Crime Writing — Do You Like Yours Hardboiled or Noir?

“Your crime writing is dark. Very dark. Do you consider it noir? Hardboiled? How do you slot your sub-genre?”

A podcaster recently put this to me. I was stumped. I knew my stuff was tragic and gore, but I had no strong concept of what noir and hardboiled really were—although I’d heard the terms many times. I thought they were just for the marketing department, but I made it my mission to find out.

What’s old is new again, hardboiled and noir. That certainly seems the case in resurrecting old crime story classics. Look at the resurgence of Agatha Christie. Netflix writers now idolize Elmore Leonard as the dialogue man. Say the names Raymond Chandler, Dashiell Hammett, or Mickey Spillane, and you’ll find an old-style legion of fans ready to tear this book house down.

Women aren’t excluded from the Hardboiled &Noir Club. No, ma’am. Besides Dame Agatha (I kneel before her), there are Dorothy Sayers, Dorothy B. Hughes, Patricia Highsmith, and (still going) Sara Paretsky. In their footsteps today, we have Megan Abbott, Val McDermid, and the intriguing hardboiled/noir writer Christa Faust.

So what’s the difference between noir and hardboiled, if there is any? From what I’ve just read, I’d say hardboiled is dark and noir is much darker. Noir is the French word for black. The term “noir” is somewhat more recognized in film, where hardboiled (hard-boiled) is common to print.

Either way, each term has its tropes and sub-genre idiosyncrasies. At its core, noir is dark and grim. Noir is urban gothic—hopeless. Hardboiled is gritty and unsentimental. Hardboiled is more like an action movie with a character-driven plot where the protagonist triumphs as best as they can.

Megan Abbot is one smart lady. She’s considered one of today’s masters in noir and hardboiled. I read a fascinating interview with Ms. Abbott where she defined “hardboiled” vs “noir” crime fiction. Here’s her quote:

Hardboiled is distinct from noir, though they’re often used interchangeably. The common argument is that hardboiled novels are an extension of the wild west and pioneer narratives of the 19th century. The wilderness becomes the city, and the hero is somewhat of a fallen character, a detective or a cop. At the end, everything is a mess, people have died, but the hero has done the right thing, or close to it, and order, to a certain extent, has been restored. ‘Law and Order’ is a good example of modern hardboiled.

Noir is different. In noir, everyone is fallen, and right and wrong are not clearly defined and maybe not even attainable. In that sense, noir speaks to us powerfully right now when certain structures of authority no longer make sense. We wonder, ‘Why should we abide by them?’ Noir thrived in the 40s after the Great Depression and during the war. It was popular during Vietnam and Watergate and is on the rebound again. ‘Breaking Bad’ is a good noir example.

It’s hard to sum-up noir and hardboiled better than this. Maybe another quote adds to clearing the smoke-filled alleys. The protagonist in noir must himself (herself) be part of the scummy world. The protagonist in hardboiled is a white knight in a world of scum.

Historically, hardboiled crime writing set itself on the perpetually-rainy, mean streets of American cities that were darkened by something more than night. Conventional tropes were the loner detective with a fedora and trench coat whose oak-desked, ceiling-fanned office operated in the low rent district. He looked out on the city of danger through Venetian blinds, chain-smoked, and was never far from a bottle of Scotch. The rebel gumshoe with a moral code spoke in nuanced dialogue saying “dames” for women, “gams” for legs, and “gat” for his gun.

Noir, on the other hand, sees little good in the world. Basically, everything and everyone is F’d. Noir crime writing examines psychological instability in people and their institutions. Being dangerously unstable is the key characteristic of noir protagonists. It might be a key characteristic of successful noir writers, too.

Examining noir and hardboiled isn’t complete without looking at these sub-genre’s origins. This isn’t a chicken-or-egg thing. It’s generally accepted that hardboiled came first and expanded into noir. Some may argue differently, and that’s what the comment section is for.

A hundred years ago, Brits were the kings and queens of crime fiction. Edgar Allen Poe paved the way for Agatha Christie and Arthur Conan Doyle to refine the cozy mystery genre. Here, scenes took place in confined trains and enclosed mansion libraries where the sleuth deducted the facts and announced the villain.

Americans, being the troublesome colonists they’ve always been, rebelled against criminally-correct plots and characters. America was shaped by an unregulated frontier that found its way to the roaring speakeasies of Chicago and the cold, cold heart of the Big Apple. Naturally, the North American public wanted a new brand of perpetrator and a hardboiled crime-fighter to match.

