Notes on Noir Fiction

Following my previous post here about the differences between hardboiled, noir fiction and crime fiction, I would like to share with you a couple of notes.

There is a lot of overlap between hardboiled and noir fiction, and the distinction is partly based on formal differences and partly on conditions of historical origin. On the question of historical origin, I understand hardboiled to originate in the twenties, while noir follows in the thirties. The first major work to break away from the tradition of the detective is W.R. Burnett’s Little Caesar (1929).

Noir fiction, in America, can be defined as a sub-genre of the Hardboiled School. In this sub-genre, the protagonist is usually not a detective, but instead either a victim, a suspect, or a perpetrator. He is someone tied directly to the crime, not an outsider called to solve or fix the situation. Other common characteristics of this sub-genre are the emphasis on sexual relationships and the use of sex to advance the plot and the self-destructive qualities of the lead characters. This type of fiction also has the lean, direct writing style and the gritty realism commonly associated with hardboiled fiction. (George Tuttle)

It is also of interest to note the following observation by George Tuttle: ‘…the French use of the term noir was not identical to the American use of the term. For the French, roman noir is the hardboiled novel. The Americans hijacked the word noir, scraped off the roman and tacked on fiction and adopted it as something distinct. Americans seem to use the term to identify a type of hardboiled fiction where themes of loneliness, despair, sexual obsession, and hard luck are prevalent.

And furthermore: “Film noir” is not the cinematic counterpart of the “roman noir” or “noir fiction.” The concept of film noir developed independently and has only an indirect relationship.

Further reading:

A brief article here by Otto Penzler at The Huffington Post,

…NOIR FICTION by George Tuttle,

What Is Noir? by George Tuttle

The New Yorker

Some examples that may help define noir fiction as well as any definition:

The Postman Always Rings Twice (1934) by James M. Cain

They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? (1935) by Horace McCoy

The Bride Wore Black (1940) by Cornell Woolrich

Double Indemnity (1941) by James M. Cain

Night Has a Thousand Eyes (1945) by Cornell Woolrich as George Hopley

In a Lonely Place (1947) by Dorothy B. Hughes

Waltz into Darkness (1947) by Cornell Woolrich (William Irish)

Strangers on a Train (1950) by Patricia Highsmith

The Killer Inside Me (1952) by Jim Thompson

Hell Hath No Fury (1953) by Charles Williams

Down There (1956) aka Shoot the Piano Player by David Goodis


9 thoughts on “Notes on Noir Fiction

  1. A most useful discussion! I’m American, and French is a second language. Although I have a lot of novels and films in both languages under my belt, I never understood all the “noirs.” Thanks.

  2. I am glad to see Waltz Into Darkness by Cornell Woolrich, among the examples of noir fiction. I always found it to be one of the best Woolrich books, but usually it never gets mentioned.

  3. A very useful primer Jose Ignacio though of course the conversation could go on, and on, and on 🙂 I would argue that the success of the gangster novel, a prototype for the genre, can just as easily be ascribed to Armitage Trail’s 1929 Scarface and Burnett’s book – both were inspired by the life and crimes of Al Capone.

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