The Origins of American Noir Fiction

Vaughn

Vaughn C. Hardacker here: I’ve been told on several occasions that my novels tend to be noir. Have you ever wondered where the form of crime fiction labelled as noir came from? I have . . . but then I’m a bit on the compulsive side. When I become interested in something I want to know everything there is to know about it (sometimes to my detriment). In its modern form, noir has come to denote a marked darkness in theme and subject matter, generally featuring a disturbing mixture of sex and violence.[1]

While related to and frequently confused with hardboiled detective fiction—due to the regular adaptation of hardboiled detective stories in the film

The Killer Inside of Me by Jim Thompson example of a noir book cover

noir style—the two are not the same. Both regularly take place against a backdrop of systemic and institutional corruption. However, noir fiction (French for “black”) is centered on protagonists that are either victims, suspects, or perpetrators—often self-destructive. A typical protagonist of noir fiction is forced to deal with a corrupt legal, political or other system, through which the protagonist is either victimized and/or has to victimize others, leading to a lose-lose situation.

All that said, let’s look at two writers who are considered to be early proponents of the sub-genre:

Cornell Woolrich was born in New York City; his parents separated when he was young. He lived for a time in Mexico with his father before returning to New York to live with his mother, Claire Attalie Woolrich. He attended Columbia University but left in 1926 without graduating when his first novel, Cover Charge, was published. Woolrich enrolled at New York’s Columbia University in 1921 where he spent a relatively undistinguished year until he was taken ill and was laid up for

Cornell Woolrich (1903 – 1968)

some weeks. It was during this illness (a Rear-Window-like confinement involving a gangrenous foot, according to one version of the story) that Woolrich started writing, producing Cover Charge, which was published in 1926.” Cover Charge was one of his Jazz Age novels inspired by the work of F. Scott Fitzgerald. A second short story, Children of the Ritz, won Woolrich the first prize of $10,000 the following year in a competition organized by College Humor and First National Pictures; this led to his working as screenwriter in Hollywood for First National Pictures. While in Hollywood,  he married Violet Virginia Blackton, the 21-year-old daughter of J. Stuart Blackton, one of the founders of the Vitagraph studio. Failing in both his attempt at marriage and at establishing a career as a screenwriter (the unconsummated marriage was annulled in 1933; Woolrich garnered no screen credits), Woolrich sought to resume his life as a novelist:

Although Woolrich had published six ‘jazz-age’ novels, concerned with the party-antics and romances of the beautiful young things on the fringes of American society, between 1926 and 1932, he was unable to establish himself as a serious writer. Perhaps because the ‘jazz-age’ novel was dead in the water by the 1930s when the depression had begun to take hold, Woolrich was unable to find a publisher for his seventh novel, I Love You, Paris, so he literally threw away the typescript, dumped it in a dustbin, and re-invented himself as a pulp writer.(Eddie Duggan (1999) ‘Writing in the darkness: the world of Cornell Woolrich’ CrimeTime 2.6 pp. 113–126[)

When he turned to pulp and detective fiction, Woolrich’s output was so prolific his work was often published under one of his many pseudonyms. For example, “William Irish” was the byline in Dime Detective Magazine (February 1942) on his 1942 story “It Had to Be Murder”, source of the 1954 Alfred Hitchcock movie Rear Window and itself based on H.G. Wells’ short story “Through a Window”. François Truffaut filmed Woolrich’s The Bride Wore Black and Waltz into Darkness in 1968 and 1969, respectively, the latter as Mississippi Mermaid. Ownership of the copyright in Woolrich’s original story “It Had to Be Murder” and its use for Rear Window was litigated before the US Supreme Court in Stewart v. Abend, 495 U.S. 207 (1990).

Woolrich’s mother died in 1957, he [went] into a sharp physical and mental decline. Although he moved from Harlem’s decrepit Hotel Marseilles to a more upmarket residence in the Hotel Franconia near Central Park, and later to the Sheraton-Russell on Park Avenue, Woolrich was a virtual recluse. Now in his 60s, with his eyesight failing, lonely, psychologically wracked by guilt over his homosexuality, tortured by his alcoholism, self-doubt, and a diabetic to boot, Woolrich neglected himself to such a degree that he allowed a foot infection to become gangrenous which resulted, early in 1968, in the amputation of a leg.

