Re: RARA-AVIS: Re: the evolving definition of noir

From: Sandra Ruttan (
Date: 22 Dec 2006


Thanks for your insight. Oddly enough, when I interviewed Simon Kernick we talked about the fact that there was a lack of tradition of thrillers in British fiction, and it came up with I interviewed Mark Billingham as well.* I suppose that could be a debate for another day.

I actually think your definition of Œthriller¹ might be the closest to what is actually being used these days. However, it seems to me that it muddies the waters, and gives an out to bookstores to move such books out of the mystery section. (People like me, who don¹t leave the mystery section, fail to understand their reasoning.) I guess what I¹m thinking is that if we¹re going to have subgenre categories, shouldn¹t they work to actually distinguish different styles, instead of creating an overlapping label that can be applied to almost everything? When I was getting comments back on my book people called it a police procedural, a psychological thriller, crime fiction, mystery, suspense... And I wouldn¹t say that my book relies more on action, pace and suspense than cerebration, yet my second choice behind straight mystery/crime fiction labeling was suspense. The thriller tag baffled me, but who am I to judge a reader? If that¹s what it is to them, that¹s what it is. I wouldn¹t tell people they¹re wrong, it just makes me wonder if they¹ve got different definitions than I have.

But really, it isn¹t even the thrillers that I¹m intrigued by. It¹s the discussion about noir. I¹m a babe in the woods compared to the regulars on this list when it comes to knowledge of noir and hardboiled fiction, and I don¹t think I¹d ever realized just how closely connected noir was to hardboiled. My first exposure to the term Œnoir¹ was being applied to Rankin¹s work. However, the discussion here about the history of noir and some of the definitions being discussed - ³screwed² - make me wonder about how the term is being applied and whether or not it¹s being applied too loosely. It seems to me there are a lot of books being labeled noir that aren¹t. If there is a fundamental optimism underlying the book, the sense that the protagonist might actually get their life together and achieve some degree of happiness, can it be called noir? I wouldn¹t think so.

I thought hardboiled referred to works set among criminals rather than crime fighters. The discussion has made me think that most hardboiled novels are also almost always seen as noir. Is there hardboiled fiction people wouldn¹t class as noir, or am I getting this wrong?

On that note, we watched Double Indemnity last night. Screwed sums it up nicely ­ a story where everybody loses. Just what I needed to counter all this holiday cheer.


(I often get called Susan, even if I sign emails ŒSandra¹. It¹s the curse of having the last name Ruttan and a first name that starts with S...)

* These interviews were in the fall and winter issues of Spinetingler Magazine, free online.

On 12/22/06 4:17 PM, "JIM DOHERTY" <> wrote:
> Susan,
> Re your comments below:
> "For example, with the thriller awards last July I
> found myself perplexed. Stuart MacBride¹s book Cold
> Granite ­ while a fantastic piece of fiction and
> something I¹d class under noir myself ­ was not what
> I¹d call a thriller. Others I know expressed the same
> sentiment. This didn¹t stop me from being
> delighted for him to be nominated, but end of the day
> it left me completely confused at what exactly is
> considered a thriller anymore, and that¹s a
> personal bugbear of mine because where I live
> thrillers are not put in the Œmystery¹ section of the
> chain bookstores ­ they¹re put in general fiction.
> Yet Bruen, MacBride, Kernick ­ you¹ll find them in
> mystery."
> Some time ago, I got into a discussion about this at
> the EMWA e-mail list. Somebody was drawing a
> distinction between "mysteries" (by which they really
> meant "traditional whodunits/puzzles") and
> "thrillers."
> I responded that "thrillers" were not something
> separate from mysteries, but were a TYPE of mystery,
> and then suggested that if there really was a
> difference, then "thriller" should be specifically
> defined in a way that made the difference clear.
> Nobody came up with a work-able definition of
> "thriller." Later, when the ITW awards were given,
> one of the comments I heard was that the eligibility
> requirement were such that virtually any crime novel
> qualified.
> FWIW, it's very common for publishers/booksellers to
> classify a police procedural about the hunt for a
> serial killer (like MacBride's COLD GRANITE) as a
> thriller.
> Further, in Britain, I noticed that "thriller," "crime
> novel," and "mystery" were virtualy interchangeable
> terms and that a book by Agatha Christie was as likely
> to be called a "thriller" as one by Ian Fleming....
> As for what constitutes a "thriller." Try this: A
> mystery novel that depends less on cerebration than on
> action, pace, and suspense.
> I can already guess what the objections to it will be.
> It's too general and let's too many "non-thrillers"
> in.
> And it's simultaneously too specific and excludes too
> many books that are clearly should be included.

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