Top 15 definitions of noir

One of the ongoing debates in the crime fiction community has to do with defining noir. It seems to be a subject that most of us who read muse on publicly, privately or Rara-Avianly.

These discussions have a couple of traits that I find interesting. One is the personal element of the attempt to define. I think that of all the genres it has a greater tendency to reflect something of ourselves, taking what we bring to the table so that we all have our own personal noir. I myself have kicked around the topic more than once. The second is the desire to describe what it isn’t rather then what it is. And the third is the attempt sometimes to keep the definition pithy.

Of course there are more facets to this ongoing and ever evolving discussion but these are some of my favorite things to keep an eye out for. I rarely enter into the fray because it’s a little like entering a land war in Asia but I do find the ongoing discussion fascinating.

Recently there have been some high profile discussions on what noir is and isn’t by Otto Penzler, Tom Piccirilli and Charles Ardai. To celebrate all of this noir discussion I thought it might be a fun idea to compile what I think are the top 15 definitions of noir that I’ve heard over the years not including the above linked articles. I don’t agree with all of them but like I said I admire the attempt.

  • “Hardboiled is about toughness and noir is about pain”
  • “The Crucifixion is noir and the Resurrection hardboiled”
  • “Hard-boiled…fiction carries a cynical undertone to all aspects of it, carried by a protagonist who often wants not to feel that way, but knows better.”
  • “Noir is nothing but tragedy”
  • “Noir has few heroes, and a feeling of hopelessness, and fatal resignation.”
  • “Take the Aristotelian definition of tragedy; remove the rule about the hero having to start from a high social position, and you’re close to noir.”
  • “Noir is working-class tragedy”
  • “Noir has been around forever, even if we didn’t always have a label to define it. Literary noir is the same, but the ‘literary’ epithet simply suggests that there’s more internalization.”
  • “Noir – You’re fucked on page one, and things go downhill from there.”
  • “If it didn’t sell much (but was critically acclaimed), it was “noir.” If it sold well, then it was “hard-boiled.”
  • “You have a protagonist who leads a pretty unobjectionable life, right up until the moment they each make a decision that is completely out of character for them. Each of these acts sets in motion a chain of events that leads to the character’s downfall, and as such, in the classic sense, “noir.”
  • “Hardboiled = Tough Noir = Screwed”
  • “Noir” (it’s the antithesis of “Disney”)”
  • “American “noir” is like American blues music, a victim of its own popularity. It’s become a routine, a riff everybody knows and many can imitate.”
  • “Despite its name, noir requires more than black, it requires white… and an infinite spectrum of greys.”
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Brian Lindenmuth

Brian is the non-fiction editor of Spinetingler magazine and one of the fiction editors of Snubnose Press. In addition to Spinetingler his work has appeared in Crimespree magazine and at BSC Review, Galleycat and the Mulholland Books website. He also heads the Spinetingler Award committee.

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