Dark and, at times, amusing fiction from award-winning author Dave Zeltserman

Tuesday, March 4, 2014

On Writing Noir


I was a member of a noir fiction discussion group for years where every six months or so we’d debate what constitutes noir fiction. If you search on the Internet for definitions of noir you’ll find at least a dozen contrasting ones. So I need to first define noir, at least my view of it, before I can talk about how to write it. The best definition that I’ve come across (that best fits my own view of noir) comes from Otto Penzler, which was originally published in his THE BEST AMERICAN NOIR OF THE CENTURY:

"Noir is about losers. The characters in these existential, nihilistic tales are doomed. They may not die, but they probably should, as the life that awaits them is certain to be so ugly, so lost and lonely, that they'd be better off just curling up and getting it over with. And, let's face it, they deserve it.

"Pretty much everyone in a noir story (or film) is driven by greed, lust, jealousy or alienation, a path that inevitably sucks them into a downward spiral from which they cannot escape. They couldn't find the exit from their personal highway to hell if flashing neon lights pointed to a town named Hope. It is their own lack of morality that blindly drives them to ruin."

In noir, the hero is doomed, but he's doomed of his own making. Noir isn’t about tragedy, it’s not the fates conspiring against some poor luckless soul. Instead it’s about our hero sealing his own fate by crossing a line that can’t be uncrossed. And as with Penzler's definition, the doom isn't necessarily death; for example, it could be instead psychic disintegration, but however our hero is left at the end, he’s as good dead given what’s waiting for him. And noir cuts across classes. For some reason it has become in vogue among certain mystery writers to say noir “is a working class tragedy”. That’s wrong on both the tragedy level and the working class-level. There are many good examples of noir protagonists coming from the wealthy (HOW LIKE A GOD by Rex Stout, and many Cornell Woolrich novels), the more affluent middleclass (ANYONE’S MY NAME by Seymour Shubin, KILLER INSIDE ME by Jim Thompson),  middleclass (DOUBLE INDEMNITY by James M. Cain), criminal class (THE NAME OF THE GAME IS DEATH by Dan Marlowe), and every other possible class.


Psycho noir in literature is fiction that fits the noir definition, but also has the additional property that the noir protagonist’s perceptions and rationalizations are just off center enough to send him to hell. Jim Thompson wrote psycho noir better than anyone, and some of his best include HELL OF A WOMAN, KILLER INSIDE ME, A SWELL-LOOKING BABE and POP. 1280. Most psycho noir novels use an unreliable narrator which I’ll talk about later.


Noir erotica or noirotica is another specific type of noir fiction which was pioneered by Top Suspense Group’s own Vicki Hendricks. Before Vicki’s groundbreaking 1995 novel, MIAMI PURITY, women in noir novels were mostly either femme fatales who lured the noir protagonist to his doom (or in some case, falling into the abyss with him), innocents who serve as a counterpoint to the femme fatales, or victims. MIAMI PURITY changed all that by having the noir protagonist as a woman. Lust and sex have played a role in many noir novels, but MIAMI PURITY raised the ante dramatically with its graphic sexual explicitness and showing more kinkiness than you’d find in any ten Dan Marlowe novels! And of course, the sex and lust is shown from a woman’s perspective. Vicki’s noir novels opened the door for other women noir writers, notably Megan Abbott and Christa Faust, but Vicki was the first, and in my mind, the best.


If you write noir today, your books are going to be called neo-noir. So what is neo-noir? This is a term that came about to describe modern film noir; films that are more self-consciously noir and employ more modern themes. As far as noir literature goes, there’s no difference between noir and neo-noir other than you get to look cooler by calling your writing ‘neo-noir’.


So now that we have our definition of noir, the question you need to ask yourself is why do you want to write noir given that many of the great noir writers like Jim Thompson, David Goodis, Gil Brewer and Dan Marlowe all died broke. Most readers out there do not want to read true noir. They might be willing to accept something that has a noirish feel, but they still want a happy ending, or at least an ending with hope, and there’s no hope in noir.  So knowing that there’s a limited readership for noir, that many mystery readers who stumble on your book are going to be appalled by it, and that you’re behind the eight ball before you even start looking for a publisher, why write noir?

I’ll give my answer by explaining why I love to read noir. The best noir can be a far more exhilarating experience than you can find reading almost any other kind of mystery or crime fiction, and the reason for this is it can expose truths about the human condition that other genre fiction barely hints at. There’s a resonance in the best noir fiction that’s almost impossible to find elsewhere in genre fiction.


