An outsiders perspective on noir

Matt Denault, an old online friend, recently reviewed The City and The City by China Mieville and Finch by Jeff VanderMeer. In them he muses on the nature of noir and kicks around the term a little bit. But here’s the thing, he doesn’t read a lot of crime fiction. He is a hell of a thinker though so I wanted to pass along these excerpts of the reviews because it’s likely that his notions of crime fiction in general have been informed by our discussions on various topics over the years and I think they are interesting enough to pass along. Really they both should be read in their entirety as they are thoughtful examinations of two interesting books..

Here are some excerpt from his review of Finch.

…another highlight of Finch is the manner in which this shattered tale is told. We are deep in hardboiled crime territory here, echoes of the staccato, “telegraphic” neo-noir of James Ellroy.

This fragmented prose isn’t an affectation: the noir stylings carry with them a host of characteristics and connotations that perform important work for VanderMeer. The chopped up sentences continue to emphasize that idea of sequence: it’s almost always one distinct, singular action or perception following another. There’s an individualistic quality and an immediacy to this style, the sensation that we’re experiencing the story at street level through Finch’s eyes, with no narrative pauses to see what comes next and then report back later in more complex sentences. It emphasizes that Finch is on his own, and is quite different from the narratives of previous Ambergris novels that were layered in time and voice. At the same time, VanderMeer often uses Finch’s sentence fragments to break the narrative chain of causation, to separate the actions of characters from their results–which all conveys something of the dissociative mood and mindset of the citizenry of Ambergris. The Ambergrisians have experienced events they do not understand, whose cause and ultimate results are unknown to them. As in Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, the rules of the world have been broken, and the broken grammar reflects the sense of uncanny dread that results. But this is also a textbook example of the dissociation of torture, which becomes clear when the story moves to a scene of torture and the style does not change.

Indeed, as we realize that the whole novel is interspersed with a recording of this interrogation and torture of Finch, the prose style becomes that much more appropriate. If the textbook definition of a sentence is a completed thought, VanderMeer’s noir-serrated writing conveys a populace–and a character–unwilling to complete a thought for fear of what that thought might be, what it might confess.

As I noted when discussing China Miéville’s The City & The City, however, VanderMeer’s noir takes a somewhat different shape and is put to a very different use than most of the other fantasy-crime hybrids published in recent years–Miéville’s novel, Jedediah Berry’s Manual of Detection, Zoran Živkovic’s The Last Book. These other works adopted noir as a retro-styling, a conception of the world-as-failure dating from the era between the World Wars that, the implicit message is, we’ve never quite been able to overcome. The classic noir they reference was an outgrowth of industrialization and urbanization, combined with subsequent economic downturn, combined with the lesson of Prohibition that trying to legislate morality only makes everyone a criminal. This original noir was an expression of dazed despair over the failure of our dreams, at a world we had created and then seemed to become stuck in. VanderMeer’s noir feels more modern, millennial. His achievement with Finch is to recreate urban noir based on contemporary concepts of post-colonial religious and ethnic conflict, drug culture, the panoptic state, and the post-9/11 (mis)understanding of the world not as something we helped bring about, but as something done to us. Common contemporary fears are more organic than technological–chemical and biological weaponry, disease like swine and bird flu, ecological issues like global warming–or more based in ideology: underground cells rising to unleash horrors, the intersection of terrorism and Lovecraft. Meanwhile, the questions of the day surround a Western world awakened to its colonialist past and now wondering how we would have reacted if what we did to others had been done to us, how then to co-exist with those whose worldview seems truly alien–and so the uncertain tenuousness of hope, of relying on unproven, unprovable narratives that communication, understanding, and living together might be possible; wondering how much miscommunication and conflict are inevitable. Finch reads as if VanderMeer took all these key components of contemporary politics, scrambled the subjects and actions and objects beyond allegorical recognition, laid them out in their new form as a series of fragments very much akin to the novel’s prose, and seeing that they still made sense in their scrambled form and still told a believable story, challenged the reader to decide for themselves what exactly this means.


Classic noir tells a tale of entrapment in a cycle of behavior, a fly quixotically bumping against the cage of a screened door, yearning for the unreachable outdoors beyond. Finch suggests that sometimes the door can open–sometimes as the result of our actions, sometimes through the actions of those we choose to act for us, sometimes because of historical pressures we may not always fully understand, or be comfortable with. But openings happen, and they bring change. We cannot change the massive past accumulation of history, but we can choose who we are as individuals in the present: it’s perhaps the only way individuals can interact with the mass of history, ignoring it but at the same time shaping it. In this Finch reads like a plea for engagement with the world.

