Hardboiled, or Noir?

black-mask-coverIt turns out that I’ve been using two related genre terms interchangeably in a whole series of related posts over the last year and now I have to cringe and confess I didn’t know what I was talking about.

Chris Hocking has introduced me to some noir, it’s true, but mostly what he’s opened me to is hardboiled fiction. While I’ve enjoyed the noir, it’s the hardboiled stuff that’s delighted me the most. I’m actually going to excerpt the Wikipedia definition of the term to define it, although I take issue with its concluding phrase, where it goes dreadfully wrong:

farwell my lovelyHardboiled (or hard-boiled) fiction is a literary genre that shares to some degree its characters and settings with crime fiction (especially detective stories). Although deriving from romantic tradition which emphasized the emotions of apprehensionhorror and terror, and awe, the hardboiled fiction deviates from the tradition in the detective’s cynical attitude towards those emotions. The attitude is conveyed through the detective’s self-talk describing to the reader (or—in film—to the viewer) what he is doing and feeling. The genre’s typical protagonist was a detective, who daily witnesses the violence of organized crime that flourished during Prohibition, while dealing with a legal system that had become as corrupt as the organized crime itself.[1] Rendered cynical by this cycle of violence, the detectives of hardboiled fiction are classic antiheroes.

This is pretty much spot-on except for the all important point that detectives of hardboiled fiction aren’t classic “antiheroes,” who, according to the wikipedia definition of antihero, lack courage, idealism, and morality. The detectives of hardboiled fiction usually have all of these qualities, they’re just hidden under a layer of toughness and cynicism. Hardboiled detectives are white knights cloaked in their trench coats and fedoras, willing to lend a hand even though they’re world weary and are fairly sure it probably won’t matter in the long run.

thin manThe first of them seems to have been Caroll John Daly’s Race Williams, but it was Dashiell Hammet who really codified the character type and then Raymond Chandler who elevated him. Style-wise Hammet and Chandler are a little like Hemmingway versus Fitzgerald, respectively, although that analogy can’t be taken too far, because Hammet certainly used more descriptive phrasing than Hemmingway and Chandler and Fitzgerald read fairly differently, although you can certainly see how the latter influenced the former to some extent.

Later this week I’ll finally take a list live of the favorite books in the genre that I’ve been reading, but first I’ll tell you why. Keeping in mind Sturgeon’s Revelation that “ninety percent of everything is crap,” the ten percent of hardboiled (and noir) fiction that isn’t crap is so finely wrought it practically makes me weep. Tired of modern fantasy bloat? You want to see understated prose, rich characters who don’t constantly emote what they’re feeling? You want complex characters clashing as they’re pulled in different directions by their own motivations? You want swift-moving events that resolve so well you sometimes feel like you’ve been gut-punched (because “well” in hard-boiled and noir often doesn’t translate to “happily”)?

Then you should read this stuff.

I’ve been reading a steady diet of the very best of it, and it’s pretty hard to come back and read in my usual genres because I have been on a diet of some of the most masterful prose I’ve ever had under my eyeballs.

Does this mean that I’m going to stop writing fantasy and historicals? Hardly. But I do think it means my newest work is already colored by what I’ve lately been reading.


11 Comments on “Hardboiled, or Noir?

  1. ” I do think it means my newest work is already colored by what I’ve lately been reading.”

    I take this to mean that you are growing as a writer, which is a good thing.

  2. Noir is tragedy. Noir = screwed. Dennis Lehane said that the difference between noir and Greek tragedy was that characters in Greek tragedy fall from a height while characters in noir fall from the curb.

    Hardboiled, on the other hand, is best exemplified by Chandler who said that the hardboiled detective must walk the mean streets and not himself be mean. I think the confusion about the genres is that some great noir is hardboiled and certainly many of the classics of film noir fall under the hardboiled genre.

    Regardless, you find great prose in both genres and I agree that I find the bloat in fantasy, but really in a lot of other popular fiction genres, to be hard to stomach after going down those mean streets.

    That Howard Andrew Jones guy though. He’s the best. Highly recommend.

    • A great definition, Craig. I had forgotten Chandler’s excellent shorthand definition.

      And thanks for the kind words!

  3. I don’t know that I get really hung up on the precise borderline of genres. “Noir” starts out as a term in film criticism, describing films largely based on or echoing American detective stories that are hardboiled, so then noir starts to be applied to books… And, however they’re defined, they can’t be mutually exclusive. DOUBLE INDEMNITY (as a book or a movie) is clearly both noir and hardboiled.

    • I think worrying about borderlines is a fool’s game. On the other hand, I realized the other day while talking with someone that they thought noir meant something entirely different from what I meant — those bleak novels about dark people doing dark things where everything ends badly.

      I feel the same way about the difference between sword-and-sorcery and fantasy in general (although in that case it’s more a sub-category or flavoring than an independent genre). I mean something quite specific when I refer to sword-and-sorcery: your standard movie reviewer thinks it’s interchangeable with the word “fantasy.” You and I well know that it isn’t.

      So yeah, I agree let’s not sweat the small stuff, especially when it comes to mixing, matching, and cross blending. But I do want to know what the baseline is for both sorts of fiction.

    • Actually, “Noir” began as *roman noir* (a fiction genre) in France somewhere in the 1800s (too lazy to look up exact date) and really kicked in when the novels of Cornell Woolrich (one of the 3 fathers of noir along with Horace McCoy and James M. Cain) were published in France before WW2. Many of Woolrich’s novels have the word “Black” in the title (Noir), and the popularity of these books lead to a publisher coat tailing on the books with Serie Noir imprint in 1945.

      When films were made from Roman Noir books, they were of course called Film Noir…

  4. I like Craig’s definition of noir. but in the end I think James is right that it’s all sort of hard to separate. For what it’s worth, I consider Chandler more noir than not. Marlowe may be the noble paladin but the cases he gets caught up in tend to be tragic for everyone else involved in them.

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