Crossroads: Tripping the Noir Fantastic

Last week, we talked about some of the tensions between science fiction and noir. Fantasy, which relies on metaphor even more than science fiction, has an even more challenging time of it. Its traditional themes and techniques are oil to noir’s water, and yet the genre features some of the most compelling noir hybrids in all of speculative fiction. How do authors like Jim Butcher, Laurell K. Hamilton, Harry Connolly, and Daniel Polansky manage this trick?

Noir Simile: A Metaphor Too Far

Science fiction tends to rely on one (or more) intellectual conceits, usually represented as imaginative metaphor. Fantasy, however, goes further. More often than not, it uses imaginary worlds constructed out of whole cloth. When we read Brandon Sanderson’s Mistborn novels, we are expected to internalize and conceptualize the history of his imagined world, the rules of his magical system, the details of his varied settings, and the interactions and motivations of his characters.


When we read more mimetic fiction – and noir definitely falls into this category – we don’t have to do as much work. Consider James M. Cain’s The Postman Always Rings Twice. Set in Depression-era California, we know the world’s history, the way in which society operates, and the component parts of the world. It is our world, and if we have to imagine any background at all, it is the background specific to a setting where we have never been. But because the rest of the world is known to us, that takes less effort on our part than to imagine a wholly-imagined world.

If fantasy demands more imaginative effort on our part, then this makes noir’s traditional use of simile harder to palate. Consider a more fantastical re-working of a sentence from Chandler’s The Big Sleep:

The tip of the karynex looked like the mouth of a gorblob.

We have to imagine – or deduce from context – what a karynex is, and what a gorblob (let alone its mouth) looks like. It’s do-able, but it takes a greater effort, which is why a more typical fantasy style would instead say:

The tip of the karynex yawned dark and foreboding.

We might not know what a “karynex” is, but we can easily conceptualize “dark and foreboding” and the more active verb “yawned” imbues some emotional connotation. To make itself accessible, fantasy relies on the language of direct metaphor, which runs counter to the noir tradition. And yet plenty of fantasy retains a noir sensibility, almost always by approaching its setting in the same way that noir does.

Setting and Fantasy Noir

Jim Butcher’s Harry Dresden is famously from Chicago, where he is “the only wizard in the phonebook.” Chicago, of course, is a real city. Those of us who haven’t been there still know it exists, and with that knowledge comes a mass of history and background information. We bring that background to the table, and so we don’t have to exert quite as much effort into imagining Butcher’s fictional world. We know the borders of Harry Dresden’s world because they are the borders of our own. He has to deal with fairies and magic and monsters, but his work day butts up against our daily grind.

Enough fantasies employ this kind of set up that John Clute coined a wonderful phrase for it in the Encyclopedia of Fantasy: a wainscot, where the unfamiliar, secret world of the protagonist is hidden behind the wainscoting of our mundane existence. However, this relationship between the secret world and our own is not unique to fantasy: noir is set up in exactly the same way. Just as most of us don’t have to deal with eldritch creatures en route to the store, most of us typically don’t deal with con men, gangsters, or killers, either.

By using a wainscot setup within a real city, Butcher’s Dresden Files gain a veneer of noir without relying on the aesthetic’s simile-laden prose style. Though both Butcher and Connolly use a “secret world” wainscot of which the mundanes are ignorant, that isn’t necessary. Just as traditional noir uses the shadowy world of criminality as a wainscot, so too do other noir fantasy authors like Laurell K. Hamilton and Lauren Beukes.

What most have in common is that their stories place their wainscot worlds within a familiar, real environment. And in those rare cases where a secondary world is used (as in Daniel Polansky’s Low Town or Glen Cook’s Garrett P.I. books), the wainscot construction is maintained. Such an approach to setting lets fantasy simultaneously retain noir’s relationship between the fictional environment and the reader, maintain its hyper-local focus, and provide a space to explore noir’s traditional narrowly-focused themes using consistent noir narrative structures.

Go Small or Go Home: Thematic Tension between Fantasy and Noir

When we think of fantasy, our minds naturally gravitate to J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, C.S. Lewis’ Narnia, Robert E. Howard’s Conan the Cimmerian, or J.K. Rowing’s Harry Potter. Of course, the genre contains this and more, with everything from John Crowley’s Little, Big to Sir Terry Pratchett’s Discworld or Charlaine Harris’ Southern Vampire Mysteries. But in the public imagination, fantasy is firmly wedded to wizards, elves, adventurers, and myth. Epics are in fantasy’s DNA, and noir lies on the opposite end of the thematic spectrum.

Fantasy shelves sag beneath the weight of existential conflict, where a dark-god/evil-sorceror/mad king will end the world if not for our heroes. Such high stakes are some of fantasy’s greatest strengths, but they run counter to noir’s traditional focus on the individual and local.

In both noir and hard-boiled fiction, the stakes are both smaller and more immediate. The hero has zero impact on Matters of Great Import. At best, the hero might hope (usually futilely) to influence his own fate. In Thompson’s The Grifters, Roy Dillon has no desire or capacity to affect anyone but those in his immediate vicinity. All he wants is to make money and get by. In Chandler’s hard-boiled mysteries, Philip Marlowe is only concerned with a given case. The scope is narrow and focused on immediate, local concerns.

