Re: RARA-AVIS: Noir and Hardboiled Fiction

From: Michael Robison (
Date: 13 Dec 2003

Alan Carter wrote:
> If I may interject...I think the world-view of both Noir and
> Hard-Boiled fiction is one in which the "World" portrayed is
> essentially an evil one. The world of Cain and Woolrich and Thompson
> is one of despair, bitterness and corruption. The typical
> Noir/Hard-Boiled protagonist is often viewed as a "White Knight" out
> to right wrongs and do justice. I think this is partially mistaken.
> The typical protagonist in both kinds of stories can not always be
> describes as a "Good" fighting "Evil." One of the greatest
> characters I've ever seen created (in one of the hardest of the
> hard-boiled novels I've ever read) is a corrupt gangster named Gerry
> Kells in Paul Cain's "Fast One." There is no attempt at all in this
> novel to portray Kells as anything but a crook.
> Same is true of one of - in my opinion - the hardest hard-boiled
> novels ever written. "Solomon's Vinyard" by Jonathan Lattimer.
> While the protagonist here is, in fact, a PI, he most assuredly
> cannot be described as someone trying to right wrongs.
> The point is this: Characters, I think, should be described as
> "Hard-Boiled." They are tough, gritty, purposeful men (and sometimes
> women)who make their own rules and follow their own sense of justice.
> Novels and stories, on the other hand, I think are best described as
> "Noir" as the plots and situations portrayed in the "world-view"
> setting of corruption and evil create in the reader what Chandler
> called "a smell of fear."
> Simply stated, characters are Hard-Boiled. Novels are Noir.

**************************** I like everything you said here. Although I subscribe fully to Jim's definitions, I see problems with them. You mention one of them with your suggestion that characters are hardboiled, not books. If books are hardboiled, written with a tough and colloquial voice, then they don't necessarily need to be dominated by tough characters. Although I'm not sure how comfortable I am with that, that is what I subscirbe to. That is why O'Hara's APPOINTMENT IN SAMARRA and almost anything by Vin Packer is hardboiled. It is their voice, not the characters, which make the book hardboiled.

On the noir front, I have a very hard time calling something noir if it is dark and sinister all the way through but ends on an upbeat note. There are times when I lean more towards Jack Bludis's "screwed" definition for noir. One thing I would have to note here is that I differentiate between film noir and written noir. Jim notes that film noir is more of a style than an actual genre, and I buy that. But written noir is more of a philosophical stance, darkly existential in nature.


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