Wednesday, April 16, 2014

N is for Noir and Neon-Lit Nights...


The letter in today’s A-Z Challenge is “N”. I’m talking about one my favorite genres, noir fiction. ~Kat Sheridan

Dead men are heavier than broken hearts. Raymond Chandler, The Big Sleep



I like my fiction the way I like my coffee: dark, a little bitter, and best served on a cold, rainy night. Noir, French for “black,” is a literary genre that features a man (always a man), usually a detective, solving a mystery against a backdrop of violence and corruption.

The staple of early pulp fiction, the idea of the hard-boiled detective hero began in the 1920s, during prohibition, with Caroll John Daly’s creation, Race Williams. More followed in his footsteps, most notably Dashiell Hammett with his private detective, Sam Spade, and Raymond Chandler with Philip Marlowe.

The argument can be made that there’s a difference between hard-boiled detective fiction and true noir, but they overlap so much, that most folks, including me, tend to think of them as the same. If a distinction is to be made, it might be in the personality of the detective himself.

John D. MacDonald’s Travis McGee or Micky Spillane’s Mike Hammer are hard-boiled seekers of justice, but they have relationships. They have sidekicks and trusted friends, and relationships with women, even if they’re only temporary or unfulfilled.

But men like Sam Spade and Philip Marlowe are loners. They’re paladins, cynical, tilting at windmills, strangely romantic, morally ambiguous, and with a more self-destructive personality. The women in their lives either end up dead or betraying them. Same with their friends.

My personal preference is for Raymond Chandler. Both Hammett and Chandler were American-born, but Chandler was raised in England, in “public” schools (what American’s call private schools), and his prose has an elegance and richness that is distinctly different from Hammett’s more terse style. But you couldn’t go wrong with either one.

And of course, there are the noir films, with Humphrey Bogart playing both Sam Spade and Philip Marlowe, or Sunset Boulevard, so brilliantly spoofed by Carol Burnett.


I leave you today with a link to my favorite album of classic movie noir music, White Heat: Film Noir. Perfect for a rainy night, a glass of scotch, and lonely detective under the wet neon lights of the mean streets… 


Let’s chat: Are you a fan of crime fiction?  Who’s your favorite detective?
 
 

The “N” book list:
 
 
Naked Came the Manatee: Thirteen of Florida’s best writers come together (along with their famous characters) to create a hilarious send-up of the noir/crime novel. Like a game of literary telephone, each chapter is written by a different author. Dave Barry kicks it off with a manatee named Booger, and is joined by the likes of John D. MacDonald, Carl Hiaasen, Elmore Leonard, and Edna Buchanan.
 
San Diego Noir: Fifteen of the area’s best writers (including blog friend Lisa Brackmann) come together in this darkly delicious short-story anthology.
 
Katherine Neville: Complex post-modern thrillers
 
 
 
 
Image of Humphrey Bogart: By Warner Bros Art (Own work) via Wikimedia Commons
 
 
 

 

30 comments:

Michael Di Gesu said...

HI, Sia,

I LOVE NOIR! Some of my favorite movies are from the forties...

LAURA- The ultimate NOIR for me...

CASABLANCA of course. Maybe not totally noir but the atmosphere is certainly there.

You'd be interested to know that my latest WIP is a 1940's Noir novella set in Chicago!

I can't wait to get back to it. It's been on hold because of other obligations and the a-z... I'll have to send you and excerpt of two... see what you think!

Kat Sheridan said...

Good morning, Michael! There's just something about noir movies...And I think Casablanca fits in there. Rick is a loner, a quixotic hero, and, of course, doesn't get the girl. And your WIP sounds wonderful!

Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

I read some noir. It also represents a style of artwork that is really awesome.

Kat Sheridan said...

I totally agree, Alex. Sometimes I think I want to write a noir simply to have some of that evocative artowrk on a book cover!

Kat Sheridan said...

A lot of comic book/graphic novel superheroes also fit in the noir genre. Think Bruce Wayne as Batman.

Mason Canyon said...

Kat, great post on Noir. Makes me want to curl up on a comfortable sofa with a cup of coffee, a good book to read, The Maltese Falcon playing on the TV in the background as the rain pounds on a tin roof.

saraleee said...

Noir movies are great -- they are so stylish. My husband is the real movie buff in our house, though. CASABLANCA is his all-time favorite movie, but he loves cinema noir generally.

And now I've got to read "Naked Came the Manatee" because Dave Barry rocks!

I've read a number of classic noir tales, but I tend to prefer lighter-hearted stories. Great topic!

Chrys Fey said...

I also love dark fiction. The darker the better. But I don't like dark, bitter coffee. Go figure. haha

Hilary Melton-Butcher said...

Hi Kat and Sia .. I read lots of detective stories in my youth .. but now when I see a 'noir' film - then I feel it's different it's dark and scarier - rather like the Third Man series .. lots of scurrilous characters in the background ...

Cheers - but definitely noir and neon lit nights ... Hilary

Janie Mason said...

I've never read any noir; too much of a romantic. The movie Casablanca was a rich story but it left me feeling too sad.
Just not my cup of tea.
The Dave Barry book does sound interesting. He's hilarious!

Jo said...

Dunno if I have read noir or not. I find all these classifications too difficult to keep up with. I have been reading everything and anything for 70 years although I admit that these days I tend to choose sci fi or fantasy. Now those two genres I do understand.

Melanie Schulz said...

I can't say I've ever gotten into this genre, but I love Sherlock Holmes, so maybe I love it and just don't know it yet.

