Posted by: Gary Niebuhr
For me, noir can be cut down to these essential elements: the character screws up and dies.
My benchmark book for noir was They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? by Horace McCoy, first published by Simon and Schuster in 1935. This is a perfect noir novel. It opens with a single page statement: The prisoner will rise. On the second page, chapter one begins: “I stood up. For a moment I saw Gloria again, sitting on the bench on the pier. The bullet had just struck her in the side of the head; the blood had not even started to flow. ”
There is no doubt about what kind of book we are reading. Opening punches to the gut are often the norm in noir writing, but sometimes they can be very insightful as well. For instance, James M. Cain (another rock star benchmark noir writer) chose to open The Postman Always Rings Twice (1934) with the revealing line, “They threw me off the hay truck about noon.”
Here are the characteristics I believe make a noir novel: the main character is either the perp, the suspect or the victim. Occasionally to be ironic, that character is also the detective (such as in The Killer Inside Me by Jim Thompson). The most used point of view is first so that these novels becomes confessions. The plot can be boiled down to the main character gets involved in something better left alone and then makes one decision that spirals his or her life into utter chaos. All of this is best seen in a dark urban landscape (which is how noir writing led to film noir which led back to noir being identified as a style–but that is another story).
Oh, yeah–then there is the weird sex.
And then the character dies.
Modern noir, post-noir, or neo-noir have all of the elements above with one exception: the character survives. One of the best examples of a ne0-noir hero is Jack Taylor, the Irish private detective in the novels by Ken Bruen. His near death experiences in the novels are pure trauma but he always manages to put himself together again (like the Scarecrow in the Wizard of Oz) and set out on another adventure in the next novel.
For my group, I suggest the early novels of Megan Abbott. I read Queenpin (2007), the novel that won the Edgar Award for Best Paperback Original. The basic plot of Queenpin is that a young unnamed narrator is pulled into collecting for the mob by Gloria Denton, a woman who has been doing this for twenty years because she follows a strict code of practice. Gloria tries to instill that discipline into her protege but it would not be a very interesting neo-noir novel if things went smoothly. Sex rears its ugly self, things do not go well, and decisions are made that are going to have fatal consequences.
Amongst all the other praise for Megan Abbott’s writing, the main thing about Queenpin is Abbott’s ability to nail the style of the classic noir writers like McCoy. This novel clips along at a deceptive pace because the style so minimizes the use of language yet displays so much in a small space, exactly the same reading experience as Horace McCoy’s writing.
The readers in the group had no difficulties asking why about a lot of elements in each of these books. Their own questions propelled the discussion and while some may never want to read about characters like this ever again, they had no problems talking about them long into the cold, dark night.