Noir has its roots in hardboiled fiction, such as Raymond Chandler and James M. Cain. This detective fiction then influenced cinema and became film noir, developing the tropes we’re familiar with from Humphrey Bogart and co. Cinema then influenced fiction again to create noir fiction, which differs from hardboiled, as it doesn’t put the detective at the centre of the story.
There is more to noir than trilbys, trench coats and femme fatales, so let’s break it down:
- The outsider: the noir protagonist is an outcast – perhaps a soldier coming home
after the war, a released prisoner or just a stranger in town. Traditionally the lead is male, but a noir such as Mullholland Drive puts women firmly in the centre, so feel free to deviate from the usual.He or she is a dropout, a loser and nobody cares about them and this sense of alienation pervades the whole story.
- No Heroes: they may be central to the story, but the noir protagonist is no hero. They are driven by revenge, greed, lust or all of the above and they cross a moral line to get what they want. In fact, there are no heroes here and the only way is down. They look for answers in the bottom of a bottle of whisky and ask questions with a gun. However, we do empathise with our anti-hero and we want her to win, even though it won’t get her anywhere. Give your protagonist a glimmer of hope that they will succeed, this is what keeps them going and keeps the reader hoping along with them, only to have it torn away at the end.
- Fatalism and Nihilism: hope has forsaken the world of noir. This is the American Dream gone wrong and exposed as an illusion that’s not for the likes of us. It’s the Western, once we’ve woken up from the lie that every town has a hero willing to fight the bad guys, when actually the bad guys win and the rest of us suffer. The world-weary noir protagonist is on a fatal path, due to a doom of their own making. Remember, this is not a tragic hero who the fates seem to conspire against, despite their good intentions. The doom could be cheating at cards, stealing or murder and it sets the wheels in motion. The joy of noir is watching the moral breakdown of a character as they desperately try to escape their fate.
- The Femme or Homme Fatale: the fatale brings sex and lust into the equation. The attractive stranger appears to be vulnerable or there to help the protagonist, but it turns out he’s just there to seduce and wrong-foot our anti-hero. Traditionally, the femme was a woman who manipulated the man to kill her husband or follow the wrong trail of clues, but readers expect this trope, so you can play with it or reverse the gender roles.
- Creatures of the Night: noir fiction gets its name from a style of cinema created by European directors fleeing from WWII. They brought German expressionism to Hollywood – namely, extreme camera angles and high-contrast lighting, which cast angular shadows – to great cinematic effect. Hence, film noir is associated with the night, when the streetlights reflect on rain-slicked streets and the underworld comes out to play. However, Chinatown and Brick are both noir that bathe their characters in California sunshine for most of the film, but still hit the beats we expect from the genre. Your protagonist doesn’t have to be nocturnal, but it helps for adding atmosphere and mood, especially if you’re writing for a visual medium like film or TV.
- First-person: we’re all familiar with the hardboiled narration of the noir detective – ‘If looks could kill, I’d have been laid out in the city morgue, right then. She was the kind of woman….’ That’s pretty terrible, but you get the idea. The first-person puts the reader right in the protagonist’s head, which adds to the claustrophobia you need to create for noir. It also allows you to play with the unreliable narrator technique. Is the ‘hero’ telling it how it really happened or are they deluded, confused or just plain lying? Don’t feel that you have to stick with first-person, though. Choose the POV that serves your story best.
- The Mystery: as I’ve already said, you don’t need to have a private eye or a world-weary police officer investigating a murder, but these staples still work as an easy way to insert a mystery. Classic noir usually starts with a dead body (usually a woman) or at the very least a missing person, but the development of neo-noir offers writers a broader scope. The mystery can be less about a straight murder investigation and more about preventing a murder or just an amnesiac trying to piece together their fractured story – of course, the nihilistic nature of the noir hero means they probably killed someone, but it’s the journey that adds the mystery.
- City Streets: some may argue that noir has to be in an urban setting, but I don’t agree. Whilst the noir of Chandler and James Ellroy tend to focus on the streets of L.A., the Cohen brothers (masters of neo-noir) prefer wide-angle shots of a rural setting for their characters, adding its own sense of alienation and desperation. There can be something even more unsettling about a noir in the suburbs or hiding in the countryside. And although noir is pure Americana, Scandi-noir authors, such as Stieg Larsson’s ‘The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo’ proves that you can take the genre to any setting and it will work.
- Broken Noses: violence is an essential part of the noir tradition. It’s the symbolic darkness of the world made real. The protagonist will get a crack on the back of the head with the butt of a gun or wake up with a broken nose, tied to a chair. There are bodies to be buried, illuminated by the car headlights and the bad guys will catch up with the protagonist and give them a beating. That’s just the way it is because life is shitty and noir is telling us how it really is.
- No happy ending: did I mention the part about leaving hope at the door? Noir is the boulevard of broken dreams, so don’t expect to let your protagonist get the guy and skip off into the sunset. That’s not going to wash in noir. Your lead may die, either literally or metaphorically. Maybe they lose everything – family, job, grip on sanity. Or maybe they just lose the object of their desire – money, revenge, fame. Whatever happens, make sure the protagonist is no further ahead by the end. So, they solved the mystery, but it turns out the girl of their dreams killed that guy or they still lost all the cash and they’ve got to leave town. No sunsets, no kisses and definitely no wedding – this is noir, not Jane Austen.
- Pared Back Prose: when it comes to noir fiction, keep your prose simple, direct and hard. No florid descriptions. Our association with noir is extended metaphors, but unless you’re doing a period piece, that style has had its day. No describing the city like a woman or the night like a cloak of darkness. Just get to the point and make it snappy.
As you can see, noir is more complex than a guy with a gun, a hat and a woman. It’s a complex genre with a simple message and that’s why I love it. As a genre, it’s not without its problems, namely a preoccupation with fetishising dead women – see L.A. Confidential. And then the femme fatale herself, the very embodiment of a sexual woman as manipulating or evil. Despite these troubling tropes, I love noir and never get tired of its examination of the darker side of life.
Notable noir fiction:
Anything by Raymond Chandler – The Big Sleep and Lady In the Lake). Chandler is the master of the hardboiled quip, complex plots and sparkling prose.
Dashiell Hammett – The Maltese Falcon. Sam Spade was the blueprint for Chandler’s Philip Marlowe, starting a tradition of cynical detectives that survives today.
James Ellroy – The Black Dahlia. Ellroy is the new king of L.A. noir, mixing social commentary in with the death and darkness.
Believe it or not, women write noir too. Try Megan Abbott’s award-winning Queenpin or something by Patricia Highsmith, who wrote the inspiration for famous films, The Talented Mr Ripley and Strangers On A Train, but remains relatively unknown next to Chandler and the boys.
Notable film noir:
Brick is a neo-noir set in a modern American high school and does it so stylishly. It’s an hommage to film noir without being derivative.
For two classic femme fatales, jump into The Postman Always Rings Twice (either version) and Gilda. Both films have iconic screen entrances from the femmes, Lana Turner, in Postman and Rita Hayworth as Gilda.
The Big Sleep has everything you’d expect from film noir, plus brilliant performances and dialogue. It’s a classic for good reason.