Defining Noir, at least for the mainstream population, remains as elusive as ever, even though it’s been around for decades, in fact closing in on a full century.
However, many qualifying crime stories in all forms of media weren’t always known as “noir.” At first the term was reserved for midcentury academic studies and high falutin’ film criticism. Now it seems anyone with an opinion is an expert on the subject. And yet everyone seems to have different ideas of what makes “noir” – literally the French word for “black” – well, noir.
Generally speaking, a Mystery is much, much easier to explain and therefore to market. Basically speaking, a crime, like a murder, has been committed. Someone is either hired or takes it upon his or herself to investigate, often inadvertently opening other doors to different dangers en route, meeting all sorts of colorful characters and suspects along the way, and eventually the culprit is identified and caught. The End.
The problem with Mysteries, at least for me, is once you know the resolution, they don’t really hold up under repeat readings, since the destination was really the whole point of the journey.
Detour to a Dead End
In Noir, the emphasis is on neither the journey nor the destination – which is typically some version of Hell – but rather the travelers themselves. It’s about their internal struggles, and their unique voices. It’s not so much about the story itself, but how it’s being told. Therein lies the “re-readability” factor.
In most cases, noir protagonists are obviously doomed. Moreover, most of the damage being done is self-inflicted, either because they’re ignorant of the consequences, or most likely, not really caring, since their objective – whether it’s love or sex or money or power – supersedes any conflicting interests or obstacles.
This downward spiral is a journey many readers don’t want to take, because frankly, it’s too depressing. As a very, very, very general rule, the chief difference between a “Noir” and a “Mystery” is that one has a positive message – “Crime Does Not Pay” – and the other simply states that we’re all screwed no matter what, so you might as well go for what you want, even if it’s bound to land you in debt, in jail, or in the ground, where we all wind up eventually, anyway. Noir paints a far bleaker portrait of Life than your average Law and Order tale, where there is typically at least some semblance of Justice.
Out of the Past
This cynicism springs from film noir, as I detailed in the first part of this piece. Following the Second World War, while much of the nation was rebuilding and society was booming economically, many of the G.I.s came home to broken homes and broken lives, with broken spirits. And they were broke, with no job prospects amid all of the postwar prosperity. This often led to acts of sheer desperation, merely to survive. Hollywood keenly reflected this harsh reality as a means of both escapism and therapy for the average veteran seeking solace in the movies.
This pessimistic world-view has carried over into our current sad state of affairs. Suffering is not unique to soldiers, though they see more than their share of violence. Now it’s become a viable form of creative expression for many authors that have never seen any of the original movies that defined Noir, but they can still relate to the universal themes of despair and deviance. Many have experienced hard luck in their own lives, so translating that to fiction is also a form of self-therapy.
But if you want to really make money, market your book as straight Crime, or a Mystery. However, don’t lie about it. If your book is truly a downbeat saga of losers with no hopes of redemption, peddling it as routine cops ‘n’ robbers stuff will only backfire. There is an audience for Noir, within the much wider and lucrative genre of Crime Fiction, but it’s a tight little group. So prepare yourself for abject poverty, with artistic rewards as compensation.
But hey, that’s what Noir is all about.
PHOTO: WILL VIHARO