I’ve been meaning to write this post for a while, but recently was prompted yet again to get it in writing, by another well-meaning but inaccurate post that casually mixed noir with hard-boiled.
The two sub-sub-genres of the mystery-thriller-suspense categories in fiction are not actually interchangeable, although they do often intersect.
Wikipedia defines Noir fiction as:
“…the protagonist is not a detective, but instead either a victim, a suspect, or a perpetrator. Other common characteristics include a self-destructive protagonist.”
I have to disagree with one splinter of this definition; Noir fiction can have detectives as the protagonist.
One of the perfect examples of this is The Maltese Falcon, by Dashiell Hammett–arguably one of the original noir novels.
(Given Sam Spade’s wise-crack comebacks, I do wonder if George Lucas named Han Solo’s ship the Millennium Falcon as an homage to this novel.)
No one in this novel wins anything. No one is a victor. And no one has any sterling qualities, including the protagonist, Sam Spade.
At a noir thriller panel I attended recently, the panelists described noir as “losers losing.”
I love that definition.
Sam Spade and his cast of seedy characters fits right in there.
Also, just about any psychological thriller that Ewan McGregor has appeared in is noir to its toes. None of his characters end up happy.
Hard-boiled has a major difference to noir.
“The genre’s typical protagonist is a detective who witnesses the violence of organized crime that flourished during Prohibition (1920–1933) and its aftermath, while dealing with a legal system that has become as corrupt as the organized crime itself. Rendered cynical by this cycle of violence, the detectives of hardboiled [sic] fiction are often antiheroes.”
Hard-boiled fiction came to the fore in the classic pulp era, but it is still alive and kicking today–more than ever.
And it does not necessarily feature a detective working during the Prohibition.
In fact, one of the classic hard-boiled characters who is not a detective is Rick Blain, from Casablanca.
That word-weary cynicism of Rick’s is a key marker of a hard-boiled character, especially if during the process of the story, he is kicked around by the system and authorities.
A difference between a hard-boiled hero and a noir hero is that the hard-boiled hero can win despite the odds. He maybe bitter, cynical, mistrusting and inclined to break rules, but he can also be a good guy who makes the right decision in the end.
If he does not, if he loses, then you’re standing upon the intersection of noir and hard-boiled.
So, Sam Spade is both a hard-boiled character and a noir character.
There is a lot of detective fiction that features cynical, world-weary characters. Their intentions, though, separate the noir from the hard-boiled.
There is also a lot of fiction that is not detective mysteries that can also be categorized as noir or hard-boiled.
There is an excellent 1999 essay by Eddie Duggan, “Writing in the Darkness: The World of Cornell Woolrich”, from Crimetime, that breaks down the differences perfectly:
The main difference between the “classic” hard-boiled writers and the “noir writers”–although James M. Cain has a foot in each camp–can probably be characterised by two tendencies: a tendency in hard-boiled writing to point a backdrop of institutionalized social corruption; and a tendency in noir writing to focus on personal psychology, whether it is despair, paranoia or some other psychological crisis. The two schools–if we can call these tendencies “schools”–are by no means mutually exclusive: hard boiled writing can display elements of noir, and noir writing can be hard-boiled.
I am not a fan of noir fiction, but I do enjoy a good hard-boiled tale.