What is and isn’t noir is a surprisingly contentious subject lately. James Ellroy famously (and somewhat ironically) said “Noir is dead to me. History has taken it as far as it will go.” ZJ disagrees. He sees it thriving in many forms around the world.
Working from Dennis Lehane’s thesis that “In Greek tragedy, they fall from great heights; in noir they fall from the curb,” Czupor looked into the history of noir, its tenets and how it has evolved. He describes it as a mongrel, a dog with many fathers.
Classic American Noir has its roots in the hardboiled detective stories of the ‘30s and ‘40s. It often appeared as short stories in crime magazines like Argosy, Black Mask and Dime Detective and in “dime novels.” It was existential, dark, and pessimistic with a large dose of anti-authoritarianism that is often seen as a reaction to intrusive New Deal politics of the time. And it had great appeal to “the common man,” who read it during long commutes or on breaks at work.
Seriously flawed protagonists struggle through emotional turmoil in an atmosphere of lust, greed and violence, often with questionable morals of their own. The point of view tends to be first person, and love is nothing more than a ticket to Hell. But noir icon Raymond Chandler cut the antiheroes some slack, saying that while they may walk the mean streets they were not always part of them.
Noir wasn’t always called noir; it took a Frenchman to give it that moniker (surprise!). Nino Frank was a film critic during the ‘40s and when American films made it back to France after the war, Double Indemnity, Laura, and The Maltese Falcon among them, he saw a commonality with dark French themes, labeled them “film noir,” and it stuck.
While commonly thought of as a male province with male leads, a great many women wrote noir and are held in high esteem. Among them were Tereska Torres whose fictionalized account of her time with the Free French in London during WWII debuted in paperback in the U.S. in 1950 to great success in spite of (or perhaps because of) it being condemned as pornographic by a House Select Committee. Rediscovered recently, Women’s Barracks is now hailed as a breakthrough in lesbian fiction, although Torres pooh-poohed the notion. Her fourteen books sold over four million copies.
The pantheon of female noir includes writers such as Vera Caspary (Laura), Patricia Highsmith (The Talented Mr. Ripley, Strangers on a Train), Dorothy Hughes (In a Lonely Place, Ride the Pink Horse) and Elizabeth Sanxay Holding, a prolific writer who Raymond Chandler called “the top suspense writer of them all.” Margaret Millar’s Beast in View won the 1956 Edgar Allan Poe Award for Best Novel (over Highsmith’s Mr. Ripley). Her husband Kenneth also wrote a little. His pen name was Ross Macdonald.
Women also edited many of the original crime mags that gave hardboiled writers their starts, among them: Florence Osborn (Black Mask), Fannie Ellsworth (Black Mask), Daisy Bacon (Detective Stories), and Ruth Miller (Black Mask). Founded in 1941, Ellery Queen Magazine was one of the first to encourage submissions by female writers.
More recently, Sara Paretsky broke ground with her character V.I. Warshawski, widely recognized as the first strong female detective in crime novels. Her work has been compared to that of Hammett and Chandler.
Most people think of male writers when it comes to noir, though, especially the hardboiled kind, and for ZJ, the Four Horsemen of Noir are Dashiell Hammett, arguably the first and dean of the hardboiled school; Raymond Chandler, a vivid, elegant writer whose seven novels were all made into films; James M. Cain, whose characters were sociopathic, sexual and violent; and Mickey Spillane—his books have sold 225 million copies worldwide and his Mike Hammer tales were told in a radio series, four TV series, a comic book and many films.
The lesser nobles of the royal court include David Goodis (Dark Passage), James M. Thompson (The Killer Inside Me—one of the first looks at a serial killer); Paul Cain (Fast One); Cornell Woolrich (Rear Window); Charles Willeford (the father of Miami fiction—Elmore Leonard and Quentin Tarantino among his fans); Horace McCoy (They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?); and Elliot Chaze (a former AP Denver Bureau chief who wrote Black Wings Has My Angel).
Many of these writers raked in some serious coin, too. By ZJ’s calculation, the more prolific of them, adjusted for inflation, were pulling in upwards of $200,000 a year. And that didn’t include movie money.
Noir isn’t limited to detective stories, either. Its influences show up in everything from Southern Gothic to video games. It’s the subject of numerous academic studies and there are at least 22 magazines and many websites dedicated to promoting the work of contemporary noir writers.
It shows up in TV programs like Ray Donovan, True Detective, Veronica Mars, The X-Files and Better Call Saul. In movies, there are Pulp Fiction, Body Heat, Fargo, The Big Lebowski, No Country for Old Men and Gone Baby Gone, to name just a few. Turner Classic Movies is loaded with classic noir. And it’s spread well beyond the U.S., especially in Europe where nearly every country has its own brand of noir, the most notable in the Scandinavian countries. Its greatest works show up on many of the all-time-best lists of novels and movies.
So you wanna write some noir? ZJ says the first thing you need is courage. The courage to turn off readers with nasty people doing bad things. The courage to disregard what your readers think interests them and stay true to the form. To sum up, in ZJ’s words, “There ain’t no noir lite.”
ZJ’s presentation was fascinating, loaded with examples of great writing, and full of details about the genre, including (by my count) a 32-point breakdown of the elements of a hardboiled detective novel. For it and much more, listen to the podcast in the Members Only section of the RMMWA website. Not a member? Join! It’s well worth it.