“Noir” means black in French. But I never nailed what exactly is noir fiction. I have associated the terms with mystery and crime fiction. But why a separate term “noir fiction”? “Roman noir” is French for black novel. The term was first used by the French in the Eighteenth century to describe the British Gothic novel, but by the Twentieth century, it had acquired a new meaning and was being used to describe an American creation, the hardboiled thriller.
Author James Ellroy writes that noir “indicts the other subgenres of the hard-boiled school as sissified, and canonizes the inherent human urge toward self-destruction.” Noir as an idea and a mood may be familiar to us from its prominent, and easily parodied, place in cinema—the rich black-and-white cinematography, the tough talking dicks and sultry dames, the lines of cigarette smoke that run to the ceiling.
But what characterizes the style in fiction? And is there a difference between noir writing and detective or mystery fiction? Most mystery fiction focuses on the detective, and noir fiction focuses on the villain. A noir book can focus neither the detective nor the villain, but just a normal person who happens to have an eye for the dark. The people in noir fiction are dark and doomed—they are losers, they are pessimistic, they are hopeless. If one has a private eye, the private eye is a hero; and he’s going to solve the crime and the bad guy will be caught. That’s a happy ending, but that’s not a noir ending. Sometimes noir is about sex and money, and sometimes about revenge. The characters Cut off from the longstanding values of the human family, these characters turn to immediate desires.
Noir to me, rather morbidly, serves as a guide to my next travel destination, as it is highly atmospheric and redolent of local colors.