Tue
Dec 13 2011 12:00pm

What Is Noir?

Portland 1948 Street Scene“So,” said the lovely dame sitting next to me, “what really is Noir?” Smiled as she said it. Like she knew she was setting me up. A level of mirth on par with seeing me nude for the first time.

I sat there quietly, looking at my glass. Tried to find a good answer. All of my literary heroes were, and still are, Noir writers. But, damnit, what really constitutes “Noir” writing and stories?

It was a bitch of a question, and that was a fact.

Where does Noir end, and Hard Boiled begin? What are the gears, the juice, the foundation, that make up Noir? I began to try and get it all sorted in my head. Get it all straight, you know? I guess Noir ends up being a subset of Hard Boiled writing, right?       

The list of great Noir writers is legion, you know? Guys like Jim Thompson, James M. Cain, Elmore Leonard, Lawrence Block, and of course Mickey Spillane. And then, of course, the more current guys… guys like Ed Gorman, Andrew Vachss, Cormac McCarthy, James Lee Burke, John Connolly, along with the legendary Lee Child. Add to that Dennis Lehane, and the newer guy, Dennis Tafoya. Tafoya will certainly become, “one of those guys” of Noir writing. You can take that to the bank.

Those are the writers, sure, and they’re great ones. Their stories are dark, often bleak explorations of not only our own inner psyche, but of the inner psyche of our society, and our culture (if that’s what you can call it these days).

But, what makes a book Noir?

I took a sip from my glass. Told the dame to wait a sec as I bought us another round. Hoped it just might get her drunk enough that I could fake my way through an answer, have her thinkin’ I was friggin’ James Lipton on Inside the Actors Studio. Hell, it could happen. I made it out of puberty, didn’t I? If that could happen, pigs could fly.

I began to feel that I could maybe formulate my answer this way: start with some quotes. Dames like quotes. Makes a guy seem…learned, right?

Raymond Chandler“What is Noir?” I drawled as the bartender came over and deposited our drinks. “Well, when thinking about what Noir really is, I always start with this quote by Raymond Chandler: ‘It is not a fragrant world.’”

“What the hell’s that supposed to mean?” And suddenly I was yesterday’s wash, last week’s bad dream.           

“It means that’s one of the main ingredients in Noir,” I replied, adding quickly, “in my opine, anyway. The world is not a nice place. Pure and simple. That’s what Chandler means there. The world is not nice, not a place where flowers grow. Then there’s this one: ‘The streets were dark with something more than night’. What he’s saying here is that this is an evil and bad world. It’s that type of world that’s the world of Noir.”

“In your… opine?” She said.

“Sure. Of course.”

The dame mulled it all over for a moment. Took a sip of her drink. Outside, the thunder struck like a door slamming on what today hadn’t lived up to.

“This Dennis Lehane quote fits, too,” I said, desperately trying to fill the void her silence was digging with the energy of a backhow, ‘You’ve learned that every good lie is threaded with truth and every accepted truth leaks lies.’ 

“To me, all these quotes speak about the world a Noir character would inhabit. Bleakness. No clear black-and-white moral lines. The Noir character inhabits a tough world, like Chandler epitomizes in this little gem from Farewell, My Lovely: ‘I needed a drink, I needed a lot of life insurance, I needed a vacation, I needed a home in the country. What I had was a coat, a hat and a gun. I put them on and went out of the room’

“Then there’s this, (and here I have to admit to clearing my throat for effect) one of the best insights into a Noir character, or Noir in general for that matter that I’ve ever read. It’s from Chandler’s, The Simple Art of Murder: ‘In everything that can be called art there is a quality of redemption. It may be pure tragedy, if it is high tragedy, and it may be pity and irony, and it may be the raucous laughter of the strong man. But down these mean streets a man must go who is not himself mean, who is neither tarnished nor afraid.’” I took a sip from my glass, enjoying having said those words out loud. I love those words. They mirror how I usually feel, on the inside.

