What is noir?
A question that has been debated in every film school and bar at Bouchercon. Many an article and anthology introduction has made the attempt to define it. There is even the thought that it is more style than genre.
Czar of Noir Eddie Mueller cleanly describes it as stories about attempts to take the shortcut to the American dream. Author Anthony Neil Smith once said, “Noir is Italian Opera sung by Delta bluesmen.” Then there is the old standard: It starts out fucked and then gets worse.
There are certain tropes that most believe go along with it. A crime committed, usually from obsession, that leads a downward spiral where the only hope is found in death. There is also the style, the terseness on the page, the shadows on the screen.
The beauty of noir, though, is that there is no hard, fast definition. Its originators didn’t even know they were crating a genre. There are no set rules. It is as elusive as the shadows it’s identified with. It has the ability to be malleable, able to fit different times and perceptions. Noir plays by few rules.
It is one of the reasons why it remains timeless and contemporary in any time. The terse prose of Hammett spoke to and for the populace he was writing about. Chandler turned it to poetry while Cain was examining the amorality of both the individual and society. Ross McDonald and his PI Lew Archer tried to find answers for those sins. After it got it’s name and America was dealing with civil rights, Vietnam, and Watergate, George V Higgins, Robert Stone, and James Crumley used noir to make the political personal. Style became its focus in the eighties with the likes of Michael Mann’s direction and Barry Gifford’s writing. James Ellroy then used it to look at our country’s history, like a dark Ken Burns. We then get George Pelecanos bringing us a brilliant social awareness that has it’s roots back in Hammett. The circle continues spinning out more unique ways to use the genre.
Every rule in the genre has been questioned or turned on its head. Anthony Neil Smith and Scott Phillips have put a satirical and absurdist bent, getting funnier as things go worse. Daniel Woodrell, Frank Bill, and their rural noir brethren have proven bad deeds don’t just happen in the big city. In fact, the genre that looks at the American dream went international with the likes of Irish writer Ken Bruen, who pulled off the impossible; Jack Taylor, a noir series character. Possibly the most popular use of noir today is a TV show, with little crime or violence (legal that is), bright sets and cinematography, dealing with middle class and wealthy people in advertising.
If anybody has proven how you can stretch noir, it’s Megan Abbott. Megan immediately got our attention with books like Die A Little and Queenpin, taking the classic postwar noir and giving it a female perspective. Her smart, stylish take would have been enough, but she pushed further. She set The End of Everything in the early eighties, taking the noir idea of being driven by you emotions as perfect way to look at adolescence. In Dare Me, she uses what is many times looked at as the genre of the outsider or “looser” and uses it to look at a group of cheerleaders. It’s the least noir setting telling one of the most noir stories, with dark obsessions for status and recognition.
The shady definition also applies to noir’s history. Charles Ardia unearths forgotten authors like Daye Keene and Peter Rabe, introducing them to a new generation with his Hard Case Crime imprint. Go to one of the festivals Eddie Mueller programs and you can discover Cry Danger or be introduced to tough guy Charles McGraw and films you never heard of before. When was the last time great western had been unearthed. That said, I can tell you about some great noir westerns.
The question, I guess, is to ask is what at noir’s center. Can anything with tough guy dialogue and neon light through Venetian blinds be noir? Can it have a happy ending (another definition to be debated)? For me, noir is something that deals straight with its audience. Though heightened it doesn’t sugarcoat. It admits society is corrupt and fate has no mercy, particularly to those who tempt it. It’s the stoic acceptance of those truths, much like a Robert Mitchum hero. That guy could make an MGM musical noir.
By the way if you come up with a perfect set of well-defined rules for noir, keep it to yourself. Let it grow further.
Scott Montgomery is the MysteryPeople crime fiction coordinator at BookPeople, a bookstore in Austin, TX. This piece originally appeared in the Noircon program.