Here’s a simple formula you can use for plotting your next noir novel:

Have your noir protagonist cross a moral line where there’s no turning back from. This might be committing a murder, robbery, betrayal, cowardice or anything else that you can think of which will ultimately doom your noir hero.

Keep putting your hero in increasingly more dire situations that he is barely able to escape from, and repeat this until the tension becomes unbearable.

Give your noir hero a thin ray of hope of escaping his situation. The hope might be real or might be a mirage or might be only a feverish delusion on the part of your hero, but to him it’s very real.

Just as it looks like he might escape his doom, pull the rug out from under your noir hero’s feet and send him tumbling into the abyss.

The above formula describes most (if not all) of the noir books I’ve read. In some books, the noir hero has already crossed that moral line before the book ever starts. In others, he’s born broken and also has no hope from the beginning. But in one way or another, this formula tends to hold.


So who is the noir protagonist? Are there any specific traits they have in common? The answer: our noir heroes can be anyone, and the only thing they have in common is that they’re doomed of their own making. Here are some examples of noir protagonists taken from classic noir novels.

A middle-class insurance salesman. An everyman, whose major character flaw is he thinks he’s smarter than he really is. This is  Walter Huff from James M. Cain’s DOUBLE INDEMNITY. What lures him to his doom is ostensibly lust and money, but it’s really the challenge of getting away with the crime and outsmarting those around him.

A deputy in a small Texas town, where his father was the town doctor. The deputy is highly intelligent and has an upper middleclass existence thanks to the inheritance from his dad. He suffered a traumatic sexual experience as a teenager due to his father’s overreaction to it, and that has created a sickness in him. This is Lou Ford from Jim Thompson’s A KILLER INSIDE ME, and he’s an example of a character who’s been broken before the novel begins.

A down-and-out door-to-door salesman who’s got a million excuses for why things have never worked, and why he’s been stuck with an endless series of tramps. This is Frank “Dolly” Dillon from Jim Thompson’s HELL OF A WOMAN, and what lures him is lust and money, but even more, a desperation to finally be a success. This is one of Thompson’s best psycho noir novels.

A bellboy who had been a college student set on medical school, but had to put his plans on hold due to his father losing his job as a college professor. This is Bill “Dusty” Rhodes from Jim Thompson’s A SWELL-LOOKING BABE. This is yet another psycho noir novel from Thompson where the Rhodes ended up broken somewhere as a child, and what ultimately does him in is an unnatural sexual obsession with his adopted mother.

A hardened and vicious bank robber who loves dogs and is out for vengeance. This is Chet Arnold (later Earl Drake) from Dan Marlowe’s THE NAME OF THE GAME IS DEATH

A well-to-do young man working as a stock broker and engaged to a beautiful young woman. This is Prescott Marshall from Cornell Woolrich’s FRIGHT.

A guy who owns a small TV shop. This is Jack Ruxton from Gil Brewer’s THE VENGEFUL VIRGIN. What lures Ruxton to his noir fate is lust and money, particularly money.

A young, college-educated writer for true crime magazines, and married to a beautiful, idealistic woman. This is Paul Weiler from Seymour Shubin’s ANYONE’S MY NAME. What lures Weiler is sex with a woman he doesn’t find particularly attractive, and what ultimately dooms him is his fear of exposure.

A used car salesman turned filmmaker. This is Richard Hudson from Charles Willeford’s THE WOMAN CHASER, and what sends Hudson tumbling into the abyss is a mixture of hubris and being unwilling to compromise on his artistic vision.

As you can see from my small sampling is that anyone can be a noir protagonist. A hardened criminal, a down-and-out loser, a lawman, a typical middleclass everyman, a young man of wealth and potential. In the noir universe, everyone if fallible. Everyone under the right circumstance can be seduced into crossing that line where there’s no coming back from.

In psycho noir, it’s a little different. There the noir protagonist is broken with no hope before the novel begins. Usually (but not always as with Lou Ford in KILLER INSIDE ME) they’re self-delusional, needing badly to believe they’re not as fucked up as they are.


Most noir novels are written in the first person. Being stuck in the head of a noir protagonist creates a claustrophobic effect that lends itself to noir. First person writing creates more of an intimacy with the reader, which can make the hell the character tumbles into all that more horrifying. But it is not an absolute. There have been great noir novels written in the third person such as Woolrich’s FRIGHT, Thompson’s A SWELL-LOOKING BABE, THE GETAWAY and THE GRIFTERS, to name just a few. Rex Stout even wrote a brilliant noir novel in the second person, HOW LIKE A GOD.


