About Me

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I've been a house painter, dishwasher, broiler cook, private detective, military intelligence analyst, and I spent nearly 40 years as a reporter covering crime, 26 of them for the San Francisco Chronicle. These days I write science fiction, fantasy, horror and crime fiction, and I blog about books, films and crimes that don't receive sufficient attention from the mainstream media. I would like to be Elmore Leonard, Raymond Chandler, Ross MacDonald, Dashiell Hammett or George V. Higgins, but all of them are dead so I'll just stick with what I am already doing. . .

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Despite the Name, When it Comes to Noir, Things Aren't Simply Black or White

I sometimes am amazed at the nit-picking that takes place among serious genre readers and the quarrels they become involved in over the terminology used in their specialties.

For example, there is a group page in Facebook about a particular fiction genre in which one member incessantly lectures other members about vagaries of what can be called "pulp." To this individual, pulp has not existed since magazines that used cheap paper went out of business several decades ago. Pulpy as they may have been, the paperback books that featured such heroes as Remo Williams and Mack Boland don't fit into his definition.

Similarly, in a Goodreads group I belong to, the same sort of nit-picking dispute loomed until the moderator dumped the member who insisted his pedantic definition of noir was the only possible one. To this fellow, noir was a form that only existed until around 1959. A detective story couldn't be noir. Neither could a police procedural. He even nit-picked films that were advertised as noir: if it was in color, it couldn't be noir.

I was talking with C.T. McNeely, one of my friends and editors (Dark Corners Pulp, Double Life Press), some time ago about the difference between literature that is properly called noir and that which is known as hardboiled and he referred to Eddie Muller's characterization of noir as "working class tragedy," picking up on Dennis Lehane's comment that "In Greek tragedy, they fall from great heights . . . In noir, they fall from the curb."

These cross-cutting definitions are in an essay at the end of The Wrong Goodbye, one of Chris Holms' marvelous Collector novels. But Holms goes on to say,"For my money, noir boils down to bleak humanism – or, to put it more plainly: shit options, bad decisions, and dire consequences. The difference between Greek tragedy and noir ain't the height of the fall, but the reason: those who fall in Greek tragedy do so because they're destined to; those who fall in noir choose to. . . In short, free will's a bitch."

I find all three authors' definitions only partly satisfactory.

Dennis Lehane
To me, what makes a story noir is, first of all, the interplay between free will, the unintended or unforseen consequences of its exercise and something that Muller, Lehane and Holm ignore in these quotes: fate. In noir, the plot is a machine that is designed to grind out sausage. And the machine is going to grind out whatever sort of sausage it has been set up to make, not the ribeye steaks that the characters of the story hope for.

The machine is inexorable. The machine can't be stopped, slowed or diverted. It is going to do what it does regardless of what the protagonist or protagonists want it to do. This creates a nightmarish atmosphere where those unintended consequences not only play out in front of our major characters, but can't be prevented or ameliorated.

In other words, the characters in noir are doomed in the classic sense of the term: they have free will, but they are forced to exercise it within a fixed framework they can't control. That's fate.

The characters actions damn them to certain consequences almost from the beginning. This is why Chinatown actually IS noir, regardless of the fact that the film is in color, was made after 1959, and has a detective as its central focus. 

It doesn't matter what people may think of it: Mrs. Mulwray is trapped in her situation, as is her daughter; Private Eye Jake Gittes starts the machine, consequences be damned, and finds himself being crushed by it. The machine -- in this case, the combine dominated by Noah Cross -- rolls over him, just as it rolls over Evelyn Mulwray, her daughter/sister Katharine, her husband, Hollis.

Literary noir has the same characteristics as cinematic noir. Look at Down There, the David Goodis novel on which the film "Shoot the Piano Player" is based: the protagonist is a man who has bungled his big chance at happiness and lost the love of his life. His response has been to withdraw from the world. 

But his sordid family connections and his attraction to a woman who is an innocent, draws him back into involvement. 

David Goodis

Once the machine is in gear, the unintended consequences occur and the innocent woman is killed as a result. The protagonist, like Gittes, thought he could beat the system. He was wrong.

The house always wins in this type of gambling; that's the nature of noir.


  1. Yup, that's pretty much it, but for me an important part is transgression: the protagonist transgresses in some way and the 'sausage machine' works as a kind of noir karma. In Down There his transgression is to build his career on the back of his wife's infidelity - which transgresses his own ethical code. His life is ruined but that's not enough - he's tainted, so when another woman tries to get involved with him it can only end in tragedy, and when she dies and he is utterly, spiritually crushed then his noir 'karmic debt' is paid. I'll admit though that this theory doesn't always quite work for the detective model of noir, but Goodis and Cain were absolute masters of it.

  2. Fighting over the defination of noir is sort of like fighting over which recipe in a cookbook is the best - just cook it, eat it and see which one tastes the best! Great article! C. Mack Lewis

  3. Wonderful, insightful essay, William. I'm Twittering it now. Anonymous-9