Crossroads: What is Noir, Anyway?

A worn man sits at a worn desk. The stubble on his cheek is sharp, rough as cheap sandpaper. He’s got a bottle of whiskey in the bottom drawer, four-fifths drunk. A dog-end smolders in a cracked ashtray on his desk, and a newspaper lies spread out like a cheap piece of tail. Work has been scarce. Even the help wanted ads are all dried up. There’s a knock on his door: probably a debt-collector. He looks up to see…

You know what happens next. Enter the femme fatale, with a case that our down-on-his-luck-but-still-honorable private-eye must solve. That’s the most trite classic noir opening imaginable. But what makes it noir?

The tempting answer is that it’s the whole plot setup: the down-on-his-luck PI, the femme fatale, the mystery – these are classic tropes of noir storytelling (and of hard-boiled detective fiction, too). But they aren’t its defining characteristics. Noir owes its roots to detective fiction and the police procedural, so naturally the two are closely associated. But not every murder mystery is a noir story (I think we’d be hard-pressed to find folks arguing that Castle or NCIS is “noir” any meaningful sense).

Noir is a collection of stylistic and thematic storytelling methods (and since its borders with hard-boiled fiction are incredibly porous, I’ll conflate the two here). Certain plot structures (like the murder mystery or the police procedural) really lend themselves to their application, but they are a consequence of the noir sensibility and not its cause.

The Depression and Noir Themes

Noir is a product of the 1930’s, and the Depression looms large over the aesthetic. Classic noir (Dashiell Hammet and Raymond Chandler in particular) tends to be hyper-localized, focused on the individual and confined to a given city.

Unemployed men queued outside a depression soup kitchen opened in Chicago by Al Capone, 1931
Unemployed men queued outside a depression soup kitchen opened in Chicago by Al Capone, 1931

The frustration and pessimism of the Depression established the thematic concerns of classic noir: the plight of the moral protagonist in an amoral world, the unimportance of individual lives (or crimes) to the broader world (city), the supposed futility of moral action.

If noir stories are “about” anything, they are about the fraying of an outdated moral code in the face of changing values. The classic “noir style” and “noir plot” are merely a consequence of this fact: they are simply efficient ways to explore those themes.

The Classic Noir Style

If – in a bleak and pessimistic time – you wanted to explore themes of morality, how would you do it? Would you gloss over the messy bits of real life? Leave the blood off camera? Put a fig leaf over sex? Of course not: they’re the easiest way to demonstrate your themes.

The noir aesthetic practices what it preaches. This means portraying the seamy side of life with frank realism, not shying from either the violence or the sex. Noir specifically marked a departure from the earlier hard-boiled detective fiction of Hammett, Chandler, and Cain by focusing more on victimization. Back in the ’30s, this was ground-breaking stuff. Today, we’re a bit more desensitized to it, but nevertheless noir tends to be characteristically unflinching. This doesn’t mean that noir revels in either gore or porn. It tends to be fairly restrained. But that’s because its sensibilities extend to the level of sentence and paragraph structure.

Most of us can recognize a noir sentence when we see it:

The muzzle of the Luger looked like the mouth of the Second Street tunnel.
Raymond Chandler, The Big Sleep

That’s because to further establish their realism, noir authors like Hammett and Chandler tended to go for sparse prose, devoid of emotional qualifiers. Noir fiction tends to be very tightly written, lacking in almost all adverbs and adjectives.

When noir authors want to highlight an image, they opt for simile rather than metaphor. Their imagery is realistic, recognizable to their readers, and always tightly focused. If every sentence featured such similes, the story would quickly become unreadable. So classic noir authors had to carefully select the images they wanted to draw attention to. The result is restrained prose, with a leash looped tight around its neck.

These characteristics make for a very recognizable style, and when we think of noir we often think of the “feeling” this style conveys. Philip Marlowe, Sam Spade, and Jake Gittes all bring it to mind.

Plot Structures in Noir

If noir authors use style to support the themes they wish to explore, then they do the same with their plot structures. If you want to explore the tension between an individual’s moral code and the purported amorality of the outside world, what better way to demonstrate that tension than by exploring crime?

Noir tropes are so common because they are so good at exploring those noir themes. But they are plot structures, mere devices that lend a framework to the story. And other genres – which have their own assortment of recognizable plot structures – can and often do approach noir from a different angle.

The Tensions of Speculative Noir

If noir is a collection of themes, a stylistic approach to portraying those themes, and a set of plot structures for exploring them, then how does speculative fiction use it? How do we incorporate noir techniques into science fiction, fantasy, and horror?

The exploration of morality has long been a theme in speculative fiction. Science fiction, fantasy, horror – every branch of speculative fiction has explored and will continue to explore morality. But noir’s hyper-local setting, and the sharp focus on the individual, tend to create tensions between the noir aesthetic and speculative fiction. After all, the “epic” so often found in fantasy is diametrically opposed to noir’s local focus, and science fiction has historically favored ideas over character.

Stylistically, science fiction, fantasy, and horror all rely on metaphor to portray the unreal. If noir uses simile to highlight realistic images, how can that stylistic method be adapted to portray the unreal? Aren’t they – by definition – opposed? That’s one of the challenges of mashing speculative fiction together with noir.

And what of noir plot structures? How does speculative fiction incorporate, revise, challenge, and subvert them? How does crime get updated for the future? How does magic alter it?

Next week, we’ll dive into an exploration of how science fiction approaches the noir aesthetic. Until then, what are your favorite noir stories? Who are your favorite noir authors?

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  1. Chris,

    I love the classic writers you mention: Hammett, Chandler, Cain. Charles Williams was a master of the form, and Cornell Woolrich took it to new heights. So did John D. MacDonald, followed by Lawrence Block and Donald E. Westlake when writing as Richard Stark. One science fiction series that captured the noir/hardboiled feel was Brian Stableford's Hooded Swan series.

    1. Thanks for the pointer to Stableford! I haven't read his Hooded Swan series yet, so I'll definitely have to check it out. Next week's post will get into the weeds of some noirish SF, including stuff by George Alec Effinger, Ken MacLeod, and Philip K. Dick.

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