A Pinkerton detective shaped the hardboiled crime fiction world in the 1920s. Dashiell Hammett’s protagonist, Continental Operative, fought crime in the streets without sentimental emotion or official sanction. In 1923, Hammett teamed with a pulp magazine called Black Mask. This opened the door for hardboiled-cum-noir greats like Raymond Chandler with his Philip Marlowe character and Mickey Spillane with Mike Hammer.

Today, we have unique twenty-first-century hardboiled writers and characters. Michael Connelly has done well with Harry Bosch, to say the least. So has Lee Child with Jack Reacher.

And there’s a new girl on the block who writes about as dark and action-packed as you can get. Christa Faust has the chops to make her hardboiled noir, and she’s got the creds. Christa grew up riding subways and walking New York streets. She worked Times Square peep shows and practiced as a professional dominatrix. Now, Christa Faust is published by Hard Case Crime.

Yes, what’s old is new again. Hardboiled and noir are alive and well in crime writing city. That’s a good thing. And to answer the podcaster’s question, “How do you slot your sub-genre? Hardboiled or noir?” I have to say poached on the soft-runny side with a slice of dry, whole wheat toast. I’m an optimistic sort with a healthy infection of unorthodox attitude, and I’m not a psycho noir-person.

What about you Kill Zoners? Do you like your crime writing hardboiled or noir?

——

Garry Rodgers is a retired cop and coroner. Now, he’s an indie crime writer whose personal experiences with the light and dark side of life find their way into the pages of his books. Garry is about to release the seventh publication in his twelve-part, based-on-true-crime series. Watch for Beyond The Limits on ePlatforms this month.

Garry Rodgers lives on Vancouver Island at the Canadian west coast. He hosts a popular blog at DyingWords.net and occasionally checks his Twitter account @GarryRodgers1. Garry’s Amazon Author Page is open 24/7 as well.

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34 thoughts on “Crime Writing — Do You Like Yours Hardboiled or Noir?

  1. Thanks for a terrific post on one of my favorite subjects, Garry. To answer your question: I want it darker.

  2. Good essay, Garry. With some overlap, here’s my view: Both hardboiled and noir grew out of crime fiction, which itself grew out of the popular mystery genre of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Crime fiction was an American innovation, and took off during the pulp era. The settings were not country villages a la Christie, but the dark city and the criminal element therein. The hardboiled hero (e.g., Marlowe) was thus a subgenre of crime fiction. Noir also became a subgenre, often featuring a “regular guy” who gets dragged into the dark world through chance (e.g., wrong place, wrong time), a questionable moral choice (“Maybe I can get away with this just once, to help me support my expectant wife.”), or by a femme fatale (e.g., Frank Chambers in The Postman Always Rings Twice).

    Classic noir does have a moral universe–right and wrong are clearly defined, which is what makes the hero’s choices consequential. Indeed, that’s the whole point. You make one “wrong” decision here and the forces of the noir universe will come down on you. Sin does not go unpunished. The only question is whether the sinner will be redeemed…given another chance (as in, for example, Side Street, starring Farley Granger); or not (as in Edgar G. Ulmer’s Detour). Thus everyone and everything is not, as you so delicately put it, F’d. There is a chance at redemption. The dark and hopeless type of noir (I call it abyss noir) is really another outgrowth, this time of postmodernism. I don’t dig postmodernism. That’s why my hardboiled series character, Mike Romeo, has Vincit Omnia Veritas tattooed on his forearm–Truth conquers all things. He’s definitely on a quest to prove that is so, because life would make no sense without it. Postmodernism, OTOH, has given up.

    • Great clarification on true noir, Jim. Thanks for this! I take it postmodernism is the darker side of noir where nothing good (ever) comes from the story. Is that what dystopian really is? As you can tell, I’m far from a genre expert.

  3. Fantastic post.

    I’m with Joe—I like my crime fiction the same way I like my beer and coffee—the darker it is, the more bitter it is, the more I like it. I don’t need gore but I crave darkness.

    I had not really thought of the idea of hard-boiled as the modern western gone urban but since I write westerns the thought appealed to me.

    Thank you again for passing the light over this subject.

    • Comment much appreciated, Douglas. When I read the western analogy, it clicked & made sense that the classic hardboiled detective was really a sheriff who shed his vest and put on a trench coat.