Here are some excerpts from his review of The City & The City

The City & The City works its genre deconstruction largely via setting, not character or plot. Indeed, what’s notable about the plot of Miéville’s novel is how true its movement is to the very story of noir, the recirculating interplay between individuals and systems: how individuals take on the characteristics of the systems they live by, and in doing so become complicit in those systems; how individuals are absorbed by systems whose qualities mirror their own self-absorbtions. The prototypical noir character is streetwise precisely because they mirror their environment, because with absorption and loss of self can come knowledge and the ability to work within the grid of the system–if never to actually change it. Yet in many recent noir hybrids with fantasy and science fiction, noir is used precisely to present something for the individual to triumph over, to change or escape: Jedediah Berry’s Manual of Detection, Zoran Živković’s The Last Book, going back to the film Bladerunner. (I could perhaps add Jeff VanderMeer’s Finch to this list as well, but I don’t think VanderMeer is aiming for the pure crime noir in the way someone like Berry is–which may be another post for another time.) It stands out, then, that with The City & The City, Miéville has created a story that is so thoroughly noir, that ends with our protagonist Inspector Tyador Borlú co-opted by the system in exactly the way we’d expect–and yet still has something interesting to say about what this all means.

For such a classic noir story to work, we generally need to care about this co-option, this absorption. And so the classic noir story is typically a novel of character. Well, and so. Our Inspector Borlú is, like any good noir protagonist, very much a product of his system–indeed I think there is a tendency to under-appreciate Borlú as a product of his society. When Borlú declares that the situation between Besźel and Ul Qoma is entirely unlike those in Berlin, or Jerusalem; when he declares that it cannot be understood allegorically: the easy interpretation is that this is Miéville speaking to us, and not what someone of Borlú’s character and in his position would say, authorial agreement or no. And yet, a similar sense of character comes through in many of Borlú’s actions: his behavior at the cities conference, his dual lovers, his patronage of Ul Qoman bakeries in Besźel. It is easy to regard these details as thematic–and of course they are, that’s part of what makes the book so good. But the details he provides–choices, actions, patterns of speech–are not only thematic, not when we consider the reaction of others to these attributes of Borlú, which make it clear they are very much unique to him. This gets at the issue with Borlú-as-protagonist, though: it isn’t that he’s not a believable character, but his matter-of-fact acceptance of the system doesn’t incorporate many of the tensions that we see in others throughout the novel. He is a patriot, but recognizing that his country depends on the system, he is a patriot for the system first and foremost. Borlú begins co-opted in all but name, and so there’s little real drama in his personal transition. The dramatic tension in the system, and the true star protagonist of the novel, is instead found in the setting. Fortunately, the setting makes the strong and complex impression that Borlú does not.

While The City & The City is not, by most definitions, a New Weird novel, its setting has about it something of what M. John Harrison labeled the “pick-and-choose” aesthetic of The New Weird. It is quite conspicuously an assemblage of elements designed to convey an impression–in this case, to build a mystery–and make an argument as much as it is an attempt to construct a plausible real-world location. The very vagueness of the location and history of the cities emphasize this. The text suggests that the two nearest neighbors of the cities are Bosnia and Romania–with Greece and Turkey slightly further away. This would likely put the cities on the border of the Balkans, perhaps in, perhaps out…the uncertain dualism seen so often in the novel. Practically, this general location carries with it a mesh of associations: the borderlands, too, between Central and Eastern Europe, and Europe and the Middle East; the concept of “balkanization”; recent countries with names such as “Bosnia and Herzegovina,” “Serbia and Montenegro” that have the meter of our book’s title.

The question of where the cities are naturally leads to other questions about them, which the novel encourages–it’s another mystery, in addition to the foreground crime, a greater one. It has the air of a puzzle to be solved. There’s a sense, then, in which The City & The City represents a very classic type of mystery fiction, the puzzle story where whodunit and how and when are the most important aspects, Colonel Mustard in the Ballroom with the Candlestick. Over the past several decades, however, the mystery genre as a whole has become more character-driven: not so much puzzling out whodunit as examining the character of those who did do it and those who try to prove what was done. Paralleling the growth of forensics, surveillance, and computer networks, the model for the new crime novel is The Wire: a story where everybody already knows who’s done it, and it’s the construction of proof, and the impact of that construction, that creates the drama. Hartland and Roberts in particular criticize the book for missing the sailing of this ship, but I’m not sure they’re appreciating just how Miéville is twining the two types of story, crime and puzzle, together. The “crime” in crime fiction implies laws, which imply a state, which implies borders and jurisdictions; at least in Western societies, a crime carries with it the premonition of alibis, of dueling stories. Miéville, I think, is trying to get at these core elements that define the genre, the mysteries at the heart of crime, and do to this he needs to do a bit of genre archaeology–and to use a dash of fantasy.

If this sounds far-fetched, consider how the language of the story presents a clue that things will be rather meta: crosshatch, equipoise, alterity, interstitial. Unseeing.

To solve a crime, in other words, is not to choose between truth and fiction. It is to construct an explanatory narrative, to choose between fictions.

