Wednesday, January 9, 2019

Opinion: How I Look at Noir Novels

Noir seems to have settled in as my primary reading interest. Finding older noir isn't difficult but I've had to think more carefully about what makes a book noir when looking for modern noir fiction.  The term seems to be rather loosely applied. I say that if you are going to use a specific term to describe a category of fiction then that word should have a specific meaning otherwise why have noir, hardboiled, procedurals, cozies, etc.

This piece is only about noir fiction and not film noir.

Paul D. Brazill articulated my discomfort identifying noir in an  interview about his online magazine, Punk Noir Magazine (more about this below), Dietrich Kalteis asked Paul:
Dietrich: What is punk noir exactly?
PDB: Both punk and noir are words that have been so overused and misused that they pretty much mean nothing now. They're random adjectives that are regularly added in a scattershot way, so combining them allows a lot of scope for the site. No sense? Nonesense! (Dietrich Kalteis Off the Cuff Interview with Paul D Brazill about Punk Noir Magazine)
Paul's answer succinctly articulates what I've observed as I explore noir fiction. The term noir is used too loosely to be outright trusted when you see it applied to a book. Much of what I see termed noir, I might call noirish, often not even that. This is not to say that I dislike these books and don't read them. It just means that I don't consider them noir and when I want noir I mean noir. There should be a reason why a story is characterized as noir.

You will see the term neo-noir used to describe modern noir. Dave Zeltserman dismisses the term:
As far as noir literature goes, there is no difference between noir and neo-noir other than you get to look cooler by calling your writing 'neo-noir'. (DZ1)
I began thinking about this seriously when I picked up Philip Kerr's Berlin Noir trilogy. I love these books and they are some of the best PI fiction I've read, but, despite Nazis, noir they are not. Hardboiled, most definitely. Likewise, so far I haven't found noir when I've dipped into the very popular Nordic Noir category of fiction. Admittedly, my sample size is small having read only books by Jo Nesbo & Camilla Lackberg but descriptions of other Nordic Noirs seem to be consistent with my observations. To be fair to the authors, they might not think of themselves as writing noir and the designation has been imposed by publishers and reviewers.

I've concluded that I am a strict Penzerlite in my definition of noir. Here is what Penzler wrote in his article Noir Fiction is About Losers, Not Private Eyes:
Look, noir is about losers. The characters in these existential, nihilistic tales are doomed. They may not die, but they probably should, as the life that awaits them is certain to be so ugly, so lost and lonely, that they’d be better off just curling up and getting it over with. And, let’s face it, they deserve it. 
Pretty much everyone in a noir story (or film) is driven by greed, lust, jealousy or alienation, a path that inevitably sucks them into a downward spiral from which they cannot escape. They couldn’t find the exit from their personal highway to hell if flashing neon lights pointed to a town named Hope. It is their own lack of morality that blindly drives them to ruin. (Noir Fiction Is About Losers, Not Private Eyes, Otto Penzler on Huffington Post. An expanded version of this is in his foreword to Best  American Noir of the Century, see below)
Note the words existential, nihilistic, and doomed. Of course, Penzler also said that noir is not unlike pornography, in the sense that it is virtually impossible to define, but everyone thinks they know it when they see it. (see OPF)  So ,you might see Raymond Chandler's Philip Marlowe or Jo Nesbo's Harry Hole as noir protagonists whereas I don't. And that's fine.

Echoing Penzler is Russell James in his article, So You Want to Write Noir, on Allan Gutherie's Noir Zine website which, sadly, is not activebut you may be able to get to it through the Internet Archive (see below)
... You are not confusing noir, I trust, with hard boiled or tough guy adventure stories? Noir fiction is doom-laden and pessimistic. It may have humor, it will have action, but at the tale's black heart will be a character trapped in a situation from which there seems to be no escape. Some purists would go so far as to say there must be no escape.  The plight of the desperate man (it usually is a man) fighting against the fates marks out noir fiction and gives it its savour. (RJ)
I disagree with James' statement that noir will have action. Not necessarily. Georges Simenon of Maigret fame also wrote literary noir which doesn't feature action. Also, to add my clarification to a point, the protagonist struggling against the fates isn't an innocent man or woman, it is someone on the way down through their own actions. Noit a nice person.

I'll probably use noirish for books that are not quite noir but have some of the characteristics of noir. I'll do a post later on defining 'noirish' but for now it looks like psychological thriller is a good starting point.

