Posted by Jessica Nelson on Mar 11, 2013 in Apex Publications Blog: Matters of SF, Fantasy, and Horror | 3 comments
It’s Noir Month here at the Apex Publications blog. I’ve read noir, and I’ve enjoyed it every time, but this is one area where I feel my experience with a topic is less than it should be (in my own opinion) before I start yammering on at the masses about it, so the first thing I did was to scour ye olde internets for information and inspiration. What I found only served to make me feel less confident in my knowledge.
It seems no one really has a hard and fast definition of noir down. Granted, there are web sites that say noir is this and noir isn’t that, but the information can vary widely from site to site. Some of the things I’ve found are repeated on most of them, so we can assume they probably hold true, but others are either obviously wrong, or simply outdated. It makes sense, then, that we might begin there.
Looking through Google search listings, one web site will tell you that noir always involves a private detective. The next will tell you this is a common theme, but not a necessary one. thefreedictionary.com has this to say:
As this suits what I’ve always thought of as noir, let’s start there, then. An entry by Toby Ball on tor.com adds this: “… basic elements: tough, cynical protagonists, bleak settings, femme fatales, at atmosphere suffused with threat and violence … sense that the protagonist is in over his head against forces that are bigger than he/she is and indifferent, if not actually hostile.”
We seem to have a pretty workable definition and idea, here, of what noir is.
The definitions of Noir found across the web seem to have a common inability to extricate themselves from the origins of noir, often becoming tangled together into an enormous knot, blurring the lines between definition and origin. This accounts for a lot of the difficulty I had in trying to come up with a working definition to use as a jumping off point.
No one disputes that Noir began just before the Great Depression of the 1930s, or that it began in the pulp magazines of America. No one disputes that it was the French who initially lumped it into its own genre niche, applying the Noir (Fr. black) label. It’s no wonder this particular style of writing would find popularity in a time when so many people’s lives were also bleak and tough, where the readers themselves were tough and cynical, where violence threatened life on a daily basis. Who of Noir’s first fan-base didn’t also feel as if they were in over their head, against bigger forces that were indifferent at best, hostile at worst? Hopelessness, futility, failure, bleakness, desperation … these were themes the average person could identify with. These are themes many people today can also identify with, leading to something of a recent resurgence in Noir’s popularity.
One of the problems tangling origin and definition, though, is that so many people see Noir as “distinctly American.” Indeed, this may have been the case, in the beginning, but it isn’t the case any longer. In his novel Empire State, author Adam Christopher spins a fantastic sci-fi noir yarn about warring superheroes. Although the book is set in New York City, the author himself hails from Auckland, New Zealand. You can decide for yourself whether this fits “distinctly American” or not. I lean toward no, but I’m split. I’m not split, however, when it comes to Tobacco-Stained Mountain Goat, by Andrez Bergen. The author originally hails from Melbourne, Australia, and the book is set in the same place. Does the book have an ‘American’ feel to it? Only insofar as I’m used to noir being set in America. I apply those feelings myself. I don’t think they were inherent.
Authors and Books, New and Old
In my trek across the world wide web, I found a fairly standard list of Noir authors: Cornell Woolrich, Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler … there were slight variations from site to site, but not a lot. The top seven or eight authors were listed, again and again. Some of these authors are more recent, such as Megan Abbott, but for the most part, the authors that bore the most mentions were those of the old guard, the pioneers of the genre. So what is a person who’d like to branch out and read more of the genre to do, if they have such difficulties even finding updated lists of noir authors? Authors like Tom Piccirilli, Lavie Tidhar, Chuck Wendig, and the aforementioned Adam Christopher and Andrez Bergen?
This is what I’d like to do with this post: CROWDSOURCING! We’re not fundraising, keep those dollars for some of the books you will (I hope) learn exist if this works as well as I’d like.
I’m asking you, here and now, to help me round out my To Be Read list and yours, and to help the authors that are being left off of noir author lists. The authors don’t need to be strictly noir writers. It is my long-held opinion that authors and books that cross and bend genres are those I most enjoy reading, so we’re not setting limits! In the comments, I’d like you to list your favorite Noir books and authors. If you’re listing a specific book, please list the author’s name along with it. If you’re listing an author, please give at least one example of something they’ve written that falls into the Noir category. If you’d like to list the old guard, by all means, list away … but please, if you know of something newer, that’s what we’re really looking for.
What are you waiting for? We’re crowdsourcing a genre list!
From Modern Noir Master Tom Piccirilli
Screenwriter Tommy Pic fell hard from Hollywood success and landed in a psychiatric ward, blacked out from booze and unmedicated manic depression. This is not the first time he’s come to in restraints, surrounded by friends and family who aren’t there.
This time, though, he also awakes to a message from his agent. The first act of his latest screenplay is their ticket back to the red carpets. If only Tommy could remember writing it. Trying to recapture the hallucinations that crafted his masterpiece, he chases his kidnapped childhood love, a witch from the magic shop downstairs, and the Komodo dragon he tried to cut out of his gut one Christmas Eve. The path to professional redemption may be more dangerous than the fall.
…This is what makes you die.
Jessica Nelson has been writing since girlhood. She started out writing short stories for herself, usually centering around something like a unicorn and Pegasus prancing along the top of a rainbow, causing glitter to fall from the sky. As she grew, so did her love of words. She filled blank volumes faster than she could get her hands on them, teaching her the true value of napkins, menus, skin, and even her blue jeans.
Jessica has since found her niche in the world of science fiction, fantasy, and horror. She keeps a blog of bookish things and miscellaneous bric-a-brac she thinks readers might find interesting at http://allwaysunmended.com and writes book reviews for The Future Fire. She lives near Minneapolis, Minnesota with her husband, two daughters, and a slew of critters, spending her days reading, crafting, tapping at the keyboard, and picking up fur balls. Follow her on Twitter @AllwaysUnmended.