s not her role as love interest that matters. It’s the inherent ability of the opposite sex to turn the tables, to betray a trust, to enslave your sensibilities for his or her own purposes. And, yes, the fatal woman can just as easily be a fatal man. Nothing embodies the noir attitude more than such a person. Sex and romance in the noir novel, by the way, tends toward amour fou (there I go again), or obsessive desire – the brand of love that bites.
What about setting and atmosphere in noir? Well, the fog may lift and the scene may shift to some bright rustic countryside (I’m no purist)–but the mindset has got to remain hardass. Which is only to say the atmospherics and the setting can vary, but the attitude had better be consistent. At its most intense, the noir story will feature darkness in all three elements.
If atmosphere strikes you as too much of a cinematic conceit, I’d be inclined to agree. Elements like fog, rain-slicked streets, chiaroscuro lighting, and shadowy forms in snap-brim fedoras are best seen in classic B & W films of the forties and fifties. You can describe them in novels, to be sure, but a novel is a creature of words. And in the noir novel, the narrative voice and the dialog provide more of the stylistic atmosphere than the occasional word picture describing the characters and the scenery. This leaves all kinds of room for writers to find their own noir style, I believe. Some writers pile up short declarative sentences in staccato rhythms, others spin out longer patterns with a laid back prose texture. Like all good writing, it’s an art folks, not a science. Excellence is the criterion, and my opinion is the key. You got a problem with that?
Some people say noir is more a style than a subgenre of the mystery, suspense and thriller categories. What’s up with that? If it’s a style, why couldn’t you have a noir western? Can horror be noir? To my mind, questions like these answer themselves. If a western is infused with the noir sensibility, call it noirish and let it go. It’s still a western.
The history of dark fiction clearly shows noir as an outgrowth of crime fiction, in particular an outgrowth of the hardboiled detective novel. What’s the determining factor? Well, in terms of the story’s protagonist, old school crime writer Jack Bludis said it best: hardboiled = tough; noir = screwed. Which goes a long way to explain the prevalence of standalone novels in noir. The tough-guy P.I. solves his case and lives to fight another day, while the noir hero is likely to wind up dead, in jail, or broken beyond repair.
Having said all that, why bother making distinctions? In a time when zombie mashups and vampire romance tales populate our Kindles, do people really care about traditional category fiction? I don’t doubt the noir style might be used successfully in service of a horror tale. I could infuse a freakin’ historical romance with noir elements (well, maybe I couldn’t), and I might even get away with it if the story was any good. But neither Andrew Vachss nor Ken Bruen fans will be interested. And whether or not Kathleen Woodiwiss devotees will buy it depends on its appeal as historical romance.
Get my point? Anybody can borrow the noir style, but its long association with crime fiction has set the bar in such a way that the term seems out of place elsewhere. Anyway, that’s my story and I’m sticking to it.
If noir has a weak point, I would nominate the tendency to become a parody of itself—reaching for effects in dialog and exposition that parallel what Mickey Spillane and others did so effectively, but which have since become clichéd. If it thrilled them in 1949, you can bet it’s pretty tired by now. Having said that, I still feel that snappy patter and striking similes can illuminate a story in any genre – and noir is no exception.