Solution-narratives have scope: to present something as a solution is to delineate what we are willing to accept in a solution, how much truth (or at least, explanation) we need. In this case, when Besźel and Ul Qoma are presented as the two initial leads in the case, the suspects, it’s worth remembering that the two are not just cities but also nations; investigations bring us a further suspect, Orciny, also (potentially, in some narratives) a nation. But like many good mysteries, the suspect most responsible for the crime turns out to be the one that was mentioned briefly and seemingly inconsequentially early in the story, the one that we may have even forgotten was present: the United States.

It is mete that Miéville’s crime novel operates at this level of nations, because the notion of crime is tied up in nations. Crimes are violations of laws; laws are enacted by nations. And nations, in turn, are based on narratives of justice. Nations are fictions that are, as Borlú says, “the skin that keeps law in place.” This gets at one of the thorny issues with crime, of causes. Causes often lie as far back in the past as we’re willing to look; they often do expand to the level of nations, cultures, social systems (one suspects religion, implausibly minimized in both cities, is so because it operates in parallel on the same principles). At a certain point we always have to accept that there are causal elements we won’t be able to know.

There’s a great deal of clever paralleling throughout The City & The City between the old-school puzzle of the cities, that is operating at this meta level of nations and concepts, and the investigation of Mahalia’s murder that’s representative of street-level crime noir. The excavations, of course, the digging into the past; more subtly, the linkage of the individual members of the nationalist groups of both cities as suspects, or the fact that Bowden commits the murder because of a story of a city, a nation, Orciny. There’s again the realization that noir is a mirroring of character and environment. And there’s the overall movement of the methodologies employed as we progress in the book from the classic procedural tone of Borlú’s initial investigations in Besźel, which wouldn’t have felt out of place in a crime novel from the 1930s, through to Breach’s system of networks and surveillance and informers, the technolologizing of the apparatus of truth, the new crime fiction. (My crime fiction guru and colleague in genrethink, Brian Lindenmuth of Spinetingler Magazine, mentioned to me that he experienced the movement to Ul Qoma and the character of Dhatt as an intermediary step in this metahistory of crime fiction, albeit one he was disinclined to credit as consciously intended on Miéville’s behalf.)

An interesting question to ask, given all this, is when exactly do we consider the mystery to be solved? I would posit that for most readers it will be when Borlú apprehends Bowden, a type of final confrontation ubiquitous within the mystery genre.

In having Borlú become this avatar of Breach, Miéville achieves a final synthesis of noir and fantasy that makes a worthy finale to the novel’s conceptual fireworks. Borlú has been reduced; he has lost his name, his personhood, become subsumed as an enforcer of the system. This is the very essence of the tragic inevitability of noir. And in the grammar of fantasy, Borlú’s transformation into an avatar is also a movement of becoming. Borlú is moving towards a doppelganger of the fullness of view that the equivocations of his character always strained towards, a sense of his place in the fictional sense–acknowledgment that he is a participant in, and engulfed by, narrative. By the book’s end, the fantasy and the noir have fused into the same understanding. At the very point Borlú is reduced to an avatar within the story, he solidifies into what he always was to the reader outside the story.

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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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About 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.

4 Replies to “An outsiders perspective on noir”

  1. “Classic noir tells a tale of entrapment in a cycle of behavior, a fly quixotically bumping against the cage of a screened door, yearning for the unreachable outdoors beyond.”

    I like this definition of noir, because this is the place where most women write noir from. It’s just as dark, but in a softer, less violent version than what’s considered noir today. If that makes any sense to anyone but me.

  2. Thanks, Brian. Yes, some of our discussions, public and private, definitely informed my speculations–in some very specific ways, and also more generally in thinking about the difference between mystery and crime, and what the idea of crime fiction implies. It got me thinking about ideas like, can you have a detective in a world where the chain of cause-and-effect is perceived to have broken down, as in Finch? (Whose titular character constantly denies, despite his job description, that he is a detective.) And what happens to the idea of crime in such a world?

    But also yes, this was me thinking out loud, without any surety of being correct, just trying to sort out in my own mind the interesting differences I perceived between these two books that seemed to center around ideas of mystery and crime. So corrections and additions are welcome.

    Sandra: nothing I wrote precludes violence, but yes, I’m not sure how much actual violence there needs to be in order to call something a noir. I imagine the looming possibility of violence will almost always be present. But the actuality doesn’t feel to me like a core ingredient conceptually, more a common secondary effect. (A lot of what I had to untangle for myself about VanderMeer’s Finch was the difference between “noir” and “hardboiled,” where in the later I take the pervasive actuality of violence to be more built in.)

  3. Violence in noir is usually a given but I think with the classic noir much of that violence is off the page as compared to the griding violence we’re now seeing in the current noir where you see and feel every punch. And yes, with hard-boiled you expect the violence but not necessarily the vulgar violence displayed in the neo-noir.