After the amputation, and a conversion to Catholicism, Woolrich returned to the Sheraton-Russell, confined to a wheelchair. Some of the staff there would take Woolrich down to the lobby so he could look out on the passing traffic, thus making the wizened, wheelchair-bound Woolrich into a kind of darker, self-loathing version of the character played by James Stewart in Hitchcock’s Rear Window.

With the type of closure that is usually only encountered as a literary device, the Woolrich story turns full-circle around the Oedipally charged foot motif, the writing career that apparently began with a period of confinement attributed to a foot infection ends with an amputation, and the deep Freudian resonance that amputation induces

James M. Cain (1892 – 1977)

James M. Cain was an American author and journalist. Cain vehemently opposed labeling, but he is usually associated with the hardboiled school of American crime fiction and is seen as one of the creators of the roman noir. Several of his crime novels inspired successful movies. He was born into an Irish Catholic family in Annapolis, Maryland. The son of an educator and a failed opera singer, he inherited a love of music from his mother, but his hopes of a career as a singer were thwarted when she told him that his voice was not good enough. The family moved to Chestertown, Maryland, in 1903. In 1910, Cain graduated from Washington College, where his father, James W. Cain, served as president. By 1914, Cain had decided to become a writer. He began working as a journalist for the Baltimore American and then the Baltimore Sun. Cain was drafted into the United States Army and spent the final year of World War I in France writing for an army magazine.

Upon returning to the United States, Cain continued working as a journalist, writing editorials for the New York World and a play, a short story, and satirical pieces for American Mercury. He briefly served as the managing editor of The New Yorker and later worked mainly on screenplays and novels.

His first novel, The Postman Always Rings Twice, was published in 1934. Two years later Double Indemnity was serialized in Liberty magazine.

Cain made use of his love of music, particularly the opera, in at least three of his novels: Serenade, about an American opera singer who loses his voice and, after spending part of his life south of the border, re-enters the United States illegally with a Mexican prostitute; Mildred Pierce, in which, as part of the subplot, the surviving daughter of a successful businesswoman trains as an opera singer; and Career in C Major, a short semi-comic novel about the unhappy husband of an aspiring opera singer, who unexpectedly discovers that he has a better voice than she does. In his novel The Moth, music is important in the life of the main character. Cain’s fourth wife, Florence Macbeth, was a retired opera singer.

Cain spent many years in Hollywood working on screenplays, but his name appears as a screenwriter in the credits of only two films: Stand Up and Fight (1939) and Gypsy Wildcat (1944), for which he is one of three credited screenwriters. For Algiers (1938) Cain received a credit for “additional dialogue”, and he had story credits for other films. Cain continued writing up to his death, at the age of 85. He published many novels from the late 1940s onward, but none achieved the financial and popular success of his earlier books.

 

About Vaughn C. Hardacker

Vaughn C. Hardacker has completed five novels and numerous short stories. He is a member of the New England Chapter of the Mystery Writers of America and the International Thriller writers. Three times he has been a finalist in the Maine Literary Awards Crime Fiction category, SNIPER, in 2015, THE FISHERMAN in 2016, and WENDIGO for the 2018 award. The second installment of his Ed Traynor series, MY BROTHER'S KEEPER was released in July 2019 and is available through all major booksellers. A signed copy can be ordered directly from Vaughn (vhardacker@gmail.com). THE EXCHANGE his next crime/thriller will be released on September 4, 2020. He is a veteran of the U. S. Marines and served in Vietnam. He holds degrees from Northern Maine Technical College, the University of Maine and Southern New Hampshire University. He lives in Stockholm, Maine.
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1 Response to The Origins of American Noir Fiction

  1. bereksennebec says:

    Thanks, Vaughn. Very interesting and informative. It’s stuff like this that I believe expands the scope of readers’ enjoyment.

    Like

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