THERE AIN’T NO SUCH THING AS ‘NOIR LITE’

by Gar Anthony Haywood

(Yeah, I know what you guys are thinking: “Two posts by Haywood back-to-back?  Really?”  Well, don’t worry, it’s not a sign I’m taking over this joint.  It’s just a Murderati scheduling quirk.  Won’t happen again soon.  I hope.)

This weekend, like many of you, I’ll be attending the Left Coast Crime Convention in Sacramento, and one of the two panels I’ll be sitting in on is all about noir.

I find this somewhat amusing, as I don’t really write noir.  I skirt the edges sometimes — ASSUME NOTHING, my latest novel, comes the closest to making the noir grade, as I perceive it — but I don’t “do” noir.  And this isn’t by accident.

Here’s why:

Not so long ago, I did something I really didn’t want to do: I watched the movie Precious.  Lord knows I’d tried to avoid it; critical acclaim or no, any film about a poor, obese, teenage black girl growing up as the live-in slave of an equally obese, abusive, welfare-queen mother has to be the cinematic equivalent of root canal surgery, right?  Why would I ever want to subject myself to that kind of misery?

Well, surprise, surprise — the film was brilliant.  Well written, smartly directed, and performed by a cast of actors deserving of every accolade and award nomination it received.  In short, I’m glad I saw the movie.

But yeah, sitting through it was a living nightmare.

In part because its subject matter was cringe-inducing, yes, but mostly because it was real.  The people who made this film — and I would assume this is also true of Sapphire, the author of the book upon which the film was based — didn’t pull any punches.  Hell, no.  They took a story dealing with some incredibly sordid characters and situations and presented them in all their horrific, obscene, and gut-wrenching glory.  It could be argued that the language in Precious alone should have earned it an NC-17 rating.  I mean, nothing Linda Blair ever regurgitated in The Exorcist comes close to the bile that comes out of the mouth of Precious’s mother, in particular, throughout the course of this film.

And all for only one reason that I can imagine: authenticity.  A commitment to depict these people exactly as they would appear in the real world, grotesque warts and all.  Choosing to hew this close to the ugly truth could not have been an easy decision; the filmmakers had to know that doing so would cost them a sizable part of the crossover audience movie studios so covet.  Yet they held to their convictions and did it anyway, trusting that the quality of the film would win out over the criticisms it was bound to receive for its almost unrelenting darkness and vulgarity.

So what does any of this have to do with my aversion to noir, you ask?

Well, only days before popping Precious into the ol’ DVD player, I’d finished reading my first Richard Stark (aka Donald E. Westlake) novel, THE HUNTER.  Following my reading of James Crumley’s THE LAST GOOD KISS, this was Step Two in my ongoing effort to finally read masters of the mystery/crime/espionage genres I should have read a long time ago (Ian Fleming, George V. Higgins, Rex Stout, etc.).  I had a particular interest in THE HUNTER — one of a series of books Stark wrote about a ruthless professional thief simply named “Parker” — because it served as the basis for one of my all-time favorite movies, 1967’s Point Blank, starring Lee Marvin.

In the film, Parker (renamed “Walker” for some odd reason) is a single-minded, sociopathic killer relentlessly blasting his way through the Mob in order to get somebody, anybody to pay him the $93,000 they owe him.  Walker is also driven by revenge — his former partner double-crossed him, stole his wife, and left him for dead in the aftermath of a heist, then used Walker’s share of the take to buy his way back into the Mob’s good graces — but his primary interest is recovering his money.  Because it’s his money, he earned it, and he wants it back, goddamnit: $93,000, not a penny more and not a penny less.

You’ve gotta love that kind of manic tunnel vision.

