Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Noir/Hardboiled Writers Part 1

I wrote the original version of this a couple years ago, mostly in an attempt to sort it all out for myself. At the time, I had no idea there was such a thriving "noir underground" on line, or that I'd wind up becoming friends with some of the writers mentioned. I also had no clue how little I actually knew... since writing this series of essays, I've learned a great deal from more legitimate noir historians, and I've also been introduced to tons of newer writers in the genre by various other readers.

And so here's the new, revised, edited and expanded series of essays called Noir/Hardboiled Writers. If you're interested, check in every Wednesday evening for the next part.

Part One

Tough guys. Dangerous dames. Hapless losers. Psychopathic villains. Racetracks, seedy bars, swank nightclubs. Crooked cops and crumbling tenement houses.

Welcome to the underbelly: the dark, cynical heart of the American dream. This is the City of Hardboiled, the neighborhood of Noir. It’s a great place to visit, but… well, you know the drill.

This is a particularly American place, even though in recent years it’s managed to export itself around the world, taking root in England and France, Mexico and Algiers, even Norway if you can believe it. Seems that there’s plenty of existential angst to go around in this world. But the source of the virus is the States, no question. That’s where the infections first occurred, that’s where the buildings first went up and the private dick had his first shot of whisky and the grifter made his first score.

It’s hard to say where it all started, this school of hardboiled lyricism and noir dread. If you wanted to get really deep about it, you could say it started with Mark Twain, the first American writer to use a distinctly American voice. Ernest Hemingway noted that all American literature comes from one book, Huckleberry Finn, and yeah, he’s pretty much right. But maybe we’re putting too fine a point on it.

As early as the 1890’s, Twain not withstanding, we had action-packed stories of two-fisted heroes, knocking the crap out of Victorian-style villains and rescuing damsels—Nick Carter was probably the first (or at least the most successful) of these cardboard cut-out heroes. He appeared in tons of cheap chapbooks, circulated all over the country and mostly reserved for the newly-literate masses, who were, let’s face it, not particularly sophisticated in their reading habits.

But really, there’s nothing hardboiled or noir about those stories. They’re totally prelude.

Those chapbooks led to the great magazine boom of the early 20th century, and that’s really where things get rolling. In the early days, fiction magazines were general interest—they’d have, say, a western story, a detective thriller, a story of high seas adventure, etcetera. But by the early ‘20’s most of them had become more specialized. By far, the best-selling magazines were of the ‘detective’ variety.

Dime Detective. Thrilling Detective. Spicy Detective Stories. There were tons of them.

The king of detective magazines, though, was Black Mask, and that’s where the hardboiled style first emerged.

But we still haven’t defined our terms. Hardboiled and noir are not really the same thing, even though they often go hand-in-hand. A story can be hardboiled without having a trace of noir, and vice-versa.

Hardboiled came first, in those unsettled and uncertain times between the two world wars. It’s a genre defined by it’s rejection of sentiment. It portrays crime and violence in a stark, unromantic light. You could say “realism”, but that’s not really true—in most hardboiled stories, there isn’t much realism to speak of. It’s more of a “hyper-realism”, a distorted representation of the world that feels real while you’re immersed in it, that feels like the world you’re most afraid of.

Hardboiled stories usually feature a detective hero—not always, but often enough that you notice it when they don’t. This detective hero is usually every bit as tough as the villains he comes across, and he’s almost always the wittiest guy in the room. He’s cool. Cocky, even. You wish you were as cool as this guy.

Noir eventually popped out of the skull of hardboiled, fully formed. It’s basically a sort of role-reversal of protagonists—the central character in a noir isn’t usually the “knight in tarnished armor”-type; he’s the lowlife the knight is trying to nail.

Noir 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.

But you know, there are even finer distinctions these days. In recent years, the term “psycho-noir” gets thrown around quite a bit. Obviously, it’s a further refinement of noir, but its definition is a little trickier. Noted noir author Dave Zeltserman, 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 Tom 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 “hardboiled” becomes “noir”, or where “noir” becomes “psycho-noir”, and honestly a good crime story is just a good crime 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:


The hardboiled/noir phenomenon didn’t happened in a vacuum, of course. It’s not as if every other writer in America between the two world wars was writing beautiful, shining monuments to happiness and optimism. Hardboiled/noir grew out of a general feeling of dissatisfaction and alienation that was reflected in the work of more mainstream or critically respected authors as well. Ernest Hemingway developed his lean, spare style of writing as a response against the excesses of his literary contemporaries, an excess he felt obscured more than illuminated. He wrote about tough men, usually, doing tough things, just like the writers of hardboiled/noir, and also like them his cynicism and despair over the human condition shined through his work.

Hemingway and Hammett are often compared. The styles they employed were similar, and some critics have accused Hammett of stealing Hemingway’s lean style outright. This is patently untrue: Hammett actually came first, in the pages of Black Mask, in 1923. Hemingway’s first book wasn’t released in the States until two years later. Not that Hemingway stole from Hammett—he certainly did not. It must have been something in the water, or maybe they drank the same brand of whisky.

Regardless, Hemingway is significant in the development of the hardboiled school. His short stories are especially relevant, and the novels A Farwell to Arms, The Sun Also Rises and For Whom the Bell Tolls all show the same attitude about the world and humanity that are displayed in the genre writers.

A few years later, John Steinbeck, too, would be easily linked to the hardboiled movement with his grim novels of Depression-era America: Of Mice and Men, East of Eden, and The Grapes of Wrath.

William Faulkner was a huge fan of hardboiled and noir, and it shows in many of his books, most notably Pylon, Sanctuary, A Light in August, and the darkly comic As I Lay Dying.

If you want to know more, check out Geoffrey O'Brien's fantastic book, Hardboiled America, and "A History of Pulp", the brilliant essay by Cullen Gallagher in Beat to a Pulp: Round One, edited by David Cranmer and Elaine Ash.

Continue to Part 2, here.


  1. Amazing piece Heath. You're a very good teacher. I agree that noir has something very American. I'll link to the whole nine piece when it's going to be done