For the past seventy years or so, noir has been an important part of the world of crime fiction. Today it’s considered a significant sub-genre; a quick glance at blogs, online and traditional literary magazines and of course, new crime fiction titles is all it takes to see that noir is a force to be reckoned with in the genre. Noir fiction is by its nature bleak and sometimes very depressing. And noir deals with the ugly, the dirty and the unpleasant. So why do we read it? What is it about noir that appeals to readers? Of course, we choose what to read for a whole constellation of reasons. But here’s my thinking about what makes noir a part of so many people’s reading diets.
As I mentioned, noir is dirty and gritty and sometimes unpleasant. It turns over rocks and takes a look at what’s under them. And that’s just what some people like about it. Because it’s unflinching, noir addresses issues that aren’t as easy to address in other sub-genres. For example, Jim Thompson’s The Killer Inside Me is the story of Central City, Texas deputy sheriff Lou Ford. Ford is well-enough liked, although no-one would exactly call him scintillating. But Ford is carrying a dark secret which comes out slowly as the novel moves on. First, local prostitute Joyce Lakeland is brutally beaten. Then there’s a murder. As we follow along in this investigation, we find out that Ford is not the nice, if a bit dull, guy that everyone thought he was. In fact, he himself refers to this as ‘the sickness.’ So on that level Thompson takes an unflinching look at mental illness. This novel also explores prostitution and domestic violence as well as the ugly reality of the effect of violence and murder on a small town. The story takes up difficult and challenging issues.
So does Roger Smith’s Dust Devils. Former journalist Robert Dell, his wife Rosie and their two children are taking a drive one afternoon when their car is ambushed not far from Cape Town and sent over an embankment. Dell survives but the other members of his family are killed. Soon he’s accused of the murder and imprisoned. He’s been framed, but at first he doesn’t know why or by whom. His father Bobby Goodbread engineers his escape and together the two go in search of the person who killed Dell’s wife and children and framed him. This novel addresses several difficult but very real issues that would be hard to treat honestly in another kind of novel. For instance, one of the themes in the story is the reality of race relations in modern South Africa. That’s a complex and sometimes unpleasant topic. So are corruption and nepotism, which are also treated in this novel.
In Gene Kerrigan’s The Rage, Dublin police detective Bob Tidey is part of the team that’s investigating the murder of Emmet Sweetman, a crooked banker who made a fortune during the ‘Celtic Tiger’ years. At the same time, Vincent Naylor, a young thug who’s recently gotten out of prison, is planning his own master stroke – an armoured car robbery. Drawn into both of these cases is Maura Cody, a former nun who has her own history. As Kerrigan tells the story of these three people, he also explores some unpleasant issues that it would be hard to do justice to without some grit. In the story behind Emmet Sweetman’s murder we see how greed and poor planning played roles in the Irish financial collapse of 2008 and how that collapse started a chain reaction of real misery. In the story of Maura Cody we learn of the wrenching horror of some of the abuses some Irish priests and nuns committed. This too is an ugly issue that would be hard to address in a different kind of novel.
But it’s not just the fact that noir explores difficult issues that makes it appealing. It does so in an honest way – no sugarcoating or glossing over the truth. And that realism resonates with a lot of readers. For example, Megan Abbott’s Die a Little is the story of Pasadena schoolteacher Lora King. She is devoted to her brother Bill, so she is quite concerned when he marries Alice Steele, a former Hollywood dressmaker’s assistant. For Bill’s sake Lora tries to get along with her new sister-in-law but bit by bit she discovers some unsettling things about Alice. The more she learns, the more Lora has to face the fact that at the same time as she’s repulsed by Alice’s seamy world, she’s also drawn to it. Then there’s a murder. Lora wants to find out just how involved Alice may have been in this killing so, telling herself she’s doing so to protect her brother, she begins to ask questions. As she slowly finds out the truth, readers get a very realistic picture of 1950’s Hollywood. Underneath the glitter there really was a lot of abuse, corruption and other ugliness and Abbott doesn’t gloss over that. Nor does she make light of what can happen when one person becomes obsessed with another person.
The tragedy of the Pol Pot regime in Cambodia cannot be overstated. Andrew Nette takes a very realistic look at the devastation left behind in Ghost Money. Madeline Avery hires Australian former cop Max Quinlan to find her brother Charles. His last known address is in Bangkok so Quinlan starts there. When he arrives he finds the body of Avery’s business partner Robert Lee. He also finds evidence that Lee has fled to Cambodia. So Quinlan’s next stop is Phnom Penh. There, he learns that Avery may have been involved in some shady business deals and could have made some very nasty people angry. As Quinlan traces Avery to northern Cambodia, he discovers the brutal reality of life in Cambodia. War, mistrust, greed, corruption and prejudice have all taken heavy tolls and Nette doesn’t sugarcoat any of it. But (and this is just my opinion, so feel free to differ with me if you do), not to be realistic about these issues would mean not doing them justice.
That sense of authenticity adds a layer of suspense to Karin Alvtegen’s work as well. In Betrayal, she looks at the ugly reality of lies. Eva Wirenström-Berg and her husband Henrik have been happy enough until Eva discovers that her husband has been unfaithful. Blaming him entirely for their marital problems, she makes a fateful choice that doesn’t seem like a problem at first. Then she finds out who Henrik’s lover is. That prompts Eva to a course of action that also has a tragic consequence. As things begin to spin out of control, Alvtegen shows us honestly what happens to a marriage when the people in it lie to each other and to themselves.
Noir is unvarnished, gritty and sometimes really ugly. But it looks at important issues that are hard to address in any other way. And it does so in an honest way. I know I haven’t mentioned all of the noir greats, but they’ve added to the genre. What do you think? Do you read noir? Why? What’s its appeal for you? If you write noir, what draws you to it?
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Avril Lavigne’s I’m With You.