(Of course, were the film remade today [as it was earlier in the form of the 1994 Mel Gibson stinker, Payback], Walker would find his motivation in the fact that his backstabbing partner, who raped and killed Walker’s parents and kid sister fifteen years before, is now holding his wife and two children hostage in an impenetrable Mob fortress guarded by an army of ex-Special Ops psychopaths blah-blah-blah-blah-blah…)

I’d been warned by fans of Stark/Westlake that Point Blank’s Walker, as cold and violent as he was as portrayed by Marvin, paled by comparison to THE HUNTER’s Parker, so I was prepared to meet a somewhat less likable protagonist.  But damn!  Parker makes Walker look like a Salvation Army Santa Claus.  It isn’t so much that the body count in THE HUNTER is higher than it is in Point Blank, it’s the ease with which Parker adds to it that makes for such a jarring contrast.  Parker may only kill those who “need” killing in THE HUNTER, but it doesn’t take much in his estimation for someone to meet that qualification.  Simply being in the wrong place at the wrong time, or knowing something he doesn’t want getting around, is enough to make you better dead than alive in his book.  And remorse?  Forget about it.  That’s for relative softies like Darth Vader to fret over.

What I’m describing, of course, is the archetypical noir protagonist: a deeply flawed, self-serving lead character, who’s usually surrounded by a supporting cast cut from the same nasty cloth.  Altar boys and Girl Scouts need not apply.  To write fiction deserving of the “noir” designation, an author has to accept the fact that his work will probably turn off a lot more potential readers than it turns on.  He has to write about unpleasant people doing terrible things to innocents and scumbags alike, without remorse or regret, and to do it realistically, he has to show little or no regard for the reactions of his reader.  I call this “going there,” “there” being a place not everyone will care to visit, and I think embarking upon this journey is one of the most courageous moves any writer can ever make.

Because “going there” is entirely counter-intuitive to what we authors are hardwired to want from Day One: a wide, all-encompassing readership.  Deliberately choosing to write the kind of book you know going in will have only a limited appeal, and then writing that book as faithfully to the form as possible (which is to say, without artificially toning things down to soften the blow), is gutsy as hell, and not every writer has the cajones to do it.

Most only have enough to do the job halfway.  These people write, either consciously or subconsciously, what I like to call “Noir Lite”: novels that feature noirish characters and situations, but none of the hair-raising dialogue or on-screen violence that should naturally follow.  The latter elements have been either sanitized or, worse, excised altogether, to better reduce the author’s chances of offending those readers for whom “noir” is a dirty word.  This, to me, is a joke.  A kinder, gentler noir?  There ain’t no such thing.

Which is why I’ve actively avoided trying to write a legitimate noir novel to date.  I don’t want to go there.  I’ve got no problem writing dialogue that could peel paint off a wall, or describing certain acts of violence in gruesome detail, but I don’t want to write stories in which the good guys are, to all extents and purposes, completely indistinguishable from the bad, and can only end on a definite downer, as all true noir stories must.  It’s just not my thing.

And neither is faking it.

To write noir, you have to do what the people behind Precious did: You have to go there.  Not part way, not halfway, but all the way to that dark, funky, foul-smelling place in which noir resides.  Some readers won’t be able to stand the heat of your kitchen, but those are the breaks.

As I’m sure Parker would say were he around to ask for an opinion: “Deal with it.”

Questions for the Class: What examples of “Noir Lite” — or, worse, downright fake noir — can you name?

19 thoughts on “THERE AIN’T NO SUCH THING AS ‘NOIR LITE’

  1. JD Rhoades

    Keep in mind the distinction between "noir" and "hardboiled" (one which I confess, I've sometimes mishandled myself).

    The hardboiled protagonist has at least some nobility ("down these mean streets a man must go who is not himself mean, etc"). Hardboiled can have something at least resembling a happy ending; at least one of the bad guys gets caught or killed.

    Noir, not so much. The suffering in noir is pretty much unrelieved. As my friend Allan Guthrie once put it, "the Crucifixion was noir; the Resurrection was hardboiled." (And a stunned silence fell over the room). There's no happy ending. Think Oedipus Rex or Kurosawa's RAN.

    So before you jump to calling something "noir lite", make sure you're not criticizing it for not being something it's not trying to be.

