What Is Noir, Anyway?
Crime fiction comes in lots of flavors. Among others, you'll encounter varieties like ‘cozy,’ ‘police procedural,’ ‘hardboiled,’ and ‘noir.’ Each of these sub-genres adheres to certain conventions in the presentation of character and subject matter. What follows is a short gloss on the 'noir' tradition, including my personal interpretation of this small, but influential slice of the whole.
With the rise of crime as a popular subject for fiction in the nineteenth century, it was natural that the crime solver, whether police detective or private investigator, came to fill the role of protagonist in stories dedicated to criminal subject matter. The private detective, in particular, proved to be a godsend for writers looking to establish a novel series. In the twentieth century, noir fiction began as an offshoot of the hardboiled detective story, wherein a tough-talking private eye staggers through the urban crudscape with few ideals apart from his sense of honor and a standard of rough justice.
You’ll recognize ‘noir’ as a French word meaning black. By extension, it has connotations of darkness, bleakness – even hopelessness. As a branch of crime fiction, noir has the edgy attitude of hardboiled, but usually exchanges the gritty private eye stereotype for a sweaty-faced everyman, an average Joe or Jane under pressure. By anticipating a story's outcome, we can highlight the boundary between the two genres: a P.I. will surely prove his or her mettle, but in noir we remain in suspense about the lead character. He may triumph, collapse under pressure, or wind up in jail for someone else’s crimes. The possibility of failure accounts for the frequency of the standalone novel in noir.
The establishing authors of noir in America were James M. Cain and Cornell Woolrich. Other early exponents who come to mind are Horace McCoy, Jim Thompson, Patricia Highsmith and Charles Williams. Masters still in the game are Donald Westlake, James Ellroy, Elmore Leonard and Lawrence Block.
As a literary term in English, ‘noir’ is a retrofit. French publishers used the label ‘serie noir’ to distinguish more generalized crime fiction from the ‘policier’ – detective fiction featuring police work. ‘Film noir’ is a phrase first used by French critics in the 1950’s to describe the fatalistic black and white crime films of 1940’s Hollywood which, in their turn, were often adapted from hardboiled or noir originals – then known simply as detective stories or crime stories.
With that thumbnail sketch of its origins in mind, let’s consider the building blocks of noir. In my definition, there are five essentials. To begin with, there must be a CRIME. Most times it’s murder, but a heist will do. Even an adulterous relationship can serve, especially if it leads to a scenario of anxiety-filled flight and pursuit.
Arguably more important than the crime in noir is the OBSESSION. Often the two will be related. The obsession may be a sculpture of a falcon with a long and fatal history, or the mysterious substance hidden by a secret cabal in the wine cellar. In more recent productions, it tends toward drugs, fame, power, or wealth. It might even be obsession itself if the writer affects an intellectual bent. Most often, it is simply the McGuffin, Hitchcock's term for the elusive, essentially meaningless, prop that sets the plot in motion. Typically, this device serves to elicit reactions from the story’s characters in ways that reveal the varieties of human deceit and corruption.
FATALISM in noir fiction is more pervasive attitude than absolute certainty. The noir protagonist – flawed and confused, but determined – knows in his soul the sense of impending doom he struggles against can only be overcome with the greatest possible effort. He may win or lose, but even a victory is likely to come at great cost. His crime, his difficulty, has terrible consequences, and they almost always involve death – whether his or someone else’s.
From mental states to sexual desire, PERVERSITY is another key notion in the noir canon. All kinds of novels and films haul in kinky sex nowadays, but noir sex almost always includes the element of amour fou – mad, obsessive desire – the brand of love that hurts. Perversity isn’t just about sex, however. It’s also about contrariness and inversion, a habit of looking at life differently from everybody else, especially the authority figures that write the laws and compile the rulebooks.
A final item you can count on in noir is BETRAYAL, which lurks in each dark street and every plot twist. In classic noir, the lead character is a man under extreme pressure, and the ultimate betrayal comes with the unexpectedness of a random, savage knife thrust – from the woman he trusted, often against his own better judgment. Whether the betrayer is a femme fatale or an homme fatal is irrelevant in today’s world, but the betrayal itself is an absolute noir necessity.
To my mind, that’s noir in a nutshell, a potent brew of transgression and dark psychology that takes crime and its consequences seriously, even while it provides emotional catharsis and a few fervid thrills along the way for its aficionados. Long may it live!