A first approach to the difference between hardboiled, noir fiction and crime fiction in Spanish

From Wikipedia:

Hardboiled (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 apprehension, horror 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. Rendered cynical by this cycle of violence, the detectives of hardboiled fiction are classic antiheros.

The term comes from a process of hardening of an egg; to be hardboiled is to be comparatively tough. The hardboiled detective—originated by Carroll John Daly’s Terry Mack and Race Williams and epitomized by Dashiell Hammett’s Sam Spade and Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe—not only solves mysteries, like his “softer” counterparts, the protagonist confronts violence on a regular basis leading to the burnout and the cynical (so-called “tough”) attitude towards one’s own emotions.

Noir fiction (or roman noir) is a literary genre closely related to hardboiled genre with a distinction that the protagonist is not a detective, but instead either a victim, a suspect, or a perpetrator. Other common characteristics include the self-destructive qualities of the protagonist. A typical protagonist of the Noir fiction is dealing with the legal, political or other system that is no less corrupt than the perpetrator by whom the protagonist is either victimized and/or has to victimize others on a daily basis, leading to lose-lose situation.

The term originates from the stories describing the atmosphere during the Prohibition-period in America that were written by hardboiled writers in the early 1940s, that were adapted for screen in Film noir by the Austro-German film-making emigrants in Hollywood who fled the similarly corrupt system in Europe which allowed for the Nazi movement to gain the power. James M. Cain —also regarded as the third major figure of the early hardboiled genre— is regarded an American pioneer of the noir genre. He debuted as a crime novelist in 1934. Other important American writers in the noir genre include Cornell Woolrich, Dorothy B. Hughes, Jim Thompson, David Goodis, Charles Williams, and Elmore Leonard.

Now my problem is that in Spain novela negra is used interchangeably to refer to any of these terms: noir fiction, hardboiled fiction or crime fiction. Usually I employ the term novela negra as crime fiction, when other bloggers prefer to use the term novela policíaca, policial o detectivesca, (or in my view detective fiction). In which case they consider that novela negra is equivalent to hardboiled and/or noir fiction, only.

By the way the Wikipedia entry for crime fiction says:

Crime fiction is the literary genre that fictionalises crimes, their detection, criminals and their motives. It is usually distinguished from mainstream fiction and other genres such as science fiction or historical fiction, but boundaries can be, and indeed are, blurred. It has several sub-genres, including detective fiction (such as the whodunit), legal thriller, courtroom drama and hard-boiled fiction.

In Italy people commonly call a story about detectives or crimes “giallo“(en: yellow), because books of crime fiction have usually had a yellow cover since the thirties.

And the entry for detective fiction reads:

Detective fiction is a sub-genre of crime fiction and mystery fiction in which an investigator or a detective—either professional or amateur—investigates a crime, often murder.

I wonder if this brings some clarification or if it just creates more confusion. What is your view? Comments are welcome.

The idea of this post arose during the conversation I had with Margot Kinberg last Wednesday.

19 thoughts on “A first approach to the difference between hardboiled, noir fiction and crime fiction in Spanish”

  1. I have struggled with what exactly is the difference between noir mysteries and hard-boiled mysteries myself. So I hope someone chimes in and explains more. It seems like today when those labels are used, they are not used so narrowly.

    1. Thanks for your comment Tracy. My view is that the labels can be used only if they are of some help. They do have an historical origin that is of interest to know. Besides that today books don’t necessarily fall within one category only but they often overlap,

  2. José Ignacio – First, thank you for the kind mention. In my opinion there are a few issues to consider as we think about the distinctions here. One is that in some cases, the types of novels are very closely related. For instance, hardboiled is not identical to noir, but the two kinds of crime novel have much in common. Boundaries between the categories are therefore somewhat blurred. And each is a kind of crime fiction, which further complicates the question. Another thing I consider as I think about this is that there are novels that are not easily classified as one or another sort of novel. So it’s harder to apply a label to those novels. Then there is the matter of personal views. What is noir to me may not be to you. What I consider hardboiled, you might consider something else. This is part of the reason I think labels are sometimes too rigid. Just my opinion…

    1. Thank you Margot. Fully agree that boundaries are somewaht blurred. Most books don’t fall just within one category and labels are also pretty much subjective.