By using a wainscot construction, noir fantasy narrows the focus down from an epic level, and brings it to the wet and shadowy streets. Noir fantasy’s reliance on the wainscot setup puts in stark relief the character’s moral outlook, juxtaposing the exigencies of their darker, more violent world against the moral choices we face. Whether a noir fantasy character thinks of themselves as honest (Harry Dresden, Anita Blake), revels in their own criminality (Zinzi December, the Warden), or aspires to reform (Ray Lily) is less important than the story’s central concern with that particular character, and that particular character’s individual moral choices.

And just as noir explores such themes through the use of crime, sex, and violence, fantasy does the same. Only it adds magic into the mix.

The Detective and the Criminal, now with Sex, Violence and Magic

As I discussed two weeks ago when first writing about noir, noir’s characteristic use of detectives and criminals stems from the utility of those characters to explore noir’s themes. Those character tropes and plot devices are useful to noir authors because they provide an efficient means of exploring their themes. The same holds true for fantasy noir.

Glen Cook’s Garrett, John Horner Jacobs’ Bull Ingram, and Daniel Polansky’s Warden are all – like so many characters from noir and hard-boiled fiction – war veterans, with the same bitter and sardonic outlook on life as Ray Dillon, Philip Marlowe, Sam Spade, or Jack Gittes. This war-scarred outlook is characteristic of noir, whose roots lie in the inter-war period and whose hey-day occurred shortly after WWII. Noir protagonists are always – in some important fashion – damaged. It is their struggle with their scars which gives their stories meaning. Every noir protagonist – whether realistic or fantasy – has to solve the mystery of themselves. Which makes the detective-story plot structure a perfect way to frame this theme.

Every noir fantasy features a protagonist out to solve a puzzle, find an answer, find a person, find something. In some cases, the mystery is tinged with revenge (as in Robert Jackson Bennett’s Mr. Shivers), while in others it is just a job. But the story’s concern with the individual’s fraught moral choices remains at the foreground. And just as noir used violence and sex to frame these moral quandaries, so too does noir fantasy.

Yes, sex and violence in media today is less shocking than it was in Thompson’s day. But they still speak to some dark and dangerous part of our reptilian brain, and they make the protagonists’ choices concrete. The brutality in John Horner Jacobs’ Southern Gods, or the sex in Laurell K. Hamilton’s Anita Blake, Vampire Hunter series serves the same purpose as the violence in Thompson’s The Killer Inside Me, or the sex in Cain’s The Postman Always Rings Twice.

The Viability of Fantastic and Science Fictional Noir

Compared to science fiction, fantasy has greater difficulty using noir-style prose, and this difficulty makes it more reliant on noir’s setting, character tropes, and plot devices. But all of the components of fantasy and science fiction – magic, metaphor, world-building, high-concept ideas – can be mashed up with elements of the noir aesthetic.

There is plenty of excellent, exciting, speculative fiction out there that builds on the noir tradition. Just as mainstream noir’s stories are gripping, lived-in, and emotionally complex, so too are their speculative counterparts. They may not have huge, sweeping epic structures. But they are immediate, and they are emotionally and ethically powerful.

Next month, love is in the air and I’ll be diving into romance (be still, my beating heart). ‘Til then, what do you think of fantasy and its relationship to noir? Which noirish fantasies do you particularly like?

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  1. Thanks, Felicity! Glad you enjoyed the post! I've been meaning to take a look at The Dirty Streets of Heaven (I really enjoyed Williams' Dragonbone Chair and his Otherland quartet) but haven't had a chance to yet.

    As for "wainscot," the dual-layered meaning to "potterworld" is fun, but I think I prefer "mousehole worlds." It's really for the same reason as I like Clute's "wainscot" – the term focuses our attention on an object that separates our real world from the fantasy, just as "mousehole worlds" focuses our attention on the method by which the reader gets from our world to the fantasy world. They're both great terms, I think.

  2. Thanks, Johne! I've had The Sword-Edged Blonde in my to-read pile for several months, but haven't gotten to it yet. I've heard good things about the Eddie LaCrosse novels, so I'm looking forward to reading it!

  3. Fantastic post, Chris. I'm an enormous Jim Butcher fan and I still read Laurell K. Hamiton, too. Another recent "wainscot" is Tad Williams's "The Dirty Streets of Heaven," which looks to be very well-written, as you'd expect from Williams.

    With all due respect to Clute, I'm not quite happy with the term "wainscot," though. The wainscoting is what the fantasy hides behind, not what it is. So shouldn't these instead be called something like "mousehole worlds"? I agree it doesn't sound very heroic–what about "potterworlds"? Everyone would know what it meant because the Harry Potter universe is one. But I am actually deriving it from BEATRIX Potter, whose characters Tom Thumb and Hunca Munca live concealed, fantastic, and actually quite noirish existences.

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