If you’ve been following my blog for a while or read some of my books, you’ll probably be thinking, ‘She loves noir? But she writes comedy!’ Or even, ‘What is noir?’
Noir is French for black and there are many definitions of noir fiction. Google defines it as ‘a genre of crime film or fiction characterized by cynicism, fatalism, and moral ambiguity.’
The main difference between traditional crime stories and noir is that the protagonist is not a detective but a suspect, perpetrator or victim.
Noir fiction came out of WW1 and the Depression, and famous early noir authors include James Cain (The Postman Always Rings Twice), Cornell Woolrich (Rear Window, upon which the Alfred Hitchcock movie was based) and Jim Thompson (The Killer Inside Me). Later authors include Elmore Leonard (Get Shorty), Patricia Highsmith (The Talented Mr Ripley), Richard Stark, alias Donald Westlake (the Parker series) and Lawrence Block (the Bernie Rhodenbarr series).
Nowadays there are all sorts of noir-blend genres – noir romance, noir fantasy, noir thrillers and so on. If you search hard enough I’m sure you’ll find space noir, zombie noir and vampire noir.
To explain the specifics of noir fiction, author Dave Zeltserman, in a blog post titled ‘On Writing Noir,’ quotes American fiction editor Otto Prenzler:
‘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.’
Sounds uplifting, doesn’t it? But I believe that villains and highly flawed characters are more fun to write than heroes, and if you write them well, you also reveal their positive traits as well as their flaws, which helps to create empathy in the reader.
I’ve always loved reading crime novels and having worked as a probation and parole officer on and off for over 25 years, I’ve had first-hand exposure to the lifestyles of people living on the fringes of society. I’m not sure if I was drawn to that profession because of an innate interest in crime or whether the job itself sparked the interest.
But two things happened recently to make me realise that writing noir fiction was the direction I want to go in from now on.
Firstly, while writing my most recent fiction book, noir romance novella An Affair With Danger, I realised how much I enjoyed writing about desperate, doomed characters who are victims of their own weaknesses and frequently take the not-so-heroic path.
And secondly, a reviewer of my book of short stories Comedy Shorts, said that while she thoroughly enjoyed the stories, she didn’t think they were comedy as they all had a macabre core to them, dealing mostly with crime and/or death. On reflection, I had to agree with her.
So for me now, noir is the new black and if you’ve never read any noir fiction, here are three reasons to go find a book right away:
1.There’s a raw honesty in noir fiction that you often don’t find in other genres. In the above-mentioned blog post Dave Zeltserman describes it perfectly:
The best noir can be a far more exhilarating experience than you can find reading almost any other kind of mystery or crime fiction, and the reason for this is it can expose truths about the human condition that other genre fiction barely hints at. There’s a resonance in the best noir fiction that’s almost impossible to find elsewhere in genre fiction.
2. It can allow you to indulge your dark side while lounging on your comfy couch, without ever having to actually dabble in drugs, hang out with criminals or murder someone. (Of course if you want to do any of those things, you’re probably out doing them and don’t have time to read books).
It’s the same impulse that makes us slow down and gawk at the scene of an accident, or watch TV shows about serial killers who dismember and cook their victims – we’re fascinated by the grisly and the gruesome, as long as it’s from the safety of our own comfort zones.
3. It makes you think about the big, unanswerable questions of life – are some people born evil? Why can some people rise above misfortune and others get dragged down by it? How much influence do social conditions and environment have on your actions? Why can’t we ever live in peace, no matter how much easier we seem to have it than the previous generation? If I hang out in seedy bars and drink cheap gin, will I become a character in a noir novel?
I’m not saying you can’t find these attributes in other genres, but you are guaranteed to find them in noir. And if you’re looking for more recommendations for noir novels, Goodreads lists some popular classic noir books and some popular neo noir (modern noir) books.
This blog post contains small parts and is not suitable for children under 3.
There’s hardly ever a happy ending in noir. The best you’ll get is an ambiguous ending in which there is some resolution but other bits are left dangling – just like real life! So if you like HEA (happily ever after) endings and all loose ends tied up with a neat bow, read noir at your own risk. The writer of this blog takes no responsibility for any ensuing mental health issues.
Have you read any noir, and if so, do you have any recommendations? I’d love you to leave your comments in the box below.
Robin Storey is an Australian author from the Sunshine Coast in Queensland, Australia. She is a certified book nerd and has no weird hobbies or unusual pets.