  2. Gar Haywood

    JD: You're right on all counts. My point was that those who assume there is such a thing seriously misrepresent their own work by giving it the noir label. By both your definition and mine, it isn't noir if a) an author conspicuously tones down language or violence in attempt to be inoffensive; or b) wraps his story up in such a way that his protagonist gets the money AND the girl.

    That ain't noir, and since we both agree there's no such thing as "noir lite," it ain't noir lite, either.

  3. Mike Dennis

    I would respectfully disagree with the contention that noir novels must end on a down note. I don't want to name the novel, because it would be an inherent spoiler, but one can find a novel in David Goodis' catalog that contains a happy ending (or at least as happy as you can get with Goodis). I'm sure no one will dispute Goodis' noir credentials, and this particular novel is very noir, filled with all the Philadelphia bleakness that was his trademark.

    One of my own novels, which I will insist is noir, ends with the central character getting the money AND the woman, but in a very noirish way. Again, I won't name it to avoid spoilers.

    Tom Piccirilli's EVERY SHALLOW CUT follows the noir playbook to a T, but somehow feels like it transcends noir. There's just no telling.

    Gar, these are the kinds of things you can bring up during your panel. Of course, the main thing is, you ask 100 authors to define noir and you'll get 100 different answers. That's what makes it so attractive for me as an author. The parameters aren't nearly as constricting as they are in, say, the private eye genre, or in cozies. So the field of play is very large, very accommodating.

  4. Lisa Alber

    Noir seems to be everywhere right now–one of the "in" things to write in crime fiction. I never got noir, and I'm not keen on it. It strikes me that it might be marketing departments calling many novels "noir" when they aren't truly noir–because it's popular. Sell, sell, sell.

  5. Gar Haywood

    Mike, you're right. I suppose I am being too inflexible with my definitions here. I think what I'm really trying to get at is the disingenuousness of ARTIFICIALLY toning down a dark novel so as to attract a wider audience while still calling it "noir." What genuine noir is, IMO, is painfully authentic. It's fearless. So you can't shave the sharp edges of your story off to make it less prone to offend and still call it "noir."

    Does that make any sense?

    Lisa: I agree completely with your suspicion that marketing plays a hand in so many books being classified as noir that clearly aren't deserving of the label. Noir is "cool" — which is why, I think, so many authors like to claim they write it when they really don't.

  6. David Corbett

    Lisa & Gar: My first pieces for Murderati was titled NOIR, TRAGEDY AND OTHER DREARY BUMMERS. Here's the link if you want to dredge it up: https://www.murderati.com/blog/2011/4/13/noir-tragedy-and-other-dreary-bummers-ho-ho.html

    It included this remark:

    And never, never, never be so simple as to believe that calling a book β€œnoir” will boost its sales. One might as well just slap DEPRESSING! on the cover. The only thing conceivably worse than being labeled "noir" is to be considered "political."

    So, no, I don't think marketing departments are pushing "noir," unless they're nuts.

    I think Mike's right, the definition of noir is a moving target. Lehane defines it as "working class tragedy," and compares the noir hero to Aristotle's tragic hero, i.e., the "preeminent man" who has to fall form a great height for the sake of dramatic effect. Lehane says the noir hero falls from the curb into the street, but that can feel like a tumble off a cliff if you do it right.

    I'm not sure I buy in totally to that take on noir, but I think it's instructive.

    As for PRECIOUS, she does change. She realizes her own capacity for love and makes a crucial decision to break from the history of abuse that's defined her. So the bleakness is not unrelenting, at least not in the end.

    In contrast to Oedipus, who rips out his eyes. (Or Jake Gittes, who sees Evelyn's eye shot out.)

  7. Gar Haywood

    David: Do you mean "simple" as in stupid, or merely clueless and misinformed?

    I think it all depends on what marketing department we're talking about. Some publishers embrace the noir designation as a badge of honor, claiming a place in that niche it's books don't actually warrant. They don't expect to sell to the masses, but they do expect to appeal to readers of Goodis, Thompson, Stark, etc.

