What the hell is “Noir”

What the hell is “Noir”?

An essay on the dark literary art of crime and (self) punishment.

By Axel Howerton

Originally published in
Opal POV
Point of View magazine

June 2016

 “Noir” is the ol’ En Francais for the state of absolute darkness commonly known as the color black. “Film Noir” was originally coined as a term to describe a wave of violent and nihilistic crime films from the US that hit French cinemas in the aftermath of WWII. American films were banned in France under Nazi occupation, and newly liberated French cinephiles were in a unique position to recognize the paradigm shift in American Cinema between the melodramatic morality plays of early crime films under the strict Film Production Code that policed sex, violence and moral turpitude, as it transitioned into the bleaker, darker and more criminal-oriented subversive films of the post-war era. For other first world audiences, in America and abroad, it was a subtle change over the course of a decade. For the French it came on like a mugger in a back alley. They were tucked under the black sheet term of Films Noir and recognized as a movement in both storytelling and esthetic that would prove to be influential even to the modern day. All well and good, you say, but what the hell does this have to do with writing?

Noir, as a literary convention, can be traced back as a particular strain of the Gothic literature of the Victorian era – which itself was born of earlier Romantic-era works like Horace Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto and Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein which had been labeled “Roman Noir” by the French (Are we seeing a pattern here?). Originally a meld of lofty philosophies and high-brow entertainment for the educated elite, by the Victorian era the burgeoning literate middle class was delving into the same ideas – religion vs. science; man vs nature; modernism vs. thousands of years of ingrained superstition; Ego vs Id. Gothic tended to present a polarized view of illumination and darkness. It utilized atmosphere over action, and metaphor and allegory to explore the blossoming intelligence and spiritual adolescence of a new middle class. Despite the popularity of more melodramatic prose, historical romance, and adventure books by the likes of Sir Walter Scott and Jane Austen, dark fiction continued to show up here and there. In the mid-1800’s there was a resurgence of this Gothic bent, typified by the cheap and plentiful “Penny Dreadfuls” and led into a new, even darker world-view by Poe in America and G.W.M. Reynolds in England. This led to a new, and immensely popular, type of storytelling that featured doubt, danger, darkness and evil penetrating the world of well-meaning, but misguided protagonists – books like The Strange Case of Doctor Jekyll & Mister HydeDracula, and The Picture of Dorian Gray. Pessimism and darkness began to win out as the Gothic split into the new genres of Mystery, Science Fiction and Horror with the likes of Ambrose Bierce and Robert W. Chambers leading the way into a new century, as Mystery (under the guidance of A.C. Doyle and later Agatha Christie) began to veer towards the sleuth and the “whodunit”.

Eventually, books became big business as the technology advanced and world-wide distribution became more accessible. With the rapid commoditization of literature, lines were drawn. Literature became “Literature” of intellectual and spiritual value, leaning back towards the highbrow mentality of the pre-industrial age, while the “Penny Dreadfuls” spawned the “Dime Novel”, the Monthly magazine, and what would come to be affectionately known as “Pulp Fiction”. 

With the rise of plentiful paying markets, most of which were fairly lax on the standards of quality, and likewise turned a blind eye to more colorful elements of sex, violence and gore, new writing talent began to come out of the woodwork. Most of the new writers were working-class, high-school educated at best, and steeped in populist Gothic fiction. By the end of the 1920’s there were hundreds of magazines and publishers cranking out product on a monthly, if not weekly, basis. The public’s tastes began to dictate content, and the genres became clearly demarcated – Romance; “Cozy” Mystery; Detective Stories; Horror; Science Fiction; Suspense. One of the biggest and baddest new labels was Crime. Crime was a catch-all for Detective fans, Suspense fans and Mystery readers, and usually promised more titillating and extreme thrills than in any of the standard lines. Magazines like Black MaskWeird TalesDime DetectiveSpicy Detective and Startling Stories sold upward of a million copies an issue. 

Not only did these magazines offer a wide range of accessible fiction for an affordable price, but – as with any cultural art form – they began to reflect the consciousness of the masses. Post WWI that meant another turn towards the darkness. This time, the old Gothic template of a calm and decent world invaded by outside forces was flipped on its head. As with the coming of Film Noir in the Cinema, influenced by German Expressionism, post-war nihilism and a sense of impending doom, the Pulp Fiction and, subsequently, literature in general, took a nosedive into the abyss. Crime fiction began to focus more on the criminals than the square-jawed heroes. Women became demonized, or sexualized, reflecting the trepidation of the American male in the face of the increasingly liberated feminine population. Authority figures became back-stabbing cretins, or incompetent fools. Institutions became the enemy. Run from the government. Kill the cop. Trust no one. Eventually a style emerged, seething with pessimism and a new view of a broken world that wasn’t worth saving. Save yourself. To hell with everybody else. Fatalism ruled. No one escaped alive or unscathed.

Otto Penzler, in his introduction to The Best American Noir of the Century describes Noir as “dark and often oppressive, failing to allow redemption for most of the people who inhabit their sad, violent, amoral world… Carefully wrought plans crumble, lovers deceive, normality morphs into decadence, and decency is scarce and unrewarded… The central figures in noir stories are doomed to hopelessness…. A Noir story will end badly, because the characters are inherently corrupt and that is the fate that inevitably awaits them.”

This resonates with the conclusion Paul Duncan reaches in his 2000 book, Noir Fiction: Dark Highways. “Noir is not a kind of macho Hard-Boiled fiction where Tough Guys pass moral judgement on an immoral society,” he writes. “Noir is about the weak-minded, the losers, the bottom-feeders, the obsessives, the compulsives and the psychopaths. Noir is not about the people standing on the edge of the abyss looking in, but about the people in it, forever writhing, aware of the pain, aware of the future pain to come. The character(s) must suffer/confront the darkness inside them. Whether they live or die is immaterial—the quest into this heart of darkness is the thing.”