I'm not going to get into the origins of noir — maybe in a another post— other than it is related to hardboined fiction. I've seen noir described as a subgenre to hardboiled. I'm not sure if it should be considered as a subgenre at this point since it stands on its own but I do like what James Ellroy wrote in his introduction to Best American Noir of the Century (see below):
Noir indicts the other subgenres of the hard-boiled school as sissified, and canonizes the inherent human urge toward self-destruction.
I'm still refining what I think of as noir and I suspect that I might add my own qualifications to Penzler's description as I read more but here is the start of my Penzler-based noir fiction checklist cobbled together from several sources. The source identified by the abbreviations in parenthesis are described at the end)
  • Focus is on the villain (OP quoted in New Yorker)
  • Characters are doomed to hopelessness (OPF)
    • No escape for the characters, their fate is inevitable (OP)
    • Doomed of his own making, seals heir own fate (DZ1)
  • Not about tragedy, ie fates conspiring against luckless soul (DZ1)
  • Protagonist may not die but probably should (OP) or is left as good as dead (DZ1)
  • Existential and nihilistic (OP)
    • Noir protagonist's worldview is nihilistic but not world in which he operates (DZ2)
  • Characters driven by greed, lust, jealousy, alienation (OP)
    • Bares the dark impulses that can drive us to do unthinkable (DZ2)
    • Not driven by social issues (DZ2)
  • Not about private detectives who ultimately have some form of moral center not present in the noir protagonist (OP)
  • No heroic figures, only losers who are seriously flawed and morally questionable (OP)
  • No happy ending (OP)
  • Pessimistic (OP)
  • The noir protagonist's perceptions and rationalizations may be off center enough to send him to hell. What Zeltserman calls Psycho Noir. For example most of Jim Thompson's work (DZ1)
    • Often have an unreliable narrator where protagonist is lying as much to himself as to reader (DZ1)
  • Noir cuts across all classes so don't expect it to deal only with working or lower classes (DZ2) 

OP — Noir Fiction is About Losers, Not Private Eyes
OPF — From Penzler's foreward  to Best American Noir of the Century which you can read in full in the Look Inside! feature for the book on Amazon
DZ1 — On Writing Noir
DZ2 —One Crime Writer's Thoughts on Noir
OP Quoted — Noir Fiction: Money, Sex, and Revenge in The New Yorker
The OP Huffington post article given above comes from a longer and more detailed view of noir in Otto Penzler's foreward to Best American Noir of the Century.
RJ — So You Want to Write Noir on Allan Guthrie's website, Noir Zine by way of the Internet Arciives. Link may not work immediately. Keep Trying.

David Zeltserman's article (DZ1) gives his favorite examples of noir fiction and it is a pretty good list especially if you are just starting with noir and want a baseline from which to work:

Double Indemnity by James M. Cain
Hell of a Woman, Savage Night, The Getaway, A Swell-Looking Babe by Jim Thompson
The Woman Chaser, Cockfighter by Charles Willeford
The Name of the Game is Death by Dan Marlowe
The Vengeful Virgin by Gil Brewer
Dirty Snow by Georges Simenon
Fright by Cornell Woolrich
Shoot the Iiano Player by David Goodis
Anyone;s My Name by Seymore Shubin
Miami Purity by Vicki Hendricks
Robbie's Wife by Russell Hill

Dave Zeltserman is also one of the few authors I've found that actually identifies some his books as noir. Here are his noir titles:

Fast Lane
Small Crimes

Dave also distinguishes his noir from his noirish books, ie noir feeling but not quite noir:

A Killer's Essence
The Interloper
Bad Thoughts
Blood Crimes

It is helpful to me in my study of noir to have a author give examples of noir and noirish.

I have a tab on top of this blog that has a list of books that I've seen identified as noir and am identifying  the one's I've read with annotations if I don't think they are really noir.

I'll conclude with a favorite quote about noir from Penzler as quoted in the New Yorker article cited above. When asked what accounts for the lasting popularity of such dark tales, he said
Have you ever lifted up a rock and seen slugs and millipedes and other ugly creatures come out? We like to watch them. 
Chad de Lisle is also working on his definition of noir on his blog NoirWHALE, which a very clever title for a blog about noir. He has excellent reviews and if you are interested in noir then you need to visit him. Here is a link to his page with his definition — "To Be, or Noir to be..." A Noir Definition at NoirWHALE

Punk Noir Magazine is a recent online find and one I highly recommend. I haven't done a complete crawl through the posts but I've really enjoyed the stories and poems I've read. Here is what editor Paul D. Brazill says about the magazine:
Punk Noir Magazine is purported to be an online arts and entertainment magazine that looks at the world at its most askew, casting a bloodshot eye over films, music, television and more. There are interviews, reviews, news, poetry, fiction, micro fiction, and flash fiction.  And some other stuff too, I’m sure. Indeed, a veritable cornucopia of carryings on. If you want to submit something, let me know.
Allan Guthrie ran a website called Noir Zine which no more. However, thanks to the Wayback Machine/Internet Archives you can get to the articles. Sometimes clicking on a link will get you a 404 error but eventually you will get the article if you keep trying. Here is the link to the archive of the Noir Zine articles.

1 comment:

  1. Thanks, Mack, for such a rich exploration of what noir is or isn't. More than once, I've read things that use terms such as 'dark' interchangeably with noir; and, as you've shown, the two are different. I think in any sub-genre, it makes sense to try to define what that sub-genre is and isn't.


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