07 April 2017

To Noir or to Not Noir

O'Neil De Noux

OK - so there's talk of an anthology and someone suggested it be a noir anthology. Someone else asked which definition of NOIR would be used. Good question. Glad we have people who are experienced editors to guide this thing.

I've always listed NOIR as one of the ways a mystery is presented as in HARDBOILED, SOFTBOILED and COZY.

As for the definition of NOIR, I bow to Otto Penzler's definition and here is the quote:

"Noir is about losers. The characters in these existential, nihilistic tales are doomed. They may not die, but they probably should, as the life that awaits them is certain to be so ugly, so lost and lonely, that they'd be better off just curling up and getting it over with. And, let's face it, they deserve it Pretty much everyone in a noir story (or film) is driven by greed, lust, jealously or alienation, a path taht inevitably sucks them into a downward spiral from which they cannot escape. They couldn't find the exit from their personal highway to hell if flashing neon lights ponted to a town named Hope. This is their own lack of morality that blindly drives them to ruin."

Pretty specific, isn't it? By that definition, I've written only a few noir stories in the 400+ I've written.

Dave Zeltserman tells us, "There are no heroes in noir."

I agree with both definitions. Then again, I've heard many who belive noir is more about setting and atmosphere. A story or book with a detective as the hero can be noir if it's dark enough. If that's true, then I've written more noir than I realize.

I've read a number of stories in the Akashic Book anthologies (London Noir, New Orleans Noir, etc.) and many do not fit Otto's or Dave's definion and it didn't bother me.

What I'm saying, I guess, is if the editor accepts a story in a noir anthology she or he believes is noir, then it's noir. W. Somerset Maugham tells us, "There are three rules for writing a novel. Unfortunately, no one knows what they are."

And Oscar Wilde did tell us, "A writer is someone who's taught his mind to misbehave."

Maybe the noir discussion is a little like the ones the Sicilian side of family gets into (which includes shouting and biting of hands and putting curses on each other), the one about - is it gravy or sauce. Looks the same to me. I can't figure out of it supposed to be spaghetti and meatballs or meatballs and spaghetti?



  1. I'll take my spaghetti and meatballs with a side of noir, or should that be, my noir with a side of spaghetti and meatballs?

  2. I always feel that whatever the genre, it is whatever you can get away with.

    However defined, those look like tasty meatballs.

  3. I tend to think of noir in line with Penzler's definition, but from a marketing angle, I wonder if a book sells better with a hip label, as "noir" seems to have been the past few years. I don't know exactly what defines a "thriller," but the word sounds more exciting than "mystery," and "mystery" or "caper" sounds more intriguing than "crime".

  4. You're right, Gerald. My friends who keyword their eBooks as thrillers do better than a slob like me who keywords my books as crime fiction. Then again, they just might be writing better books. THRILLER and NOIR are excellent marketing terms. I'm ambidextrous - I think I can write noir and demi-noir or zircon-noir. We'll see.

  5. A thought-provoking post, O'Neil.

    Noir is one of those things I guess I know when I see. I like both Penzler's definition and Zeltserman's comment, but they may be too narrow. Noir covers a huge spectrum, not just "crime/mystery."

    I think of it as like urban naturalism in the late 19th to early 20th century. Dreiser, Crane, Norris, and several others (even Wharton in Ethan Frome) could probably be considered Noir. And certainly many of the Europeans who started the Naturalist movement.

    I've written a few stories that might qualify as noir and I've told myself it would be good for me to try others. Right now, a lot of my stuff falls through the cracks, neither fish noir fowl, so to speak.

    I think dark humor works well in Noir, too. Block, Westlake, McBain, Crumley...

  6. O'Neil, I've read many if not most of your stories, and I think several qualify as noir (at least using Otto's definition). Like you, I don't think I write many noir stories--I once said that noir (to me) usually involves a smart, manipulative lady and a not-so-smart, easy-to-manipulate guy--but I do like the idea that most "dark" mysteries fall into the noir category. Who cares anyway, if it's a good story?

  7. I've written one story for a noir anthology--Jewish Noir--and when I submitted it, I figured the editor would probably reject it because it doesn't fit Penzler's definition—the protagonist is driven by misguided idealism and refusal to compromise, not by greed, lust, jealousy (well, maybe a little jealousy), or alienation; in a way, his downfall is too much morality, not a lack of morality. I figured that might make the story a tragedy but didn’t necessarily make it noir. Luckily for me, Ken Wishnia evidently has a broader definition of noir than Otto Penzler does. I like John's suggestion that most “dark” mysteries could be considered noir—after all, the term is derived from the French word for “black.” As long as the protagonist meets a dismal end and is brought down at least partly by his or her own flaws, that’s noir enough for me.

  8. O'Neil, This was a great article. I'd say more about noir, but I already said my piece on the subject last February: 02/26/17 http://www.sleuthsayers.org/2017/02/paint-it-black.html

  9. RT. your NOIR article is excellent. Thanks for reminding me about it.

  10. Great. Now I want meatballs. Janice is right. They do look tasty. But if I eat them now, at nearly midnight, they will repeat on me, and I'll be stuck staying up all night, which could lead to a dark night of the soul, with me needing sleep but unable to sleep and my demons coming out and ... ooh, noir.


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