Nihilistic, existential, pessimistic—it sounds dour, or at least depressing. 

So why are we talking about it? Why does every third mystery collection have a something-noir subtitle? Why is every remotely dark criminal thriller referred to as noir-ish?

As James Ellroy, the self-professed “demon-dog of crime fiction” once put it: “Doom is FUN.”

Going back to the Gothic roots – where Gothic set stories in the looming shadow of empty castles, secluded and foreboding family estates, labyrinthine buildings filled with secret passages and trap doors, surrounded by mazes and dark forests – Noir replaces these pastoral fears with an urban nightmare, shadowy corners, eerily silent third-floor hallways, the endless maze of the city streets. It has morphed the supernatural terror of the Victorian battle between superstition and science into a fatalistic modern horror-show set in an oppressive world full of human monsters. It changes out the impending doom of science-gone-wrong, with the frailty and betrayal of our own human hearts. 

Noir protagonists are usually flawed, broken human beings. They’re mired in a haunted past, a traumatic event or a terrible childhood. Often they’re living a self-imposed exile to the shadows over the burden of a crime of passion, or they’re fleeing their own, uncontrollable demons – alcohol, drugs, sex, gambling – it always boils down to the same thing – human failure. Caught up in this fatalistic nightmare, the Noir protagonist retreats to the darkness, finding anonymity and a disconnect from society in shady bars, dark alleys, and the arms of disreputable and, more often than not, untrustworthy women.

This is endlessly confused with the style known as Hard-boiled which, while sharing a lot of surface elements – lusty men, manipulative women, crime, corruption and decay – is approached from an entirely different ethical viewpoint. Square-jawed detectives doing the right thing; Hookers with a heart of gold; Beat-down heroes looking for redemption and finding it in a noble death… these are happy endings and therefore have no goddamn place in proper Noir storytelling. Raymond Chandler is not Noir. Raymond Chandler is a literary icon, and rightly beloved for his contributions to crime literature and detective fiction, but he ain’t quite dark enough for Noir. His signature PI, Phillip Marlowe, consistently does the right thing, despite his own best interests, and never fails to save the girl, solve the case, and help uphold the law of the land.  Chandler’s compeer Dashiel Hammett, on the other hand, is the granddaddy of noir. The Maltese Falcon ends with jaded detective Sam Spade sending the woman he supposedly loves off to jail to save himself, and then almost certainly heads directly to the bed of either his secretary, or his dead partner’s wife. Incorrigible, immoral and only interested in his own profit and pleasure. The style of writing between these two masters is very similar. The settings, character tropes and plot machinations are sometimes interchangeable. The difference is entirely in the spirit behind the piece. Chandler gives us hope in the existence of White Knights in a kingdom of darkness and violence. Hammett shows us that the only way to survive that same place is by being smarter and dirtier than the rest and, even then, you get the distinct impression that you’re living on borrowed time. More than anything, Noir is about causality. You can’t escape your past, and you can’t avoid your future. You can only delay the inevitable. Psychology, chance, and the inescapable corruption of the world-at-large will ultimately crush any good intention, high hopes, or noble aspirations our anti-hero has. Heady stuff, but it also lets us delve deeper into the human psyche, the sturm und drang of modern life, and the very essence of the back-alley voyeurism and there but for the grace of God go I nature of dramatic tragedy itself. We can live the sin, feel the earthly pleasures, taste the forbidden fruit, get our hands as filthy as possible… and then walk away clean because the characters all get what they deserve.

I’ll let Ellroy cap it off for you.

“Noir exposits one theme: You’re fucked. You just met the woman of your dreams. You’re about to have the greatest sex in the history of the universe. The price you pay for it? You’ll be turned into a criminal, hunted down and killed… and with your last breath you will be grateful for the time you had with her, yet even more grateful for your own death.”

Sounds like exactly the right place to visit, as long as the escape hatch is only a closed cover away. 

Keep it dark, kids.

Axel Howerton

Axel Howerton is the genre-hopping, punch-drunk author of the darkly funny Neo-hardboiled detective caper Hot Sinatra, which was a finalist for the 2014 Arthur Ellis Award for Best First Novel.

His other books include the “modern gothic fairytale” Furr, available from Tyche Books, and Con Morte, a dark noir fable of mafia justice, ghostly apparitions, and one unstable hitman who likes his coffee to exact specifications.

Axel is the former Prairies Region Director of the Crime Writers of Canada, former Alberta chair of the Chiaroscuro Reading Series, and a member of the Calgary Crime WritersThe Kintsugi Poets, and the Canadian Science Fiction and Fantasy Association. He is an author, editor, poet, publisher and former entertainment journalist, and the organizer of Canada’s first, best, and longest running Noir At The Bar event – #NoirBarYYC. His work has appeared in places like Big PulpFires on the PlainSteampunk OriginalsNight ShadeSleuth Magazine, “The Big Lebowski” compendium Lebowski 101, and several short story anthologies, including A Career Guide To Your Job In Hell, Tall Tales of the Weird WestKnucklehead Noir, and AB Negative.

When he’s not on-duty as a hometown anti-hero, Axel spends most of his time in the ring, as a kids and beginners boxing coach, or roaming the untamed prairies of Alberta with his two brilliant young sons and a wife that is way out of his league.

#AxelHow #GotHow? #NoirBarYYC

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