by Bill Pronzini
How does one define noir, or hardboiled, crime fiction?
Not easily. The labels “noir” and “hardboiled” themselves make it difficult, if not impossible, to come up with a precise definition. Both terms have been used and abused by readers, writers, and critics so long and so often that, as with most literary labels, their meanings have become blurred.
A better approach is to list some of the elements contained in the best crime
stories of this type. These elements are not the only ones, of course, but they’re among the most important. The more of them that an author incorporates into a novel or story,the greater its merit.
The noir crime story deals with disorder, disaffection, and dissatisfaction. Throughout the genre’s seventy-year history, this has remained a constant and central tenet. The typical noir character (if not the typical noir writer) has a jaundiced view of government, power, and the law. He (or sometimes she) is often a loner, a social misfit. If he is on the side of the angels, he is probably a cynical idealist: he believes that society is corrupt, but he also believes in justice and will make it his business to do whatever is necessary to see that justice is done. If he walks the other side of the mean streets, he walks them at night; he is likely a predator, and as morally bankrupt as any human being can be. In the noir world, extremes are the norm. Clashes between good and evil are never petty, and good does not always triumph, nor is justice always done.
A quality noir story must emphasize character and the problems inherent in human behavior. Character conflict is essential. The crime or threat of crime with which the story is concerned is of secondary importance.
It must be reflective of the times in which it was written, providing an accurate,honest, and realistic depiction of its locale and of the individuals who inhabit that locale.
Even more important, it must offer some insight into the social and moral climate of its time. It must, as critic David Madden once wrote, “reflect [its] world in a way that is at once an objective description and an implicit judgment of it.” Entertainment alone is not sufficient.
Even though it involves some type of violent crime, it must not use unmotivated violence or violence for the sake of sensationalism. The mere threat of brute force is often enough.
It must have, in Benjamin Appel’s phrase, “living people talking a living language,” however harsh, cruel, or obscene these people and that language may be.
And finally, it should generate what Raymond Chandler called “a smell of fear.”
When all of these elements appear in a single work, and mesh together with a strong plot and a distinctive narrative voice, the result is a true noir classic.