Back in 2002, I attended New England CrimeBake, the initial one. Jerry Healy was the keynote speaker of the single day event held at Northern Essex Community College in Haverhill, Massachusetts. During the conference I was asked what I wrote and I replied Noir. The novel I was writing at that time was My Brother’s Keeper, Skyhorse Publishing, July 2019. I recently reread what I wrote–it was not nor will it ever be noir.
Noir is an offshoot of hard-boiled fiction, think Raymond Chandler and James M. Cain. It was strongly influenced by the cinematic works of Robert Mitchum, early Alan Ladd, and Humphrey Bogart. I believe that the first movie I ever saw that was truly noir was White Heat with Jimmy Cagney.
Noir consists of a number of elements.
a. The protaganist is usually an outcast. For instance, Mickey Spillane’s Mike Hammer. In the opening scene Hammer is introduced as having served in the military in WWII (in the latter novels Hammer was a Korean War vet — Spillane didn’t want his protaganist to be in his late eighties — a problem when you write a series using the same protagoanist for more than fifty years ) Throughout the series Hammer only has two friends, his secretary Velda and police Captain Pat Chambers, with whom Mike is often at odds.
b. The noir protaganist is not a hero. Hammer is a good example of this. In most of the books, he finds the antagonist but rather than turn them in to the police, he shoots them.
c. In noir no one on Earth has any hope and they are usually driven by some personal purpose. Be it revenge, greed, or any of a myriad of reasons. In Hammer’s case it’s usually revenge, but he also spends a lot of time uncovering a great conspiracy–usually rich men and politicians.
d. There is usually a sexy woman involved. How many detective movies have you scene where a young attractive woman walks into his office (seldom if ever was the detective a woman). When watching noir movies or reading some of the books keep in mind the time and place most that I have seen take place in the 1940s and 50s. Think Jack Nicholson in Chinatown.
e. Noir characters are usually (not always) nocturnal. The movies usually take place at night and are filmed in a manner that makes the viewer believe that all crime happens at night on rain soaked streets with streetlights that give insufficient illumination.
f. Noir is primarily written in first person so that the reader is in the protagonist’s head–in many noir movies the protagonist narrates. It leaves open the prospect that maybe the protagonist POV is isn’t telling the story the way it happened. Is he (or she) deluded, confused, or just outright lying. Now before you write a comment on POV, you don’t have to use first person–use the one that is best for your story.
g. The mystery is usually the murder of a young woman. Your protagonist need not be a private detective or a disillusioned police office. It can be an amateur like a veteran returns from the war to learn that his wife has been murdered. You get the basic plot it’s been done enough. Keep in mind item a. above.
h. Very few noir stories take place in small town in rural America. Marlowe stayed in L. A. and Hammer the streets and allies of New York. However, don’t be afraid to take noir out of the city. The Postman Always Rings Twice takes place in a small country local. How about the Bates Hotel?
i. To satisfy the diehard noir fan you must have violence. Somewhere along the line the protagonist is going to get the snot knocked out of him (Nicholson’s detective in Chinatown has his nose restructured with a knife).
j. There ain’t no happy ending. At its core, noir is about broken dreams. In short, make sure your protagonist is left no better off than they started. In our example of the vet trying to find his wire’s murderer–he identifies the killer, but he is a wealthy politician and everyone in town owes him for something. Net result killer gets off and protagonist is forced to leave town.
k. Keep your writing simple, direct, and hard. Just get to the point and make it snappy.
In closing, as much as I would like to write noir, I don’t. I also better mention that if you are writing noir you do not have to hit all eleven elements. It may help to keep in mind that noir is protest literature. I’ll get into that in my next blog.