  3. I’m totally confused by the terminology for ‘crime’ fiction. I enjoyed this explanation but it is complicated. In my preferred genres include domestic noir, psychological thrillers, psychological suspense… To name a few.

    1. Cleo thanks for taking your time to comment. My idea is to clarify, and not to create confusion. We don’t need to use a label if we are not confortable with it.

      1. I didn’t mean your post was confusing, it helped with some of the definitions, I meant generally as there is so many different terms for this wide genre!

  4. I find hardboiled and noir difficult to distinguish and frankly even more difficult to try to define in words. I think of hardboiled as slightly less bleak than noir – the detective might be cynical but it’s still possible for the world to be made better by the solving of the crime. Whereas in noir, nothing will be resolved really – the world will be just as corrupt however the situation is resolved.

    I also wasn’t aware of the distinction of the protagonist between hardboiled and noir – I thought that the detective could be the protagonist in either!

    1. It is in fact difficult to tell the difference between hardboiled and noir. I’m not even sure we need to make such distinction. It seems to me more of an historical development of the genre. We can take it to an extreme and find out that a noir story does not necessarily need a crime in the legal sense of the term. And you are probably right when you say than in noir nothing will be resolved really.

  5. Oh this is a great topic Jose Ignacio – though as you’ve pointed out even with definitions it’s not really always clear what the distinctions are, probably due to the overlaps as Margot says.

    In my reading I definitely tend to think of noir in a similar way to Fiction Fan – in that at the end nothing will have changed – the person at the centre and their world will still be as bleak as it was at the beginning. Although in the best noir (in my opinion) the reader is lulled into thinking that maybe this time things will work out somehow. For me Ken Bruen with his Jack Taylor novels is a master of this…though his protagonist is a detective (of sorts) so perhaps would not strictly fit the definition??

    I don’t think the Spanish language is the only one to confuse/muddle these terms – we do it in English too. I usually laugh for example when I see so many books and TV shows being called Nordic Noir – while they may all be Nordic most of them aren’t even close to what I think of as Noir and most are not even traditionally hard-boiled. I think the labels are awfully misunderstood.

    1. Thank you Bernadette. You have brought an interesting point, the different usages of noir in sub-genres like neo-noir, Nordic noir, Tartan noir, Mediterranean noir, Emerald noir, to name a few.

  6. For me this has helped somewhat, though I can see where the blurring comes in. I just read what I enjoy. A bit naive maybe? A great post. Thank you Jose.

    1. Thank you Rebecca. I read also what I enjoy without paying much attention to labels. But they can be used to the extent that they help to improve our communication.

  7. Rather than reading the Archer stories solely as mysteries, thrillers, entertainments, and detective stories (though of course they can exist solely on that level for readers who are interested in them as such), we’d do ourselves a favor to consider them in a few other ways as well. In the massive reference work World Authors 1950-1970, published by the H.H. Wilson Company, Macdonald wrote that The Galton Case and Black Money “are probably my most complete renderings of the themes of smothered allegiance and uncertain identity which my work inherited from my early years.” Of course, in Black Money the smothered allegiance occurs between the lovers Ginny Fablon and Tappinger.

  8. ‘Noir’ (‘black’ or ‘dark’) harks back to the books of George Simenon. He wrote the Inspector Maigret mysteries in the early 1930s.
    His novels were romans durs, ‘tough novels’ or ‘hard boiled’. But the stories were painted in the deepest shades of noir. Bleak landscapes and thoughtful but fractured protagonists (detective, policeman, journalist) inhabited the books.
    These days, ‘noir’ is used for every book or genre that features this sort of landscapes and protagonists. So, you have Scandi noirs (Scandinavia), Cymru noirs (Welsch), etc.

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