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The Dark Heart of Noir

Chess BoardSeven years is a long time for anyone to do anything; on the basis of stamina alone you gain a reputation for being some sort of expert. Perform cerebral commissurotomies for seven years, and you lose the right to start sentences with, “Well, I’m no brain surgeon, but . . .” Edit a line of noir crime novels for seven years, and people will look to you for insights on what makes the genre tick, doubly so if you’ve been foolhardy enough to write three of the things yourself.

Which is why I periodically get e-mail asking me to explain what noir is.

It’s a question germane to Mulholland Books because although the line has a much broader mandate than just noir, its initial presentation to the world — even its name — owes much to iconic elements of film noirand noir literature, and several of its authors are ones sometimes thought of as noir writers.

So, what does it mean when people describe a crime novel as “noir”? That it’s dark, to be sure (sometimes, that it’s dark and French).  But all crime fiction is dark. Even comic crime fiction concerns matters such as murder, assault and robbery, incidents that are dark in substance, however light the presentation might be. And even the stoniest noir purists wouldn’t deny the existence of noir comedies.

What, then, is the particular shade of darkness that we label “noir”?

The five dozen books I’ve published in the Hard Case Crime series would offer at least five dozen different answers to this question, as would the squabbling denizens of the invaluable Rara-Avis discussion group, who lob competing definitions at each other like soldiers manning mortars on the Maginot Line. But there’s a definition that I haven’t seen bandied about that has grown on me in recent months, and I present it here for your consideration:

Noir is crime fiction written by pessimists.


Classical mystery fiction is written by and for optimists. It’s the story of order being disrupted and then reestablished: a criminal is unmasked, justice is served, and when you turn the final page all is right with the world once more. These novels often resemble puzzles and share some of the virtues and limitations of that form: they’re fun and sometimes challenging, but always ultimately Black power.reassuring. Sitting down to work a crossword is a fundamentally optimistic enterprise — you do it assuming that there are, in fact, answers to all the clues and that those answers interlock in the promised fashion. If that turned out not to be the case, you wouldn’t consider it a triumph of the creator over the limitations of the form, you’d consider it an error and ask for your money back. And the same is true for a classical whodunit.

But noir is different. In noir novels (and films, but let’s confine ourselves to the novels here), any apparent order is generally illusory; things don’t work the way they’re supposed to; justice is rare and, when present, often accidental. Rules are imposed on the powerless by the powerful, who in turn don’t constrain themselves to live by those rules — and the would-be justice seekers who try to hold them accountable often fail or die trying. Noir is a crossword where half the white squares are really black under a thin coat of paint, and the clues are all lying.

The portrait of the world presented by noir fiction is either cynical or merely honest, depending on your point of view — but it’s definitely pessimistic. And it’s not necessarily written for other pessimists to read. In practice, many readers of noir are confirmed fellow travelers who share the authors’ perspective — but I can tell you from personal experience, there is no greater pleasure for a noir writer than to clutch the heart and throat and viscera of a reader who, all unsuspecting, thought she or he was picking up one of those sunnier mysteries where all the shadows get chased away at the end. We love to convert. We’re a little like vampires in this regard: we like to leave our bloody marks on innocent readers’ lily-white throats.

So, what is noir? It’s a broken promise. It’s a book that betrays us and that we love for it, because we nod in recognition. Yes, we say, that is the way this wicked world operates.

Which is not to say that we don’t also love the classical detectives, with their perfect records and superhuman powers of observation. But for denizens of the modern world — the post-Hiroshima, post-Auschwitz, post-9/11 world — there is something deeply and viscerally satisfying about a literature that acknowledges that the sun also sets.

CHARLES ARDAI is an Edgar and Shamus Award–winning author as well as founder and editor of the Hard Case Crime series of pulp-style paperback novels (www.hardcasecrime.com), in which capacity he’s had the privilege of working with authors such as Madison Smartt Bell, Lawrence Block, Stephen King, Ed McBain, and Mickey Spillane. He is also a writer/producer on the SyFy television series Haven, and in a prior life created the Internet service Juno.