Saturday, January 3, 2009

What is Psycho Noir, anyway?

What the hell is “Psycho-noir”?

Most readers of dark fiction know what “noir” is, in reference to literature. It implies a certain dark tone, cynical, fatalistic, with a particular sort of cast of characters—generally people on the fringe of normal society, doing things you could only politely describe as anti-social. There is invariably a sense of impending doom, as a protagonist fights—or doesn’t fight—against an end that is, really, inevitable. Life sucks and then you die, that sort of thing. Granted, that’s a broad definition, and it doesn’t take into account about a ton of other things that come to mind when you think of “noir”, but that’s the general idea.

“Psycho-noir” grew out of that literary tradition, reaching a head in the mid to late 1950’s. The “noir” crime writer Dave Zelsterman, author of Small Crimes, wrote that “psycho-noir” is the type of story...

"...where the protagonists perceptions and rationalizations are just off center enough to send them to hell."

I think the main difference between “noir” and “psycho-noir” lies in the central protagonist. In “noir”, it’s usually a normal kind of joe, maybe a bit too ambitious or a bit too flip about right and wrong, who’s drawn into a messed-up situation by circumstance or by his own hubris. He may wind up doing monstrous things, but he’s basically a decent guy who manages to fuck up royally.

The main character in a “psycho-noir”, on the other hand, is usually a monstrous person to begin with. Perhaps he’s an amoral sociopath, like Patricia Highsmith’s Mr. Ripley. In some cases, like Jim Thompson’s Pop. 1280, he’s a full-on delusional lunatic. The main thing is, he’s a bad guy, and not a bad guy who’s really a good guy deep inside, or is simply “misunderstood”. No, he’s the full-on villain, and the story belongs to him, and if it’s done right you still kinda want him to win.

These can be really small distinctions, of course. Sometimes, it’s difficult to find that point where “noir” becomes “psycho-noir”, and honestly a good “noir” story is just a good “noir” story regardless, because of the elements that they have in common. And what are those? The writer Jack Bludis sums it up as neatly as anything I’ve heard:


Short and nasty and inevitable. Just like the best “noir”.

1 comment:

  1. In my own tightly compartmentalized mind, noir has to have that 40's / 50's feel. So maybe psycho-noir can also be a neo-noir.