Noir novels are usually dark and filled with violence, sex, and disturbing themes while also including the traditional elements of a detective story. These stories often feature initially unlikeable characters whose dark pasts help readers understand them better and horrifying crimes that a detective or police officer has to solve.
Explore Noir Fiction
Definition of Noir
Noir fiction is dark, thrilling, and morally ambiguous. It features twisting and complex plotlines that often favor the antagonists and set what’s “right” or “good” to the side. When writing about the genre, famous noir writer James Ellroy stated:
The thrill of noir is the rush of moral forfeit and the abandonment to titillation. The social importance of noir is its grounding in the big themes of race, class, gender, and systemic corruption. The overarching and lasting appeal of noir is that it makes doom fun.
Here he gets at the heart of the genre and the public’s enjoyment of it. The author gives readers permission to enjoy reading about an anti-hero’s corruption or their darkest tendencies.
Origins of Noir Fiction
In the United States, the genre developed within the work of James M. Cain and Cornell Woolrich. The latter was born in New York City and published numerous novels in the detective crime genre, several of which include “black” in the title. These included The Bride Wore Black.
James M. Cain published novels like The Postman Always Rings Twice and Double Indemnity that became classics of the noir mystery fiction genre during his lifetime. Cain passed away in 1977 and is today considered to be a leader in both the hardboiled and noir crime genres.
Other authors who contributed to the genre’s development include:
- Elliot Chaze
- Jim Thompson
- Horace McCoy
- David Goodis
- Harry Whittington
Examples of Noir Fiction
The Postman Always Rings Twice by James M. Cain
The Postman Always Rings Twice is an American novel published in 1934 and is considered to be one of the early examples of crime noir fiction. Upon its publication, it immediately earned a notorious reputation for its new mix of sexuality and violence.
The story is narrated by Frank Chambers, a drifter who works at a California diner where he meets Cora. The two plot and decide to kill Cora’s husband—Nick, who she wants to get away from. Here is a quote:
I got him up, and laid him over the edge of the tub, and then got out myself, and dragged him in the bedroom and laid him on the bed. She came up, then, and we found matches, and got a candle lit. Then we went to work on him. I packed his head in wet towels, while she rubbed his wrists and feet.
Today, the novel is considered to be one of the most important crime fiction books of the 20th century.
American Tabloid by James Ellroy
American Tabloid by James Ellroy is a 1995 novel that follows three corrupt law enforcement officers who get caught up with federal law enforcement and the Mafia. Here is a quote:
America was never innocent. We popped our cherry on the boat over and looked back with no regrets. You can’t ascribe our fall from grace to any single event or set of circumstances. You can’t lose what you lacked at conception.
The Bride Wore Black by Cornell Woolrich
The Bride Wore Black by Cornell Woolrich was published in 1940 and later adapted into a film in 1968. The book follows Julie, a woman who leaves her life behind and begins a new life under an assumed name. Over the next two years, she seduces, traps, and uses whatever men she has at her disposal to kill random men in her life. Here’s a quote:
The lights of the city streaked off below him like the luminous spokes of a warped wheel. An indistinctly outlined, pearly moon seemed to drip down the sky, like a clot of incandescent tapioca thrown up against the night by a cosmic comic.
A police detective follows her crimes and is amazed at her clever use of disguises and ploys. He determines to catch her at all costs. It turns out that the men she’s been killing, she believed, were responsible for the death of her new husband.
In literature, the term “noir” refers to a novel that has distinctly dark themes and does not shy away from images of sex and violence. The term is usually paired with the classic elements of detective fiction.
Noir stories are famously twisting and complicated. The characters you may have thought were villains at first turn out to be the heroes and vice versa. The protagonist may go through a long period of transformation or come to a convoluted revelation about their past.
Related Literary Terms
- Detective Story: a sub-genre of fiction that follows an investigator as they try to track down a criminal, solve a crime, or prevent one from happening.
- Thriller: a genre of fiction that is defined by its wide variety of sub-genres. They range from crime to science fiction.
- Anti-hero: a character who is characterized by contrasting traits. This person has some of the traits of a hero and of a villain.
- Dark Romanticism: a subgenre of the important literary movement— Romanticism. It includes works of a more grotesque nature.
- Poetic Justice: when a writer punishes an evil character or rewards a good character creating a satisfying conclusion.