March Noir: Men Without Hats: Noir as Everyday Life (Guest Post by Nick Mamatas)

Posted by on Mar 25, 2013 in Apex Publications Blog: Matters of SF, Fantasy, and Horror | 0 comments

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By Nick Mamatas

With my friends Jeremy Tolbert, Seth Cadin, and Molly Tanzer, I run an electronic magazine of noir fiction called The Big Click. We use stock and original photos for the cover art of our e-reader editions. For an early issue, we made the mistake of simply typing the word “noir” into some of the more popular stock image and art sites.

A mistake, because what we got was men in hats. So many hats. Endless fedoras, long coats, smoke pumped over a stage light. All the visual clichés of the field, all the artifacts of noir we decided that we’d never publish.

Someone tweeted us a joke: “Don’t you know that ‘noir’ is the French word for ‘hat’?”

The Big Click

The Big Click — Issue 7

The hat is ubiquitous in noir iconography because at the height of the film noir craze, most men wore them. Today, the detective in the raincoat and fedora reads “noir hero”, but I would argue that the detective is more appropriately a “hard-boiled” figure. Noir is French for black—a noir is a somewhat realistic dark story with crime and transgression in it. It doesn’t need a detective, or an alcoholic cop, or a femme fatale with a secret, or anything but an impulse that leads to a mistake or a social trespass. Then it’s a short trip down, into the blackness. Noir novels are generally short for a reason, and that reason is that we’re all only a few missteps away from total ruin.

Take for instance my favorite noir novel, The Burnt Orange Heresy by Charles Willeford. Not a gumshoe or gunsel to be seen—the book is about an art critic who is tasked to interview a famously mysteriously artist so as to steal one of the artist’s paintings. Not that the artist ever actually produced anything… The book does feature murder and arson and forgery of a sort, and all for the benefit of getting a few extra inches of column space in an arts encyclopedia.

The Burnt Orange Heresy

The Burnt Orange Heresy

Or look at the classic Shoot the Piano Player by David Goodis. It is about a piano player, an extremely good one, who retreats to playing at an old bar co-owned by a former small-time pro wrestler. And the titular piano player doesn’t even make a social mistake. He just decides to help out his brother, and allows himself to love a woman for a few ill-starred moments. There are cops, but they’re generally useless boobs. There are a couple of guys in hats too, but they’re just mobsters trying to track down the leads.

Another seminal work of noir, They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? by Horace McCoy, is about that deep dark noir setting well-known to all lovers of crime—the marathon dance contest. A contest that lasts before 879 hours before being interrupted by a murder. There is a femme fatale in the literal sense as the victim is a “fatal woman”—after 879 hours Gloria couldn’t take dancing anymore and asked her partner to shoot her. So he did, because…well, please review the title of the book.

Then there’s the recent noir Dope, by Sara Gran. There is a sleuth of sorts in it, but she’s a hooker and dope fiend who is hired because of her connections to the underworld, to find a missing person. And she almost does, in a way. The protagonist almost certainly wears a hat, but a fedora wasn’t a lady’s hat back in the 1950s. (Today, in the 2010s, it should probably only be a lady’s hat.)

Robert Hoover's Noir

Robert Hoover’s Noir

There are plenty of detective in hats in noir novels, of course, but some of the best ones play with the tropes ironically. Take for instance Robert Coover’s Noir, an experimental novel written in the second person. You get to be the detective. For the first few pages the book is played straight, but once a former yakuza moll, her entire body covered in a correspondence of insults and challenges between two gang leaders, you know you’re in territory far beyond the lands of cliché. Both you the reader and you the detective, of course.

The funny thing about noir—there are actually lots of funny things about noir, but this is one of them—is that one doesn’t have to read experimental versions of the genre to escape cliché. Noir is an untameable genre that can involve any sort of character in any type of situation. Noir is a tribute not to a fairly small slice of film history, or to the anxieties of the first half of the twentieth century, but to our endless capacity as human beings to fuck up our lives. That’s a truth you can hang your hat on.


From Author and Editor Nick Mamatas
Starve Better by Nick MamatasStarve Better makes no promises of making you a bestselling author. It won’t feed aspiring writers’ dreams of fame and fortune. This book is about survival: how to generate ideas when you needed them yesterday, dialogue and plot on the quick, and what your manuscript is up against in the slush piles of the world. For non-fiction writers, Starve Better offers writing techniques such as how to get (relatively) high-paying assignments in second and third-tier magazines, how to react to your first commissioned assignment, and how to find gigs that pay NOW as the final notices pile up and the mice eat the last of the pasta in the cupboard.

Humor, essays, and some of the most widely read blog pieces from Nick Mamatas, author and editor of fiction that has caught the attention of speculative fiction’s most prestigious awards, come together for the first time in a writers’ guide that won’t teach anyone how to get rich and famous… but it will impart the most valuable skill in the business: how to starve better.

Order Starve Better by Nick Mamatas


Nick MamatasNick Mamatas is the author of three-and-a-half novels, more than seventy short stories, and hundreds of feature articles, and is also an editor and anthologist. His fiction has been nominated for the Bram Stoker and International Horror Guild awards and translated into German, Italian, and Greek; his editorial work with Clarkesworld earned the magazine World Fantasy and Hugo award nominations. Nick’s reportage, short stories, and essays have appeared in venues such as Razor, Asimov’s Science Fiction, Silicon Alley Reporter, the Village Voice, The Smart Set, The Writer, Poets & Writers and anthologies including Supernatural Noir and Lovecraft Unbound. He teaches at Western Connecticut State University in the MFA program in Creative and Professional Writing, was a visiting writer at Lake Forest College and the University of California, Riverside’s Palm Desert Campus, and runs writing classes in the San Francisco Bay Area.

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