Nothing Negligible about the Noir

It’s Linda today, reviewing a unique mystery sub-genre: the noir.

The noir isn’t for everyone—it can be, as the name suggests, dark.  It can be gritty and bleak, with tough characters that may not be likable.  The mood and atmosphere?  Also dark.  Generally, the criminal is the central focus and the reader follows him/her into a world that can prove as jarring as it is unpleasant.  If you love happy endings, the noir is not for you.

The protagonist is a dropout from society, someone who doesn’t fit the norm (it was usually a he, but times have changed, so she is quite doable).  Other characters won’t care much for this individual, who will probably appear more a loser than anything else.  He/she would likely have an issue or two, not be very trusting or sociable—a loner, in essence.

Moreover, the protagonist isn’t a hero, but what they call an anti-hero.  What drives him/her?  Retribution.  Selfishness.  Avarice.  A grudge.  Often, he/she will try to find resolution via an alcohol-filled glass or at the end of a revolver.  To keep readers interested—and hoping that something good might transpire—add scenes/dialogue that will maintain that hope . . . until the end . . . when the ultimate [and tragic] downfall takes place.

There’s usually a sexual component—where another character may serve as the reason/motivation the protagonist goes so wrong.  It’s not typically love, but lust.  And lust can equal ruin.

The protagonist doesn’t have to be a P.I. or cop, but given the noir is a mystery, there should be a one!  Traditional noirs tend to open with a murder, but times change and so can the beginning.  But murder does make for a good mystery, regardless of the sub-genre, doesn’t it?

Dialogue tends to be abrupt/curt, quick and brisk.  It’s simple and straightforward and moves the storyline along.  Think about those 40s’ noir films, like one of our boss’ favorite, The Maltese Falcon.  Bogart’s character, Sam Spade, tells Cairo, Peter Lorre: when you’re slapped, you’ll take it and like it.  Short and sweet … and rather testy if not threatening, n’est-ce pas?

Dialogue should help paint a picture of what’s happening—let us “see” and “feel” that stale, musty dive, burned-out garage, bullet-riddled room.  Similes (comparing two things) and metaphors (words or phrases compared to objects or concepts) tend to abound.

Noir, film or book, often tells the story with first-person narrative.  As the writer, however, you don’t have to; go with your gut.  However, the one component of writing in first person is that you pull the reader into the protagonist’s head.  Then you can play around—have the reader wonder if what is being narrated is indeed factual.  Maybe the protagonist is leaning toward the demented or confused, and is sharing facts strictly as he/she views them . . .  or wishes to view them.

Setting is often the big bad city, but dark and dismal things happen in the country and oceanside, too.  Pick a place for your location . . . the paint it with thick, twisted and ethereal strokes.

Violence is important to the noir—a left hook results in a black eye, a Luger knocks out a character (or a tooth or two), a serrated knife ends a life.  The protagonist gets beaten up.  Badly.  You don’t have to get gory or overly detailed, but you do have to convey it in a way that it disturbs readers, makes us wince . . . and maybe sparks that aforementioned hope that something decent will happen as a result.

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Definitely, there’s nothing negligible about the noir.  And if you haven’t yet stepped into the world of noir, try these three: Raymond Chandler, James Ellroy, and Dashiell Hammett.  They’re not the masters of noir for nothing.