    I even point out in this post that one of the things that makes an author's decision to write genuine, unapologetic noir so gutsy is noir's limited appeal. It's not the thing to write if you're trying to make a large number of readers happy.

  8. Dan Luft

    I"m liking the discussion in the comments section. I never thought of the Parker novels as noir as much as action. In fact, I think it would be very tough to have a noir series since my definition of noir includes a feeling of doom more than any amount of action. Cain's "Postman" and most of Goodis's books aren't centered on action at all but more a sense of desperation. Parker, throughout the series is never out of options.

  9. David Corbett

    Gar: Taken out of context, the "simple" seems harsh. Sorry. I was going for comic exaggeration, along the lines of: What are you thinking??!!

    I don't write noir, imho, but I got labeled that way to my detriment. I think it's a way to pigeonhole a darker story that marketing reps don't know how to sell without an easy handle. But in being easy, it undermines the work. Smaller houses like Hard Case Crime embrace the term with gusto, but with larger houses I think, even when they use it, there's an unwitting stigma.

  10. Lisa Alber

    But is being labeled "noir" really a stigma at the moment? My take is that noir has become popular enought that the label isn't such is stigma. The fact that Left Coast crime has a panel about noir tells me that noir (whether the books actually are noir in the classic sense is another question) is practically mainstream.

  11. Bryon Quertermous

    I think I say this every time this discussion comes up, but there are actually very few people currently writing real noir. I think Dusty's distinction between noir and hardboiled in a good one (though I never quite understood that whole crucifixion and resurrection quote. What most of us, and I would include Gar and David and Dusty in this, who are sometimes pigeonholed as noir are really writing is pulp fiction. It's outside the mainstream, violent, extreme, and vulgar, but not really depressing. I would say marketing plays a bit into it, but not for popularity's sake, but for critical reception. For some reason noir has been the only crime fiction subgenre to achieve a level of outside critical respect so editors like to push that aspect for books that fall between straight up mystery and literary fiction.

  12. Alexandra Sokoloff

    I would so love to answer this question but this is the kind of answer that would undoubtedly come back to bite me in this small, small community.

    But I'm thrilled that I'll be able to see you this weekend, Gar – didn't know you were going! At the bar, baby!

  13. Lisa Alber

    Aw, Alex — I want to hear what you have to say on the topic! πŸ™‚

    A thought about Byron's comment: calling something "noir" to enhance critical reception is just as much about increasing sales (i.e. popularity) as any other marketing strategy out there…

  14. Gar Haywood

    Bryon, I agree that noir has been granted a level of, shall we say, respectability that other crime sub-genres have not of late. And I think that's because critics think of the word "noir" as a synonym for "classic."

    Alex, first round's on me!

    Lisa, I'm with you: I'd like to hear what Alex has to say on this subject, too. How incendiary could it possibly be?

  15. PD Martin

    So reading this blog and the comments, first I'm thinking about noir (I actually don't believe I've read any noir novels – certainly can't remember any). But by the end of the comments I'm thinking: Wish I was going to Left Coast Crime!!!!

    Great discussion on noir – even though I got sidetracked by the thought of LCC and drinks at the bar πŸ™‚

    Phillipa

  16. Mike Dennis

    I get you now, Gar. Artificially lightening up a noir novel for mass consumption, then slapping a "noir" label on it, is distasteful, to say the least. I never respect anyone who tailors their writing to please the professionally-offended.

  17. Dave Zeltserman

    The definition of what noir is is probably argued more by noir readers than anything else–just check Rara Avis sometime. Myself and many other noir readers require an element of inescapable doom brought about by the noir protagonist crossing a moral line (doom without that transgression would be tragedy). So given that definition not everything Goodis wrote, for example, would be noir, and certainly not Stark's Parker novels. They're great novels (especially The Seventh–a classic), but they fit squarely as crime novels, and wouldn't be any more noir than Ian Fleming's Jame Bond novels–actually, some of the Bond novels would fit far more as noir.

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