Kat Sheridan said...

Mason, I feel the same way. What is it about noir that always fits perfectly on rainy nights? I love that atmosphere!

Kat Sheridan said...

Saralee, I think "stylish" is the perfect word. And "Naked Came the Manatee" is such a fun book! It introduced me to the unique voice that is Florida crime writers, and so much fun to see authors use their most famous characters in cameos. From that book, I followed up on a lot of the authors and found reams of good reading. I especially liked Paul Levine. His Solomon vs. Lord series reads like the old Tracy and Hepburn movies, with maybe WIlliam Powell in the role of Solomon. Great fun!

Kat Sheridan said...

Chrys, my taste varies wildly, depending on my mood, but I do tend to favor darker flavored work. I write romance, but it's definitely of the dark, gothic variety, with gloomy castles and questionable heroes. Of course, I like other things as well, and have been known to tone down the bitterness in the coffee with a dollop of Baileys!

Kat Sheridan said...

Hi, Hilary! You know, I've heard so much about the Third Man, but I've never seen the movie. I think I need to hunt it down and watch it!

Kat Sheridan said...

Janie, yes, there's sadness in noir, but a certain nobility as well that I find strangely romantic. These guys have their own moral code, but in their own way, they're trying to do right. And the ending of Casablanca, while it does make me cry, also makes me want to throw rocks at the TV. He shoulda got the girl.

And you'll enjoy the Dave Barry book!

Kat Sheridan said...

Hi, Jo! I read lots of different stuff as well, and go through spells where I binge on one thing or another. It's been ages since I read sci-fi or fantasy, but I do have it on my overflowing bookshelves!

Kat Sheridan said...

Melanie, a discussion on the difference between Sherlock and noir fiction could be a whole blog by itself. Sherlock fits somewhat in the mold, as he is occassionally amoral, but he does at least have a relationship with his loyal sidekick, something heroes like Sam Spade or Philip Marlowe lack. Sherlock is the quintessential British detective, and the stories tend to be very cerebral puzzles.

Noir (in spite of the French word) are quintessentially American fiction, and tend to be far more violent (somebody is forever getting "sapped" on the head or shot). The twists in noir are less puzzles, and more related to failures in character: greed, betrayal, morality. If you're interested in trying it, start with Ray Chandler. His British upbringing shows in his use of language, which might be more comfortable for someone who's reading "ear" is tuned to Sherlock Holmes. From there, the transition to other noir might be easier. I do hope you give it a try!

~Sia McKye~ said...

FABULOUS topic, Kat!

Ah...Casablanca. I love the movie The Maltese Falcon.

I didn't like all of Micky Spillane's books but I loved Mike Hammer even before it was made into a series. I did read Hammett and Chandler.

I like good detective stories bent on justice although there is something rather appealing to the British detectives with there cerebral puzzles. :-)

~Sia McKye~ said...

MICHAEL Chicago has such great atmosphere for a noir story and I love the 40's. Sounds like a good one.

~Sia McKye~ said...

KAT now I'm curious. How would you classify Robert B Parker's books with Spencer?

Kat Sheridan said...

Sia, for me, Spencer falls squarely in the "hard-boiled detective" genre, which, while it often overlaps with noir, is different. The difference is in the ability to maintain relationships. Spencer has Susan and Hawk. At the end of the books, he's likely to have a drink wtih friends to celebrate.

In a noir, the protagonist is much more alone. Marlowe is more likely to pull a bottle out of his desk drawer and drink alone. Noir has much more of an air of melancholy, whereas Spencer is more mentally healthy and has friends. Spencer is more straight-up moral, whereas a noir protagonist walks that fine line of moral ambiguity.

One example is that a noir protagonist might have a drink, or go to a speakeasy, at a time when alcohol was illegal. Spencer, I don't think, would do that. He's too upright and law abiding.

Both have lots of action, and both are tough guys with a strong internal compass, it's just that the hard-boiled detective tends to be attuned to legalities, while the noir hero's compass points to what he believes to be right, whether or not it's strictly legal.

Susan Brody said...

Kat: thank you for Noir in a Nutshell! I don't know much about the genre, but I know a lot more about it now than I did before I read your post! Do you know Garrison Keillor's satire, Guy Noir?

Su-sieee! Mac said...

I like to read mysteries, but I don't much care for them too "dark". Probably the mysteries I read that deal with the darkest tales are the Monk/Hester and Pitt/Charlotte series by Anne Perry.
The View from the Top of the Ladder

Kat Sheridan said...

Susan, Guy Noir is such a great character! That's the fun side of noir: it's so easily spoofed or parodied. Like I mention in the article, who can forget Carol Brunett's brilliant spoof of Gloria Swanson as Norma Desmond in Sunset Boulevard ("I'm ready for my close-up now, Mr. DeMille.")? I think anything that takes itself so seriously is ripe for fun!

Kat Sheridan said...

Su-sieee, I hadn't heard of those, but I looked up Monk/Hester and will have to add those to my reading list. Looks like they're set in the Victorian era, which is the era in which I write, so they'd probably be something I enjoy! Thank you for the recommendation!

cleemckenzie said...

Sam Spade always had my heart.

Kat Sheridan said...

BTW, Sia, Parker and Chandler have a connection. After Chandler died, his unfinished manuscript was completed by Parker, and Parker also wrote an authorized sequel to another Chandler novel.

Kat Sheridan said...

Cleemckenzie, he kinda had mine, too!