The unreliable narrator works well with psycho noir, but only if the noir protagonist is lying as much to himself as he is to the reader, otherwise it’s a cheat and will lead to an unsatisfactory read. There has to be a reason why the narrator is unreliable—a defect in his personality, or possibly he’s so self–delusional that he’s incapable of recognizing the truth, or it could be that he desperately needs to fool himself or any other number of reasons. The unreliable narrator can also be very subtle in his unreliability, and one book that uses this to great advantage is SAVAGE NIGHT by Jim Thompson. The narrator in that novel is mostly relaying to the reader the unvarnished truth, but there is one lie that he desperately needs to hold onto so he can believe that there’s a hint of decency inside of him, and when the truth is exposed the effect to the reader is devastating.


A technique used in several of my favorite noir novels is to have a tormentor—someone who either suspects or knows what our noir hero has done, but instead of coming right out and accusing him, instead only drops hints about it, leaving our noir hero to stew over how much the person knows. A variant of this is having someone close to our noir hero—such as a wife—who has suspicions and is dropping hints not because they’re trying to torment our hero, but because they’re legitimately worried. And then there’s the accidental tormentor—someone who doesn’t suspect our noir hero is involved in the crime at the center of the book, but is still able to torment our hero by asking innocents questions about it.


Here’s an exercise to try. Pick any Ross Macdonald Lew Archer novel, read it, and think of how it could be rewritten from the guilty party’s perspective as a noir novel.


I’m including below a reading list to help expose you to a ten excellent examples of noir fiction.






DIRTY SNOW by George Simenon

FRIGHT by Cornell Woolrich


ANYONE’S MY NAME by Seymour Shubin

MIAMI PURITY by Vicki Hendricks

ROBBIE’S WIFE by Russell Hill

About Dave Zeltserman. Dave’s crime noir thriller, SMALL CRIMES, made NPR’s and Washington Post’s best books of the year list. The Washington Post said of Dave’s crime noir novel, PARIAH: “If there's any other young writer out there who does crime noir better than Zeltserman, I don't even want to know.” After publishing 7 crime noir novels, Dave has decided he wants to make some money with his writing and his now writing mystery and horror fiction, although usually with a nourish sentiment.


TravisRossAuthor said...

Love the post. I think you nailed what genre my writing belongs it and that's great! Perhaps you can give me guidance. While striving for the noir tone, I'd also like to write thematically deeper stories. Do you have any reading recommendations that might be classified as "literary noir"?

Chris said...

Hi Dave, wonder if we could dig a little deeper into the moral choice of the noir protagonist? You write: "Have your noir protagonist cross a moral line where there’s no turning back from."

Mamet says drama has to be a choice between two wrongs, two evils. Does this apply for noir? I am thinking of, say, Detour, where the choice is either take on the dead Haskell's identity or go to jail for murder (That's how he narrator defines the choices, anyway). Not sure if going to jail is a choice. More a consequence of Haskell's unexplained death. In Postman Rings the choice is between murder to get the girl and restaurant or lose the girl. That doesn't seem to be two wrongs either, does it? Losing that girl would have been a good thing for the narrator. Would do you think?

Dave Zeltserman said...

Chris, Detour is great film noir, but it shows where film noir differs from literary noir, at least according to how I (and others) have defined it. For this to be literary noir (using my definition), Al would've had to make the choice to murder Haskel so he could assume his identity and steal his money, instead of himself finding himself stuck because of bad luck.

Chris said...

Dave, interesting. Thanks for the input. So what you're saying (I think) is the literary noir protagonist cannot be passive and allow things to happen to him. Only the film noir protagonist can? Maybe Detour isn't a great example for discussion. I did enjoy the novel though, and he was pretty passive in that.

Unknown said...

Would you consider it something other than noir if the protagonist were a good man? For example; my main character is just, loyal, basically honest, and dedicating his life to helping others, only to be thrust into a situation where there is no right choice and whatever decision he makes will eventually lead to a miserable life but he doesn't know that. In the end he chooses selfishly, betrays his values in a way that actually harms no one but it still a selfish choice, then has a short time of happiness only to have his choice trigger the antagonist to bring his life crashing down and the protagonist loses everything important to him.
I ask because my premise is for a series of books with this protagonist, and making him irredeemable would make that unlikely. He needs to be someone the readers sympathize with. I want them to want to see him recover from what happens in the first book, and come back to see if he has better luck or makes better choices in the next novel.
So, would that still be considered neo-noir or shoud I give up on that genre and just say I'm writing a thriller with a very unhappy ending?

Dave Zeltserman said...

Toy put a 100 writers together and you'll get a 100 different definitions of noir. My definition fits the classic noir novels as written by Jim Thompson and James M. Cain, but if you want your noir protagonist to claw himself back from the abyss, go for it!