“Those awesome lines,” I continued, “are the definition of a Noir character’s thoughts. Of the world of Noir, in general. It’s the world of heavy dread and violence, which creates hardened thoughts and souls.”

The dame took another drink. Put a cigarette to her rouged lips. I had my Zippo out in an instant, the flame just up under the tip of her coffin nail. She inhaled slowly, and then her eyes suddenly looked up into mine. “Okay, I get all that, handsome,” she told me, “and you’re dancing faster and harder than Michael Jackson in his prime, but, I still gotta know something.”

“What is it?” Right at this moment I’d tell her anything, anything to get what I wanted.

She flicked her ash into my glass. “Got a quarter for the jukebox?”


Robert Lewis grew up under the pier at Venice Beach, CA. There, by firelight, he would entertain the stray dogs with weird and wonderful tales. He’s still telling stories, but now he lives in a place with walls, a roof, and cases of red wine. Crime fiction and blues guitar are his things. He blogs over at NeedleCity, and twits sporadically and nonsensically as @robertklewis.

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11 comments
1. Anita Page
Take a look at Rick Helms' essay on noir and hardboiled fiction in The Back Alley (http://www.backalleywebzine.com/). Also, any list of great contemporary noir writers should include Megan Abbott and Denise Mina.
2. db
Holy cow! I just realized the title of Michael Connelly's novel, A Darkness More Than Night, is a reference to a Chandler quote!

Cool. I read that one because I'd loved Connelly's Blood Work, and it was kind of a "team-up" between Blood Work's Terry McCaleb and Connelly's main recurring detective, Harry Bosch. I thought the title was very cool, but I didn't know until now that it was a ref to Chandler.
3. RKLewis
Anita, thanks for those two names. I TOTALLY forgot about Mina! (obviously, lol).

And db, love Harry Bosch!

Thanks for your comments!
James Gysin
4. jimgysin
In a hard-boiled story, things look bleak before the happy ending. With noir, things look bleak before going completely dark.
5. Suzanne Payne
I liked this...helped me understand the genre better. Most of my impressions of Noir are dirty city streets and desperate private investigators trying not to starve...lol. I wonder....
Could you write a Noir story set out in the country...like in a small country town? That would be a challenge, but I bet if you thought about it, you could do it. :)
Laura K. Curtis
6. LauraKCurtis
Suzanne --

Indeed, there's a whole category of noir called "rural noir" or "country noir"! Marc Watkins wrote about one example of it here: Crimes in Southern Indiana.
7. RKLewis
Thanks, everyone, for the comments! Fun stuff!

Suzanne, in answer to your question: yes. Really, ANY setting can be done Noir. Think about the movie Bladerunner (Sci Fi Noir), or Kem Nunn's great "The Dogs of Winter", which is actually, if you can believe it, SURF Noir.
Noir can be the style for any story...

... in my opine, of course. ;-)
8. Le French Book
Fun. Noir may come from the French word for black, but in France, everyone agrees that the genre noir originated in the US. One French commentator on all things crime fiction related gives noir these characteristics: the bad guys do not necessarily go punished, and the protagonist is necessarily a hard-boiled private detective. In French noir, the bad guys can be the protagonists, and you get a lot of social and poticial reality and commentary mixed in.
Clare Toohey
9. clare2e
@LeFrenchBook. Of course, we have lots of non-PI U.S. noir, and like the French version, all of it is often steeped in social and political commentary. I've heard it said that crime fiction IS the venue for today's social commentary. For whatever reason, personal/familial examinations may fall into literary fiction or various genres, but most political or societal indictment, at least written in America, occurs in crime stories.
James Gysin
10. jimgysin
Gotta agree with the PI challenge (hard-boiled or not) to LFB's French commentator's noir requirements. THE THIRD MAN is arguably the noirest of the noir in film, and Holly Martins is most definitely *not* a PI.
Robert K. Lewis
11. RKLewis
"In French noir, the bad guys can be the protagonists, and you get a lot
of social and poticial reality and commentary mixed in."

I like that, and I can see that, too. Man, I LOVE all the different flavors of Noir!
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