  4. Great post, Gary. With a wonderfully nuanced add-on from James. Side note: I’m currently enjoying his Romeo’s Rules. Though I love reading hard boiled, my In-the-works mystery is soft boiled.

  5. Garry, excellent analysis of HB and noir. Like Jim, I prefer HB where there’s hint of hope and redemption. Noir is nihilism. If everything is F’ed, why bother?

    A cynical friend used to say, “It’s always darkest before it goes pitch black.”

    • I like your cynical friend’s saying, Debbie. I asked a French speaking friend what the French definition of the noir genre was. She said “baise and putain”.

  6. Great post, Garry. Thanks for that explanation. And I’m with you, I’ll take mine poached, on the soft and runny side, sitting inside a slice of whole wheat bread with the center cut out (My mom called that “egg in a nest” when I was a kid). Life is so full of grappling hooks wanting to pull us out of the boat and under the water, I don’t need more darkness in my life. When I read for relaxation, I want good to triumph. I want light at the end of the tunnel. I want to know that there is a purpose for this existence, and a reward for fighting the good fight.

    • Thank you, Steve. That podcaster threw me a bit because I never considered myself in the hardboiled/noir camp – quite frankly because I didn’t know the rules. It made me do a bit of research which is a good thing. They say you learn something new every day.

      The ‘genre” I’m currently writing in is “based-on-true-crime” which seems to be self-concocted. I take actual cases I was involved in, or have significant knowledge about, and follow the investigation to its conclusion. “Justice” prevails in the end because the crook is caught. So I can’t see the books siding with the noir people, nor in the true hardboiled pot – so I guess they’re on the egg in a nest plate.

  7. Hey, Garry, just do what I do. When someone slaps a label on your books, just smile and agree. Everyone stays happy. 🙂
    No, seriously. Hardboiled and noir have so many different variants it’s a tough question to answer, isn’t it? Some people call my books horror, which stuns me. I’ve never considered myself a horror writer. Others call them hardboiled or noir, and I can see where they’d fit in those categories. I call them psychological thrillers or, to be more precise, serial killer thrillers. I might classify your police procedurals as hardboiled…sort of. Does that help? LOL

    • IMO, your two series are pure psychological thrillers, Sue. I don’t see them in horror – definitely not noir or on the hard side of boiled. But who knows how people rate books. Yeah, my current series is police procedural, through & through. There’s horror involved, for sure, because the horrible crimes are graphically described – some people might think they’re horrible books which would make me a horrible writer 🙂

  8. Awesome post! I love hardboiled and noir. I’m a big fan of Abbott and Faust, too. Faust published two books with Hard Case Crime which specializes in the genre. Thanks to Kindle (and eBay), I’ve read a ton of pulp classics in the genre, and I absolutely love the dark, gritty stories. I recommend people check out my hometown hero, David Goodis.

    I think my Catholic faith draws me to noir because it’s all about the negative consequences of mortal sin. The classic noir story features a MC tempted by money or sex or power who decides to step over the line. This step always ends badly, really badly. We had that wonderful TKZ post in 2020 about justice in crime fiction, well in noir the guilty are never relieved or evade justice, no matter how good their intentions were.

    • Nice to hear you found this piece interesting, Philip. It’s one that opens discussions which is great about being in the writing community. I like your analogy of mortal sin and stepping over the line. I’m not religious in the conventional sense, but I can see how many religious stories deal with that quandary. Good vs evil is the oldest story line out there.

  9. Great information, Garry. Thanks for clarifying the difference between HB and noir.

    My own writing is 3-minute poached, wheat toast on the side and a cup of Starbucks French Roast, thank you very much. I love writing cozies where the puzzle is the thing and the characters are puzzles in themselves. Leading the reader through the gently simmering labyrinth is fun and mildly uncomfortable.

    However, I’ve also been reading more hardboiled fiction in the past few years. My taste runs to the everyman hero like Phillip Marlowe. JSB’s Mike Romeo is also a favorite, though you would hardly call him an everyman.

    I have no interest in noir. The way you’ve described it, it sounds like giving up.

    Btw, the best poached eggs we’ve *ever* had were at a hotel in Vancouver. Can’t remember the name, but if we ever return to Vancouver, I hope we can find it again.

    • Thank you, Kay. I’m glad that JSB added to this conversation. I really respect and appreciate his views on this and writing in general. I’m with you about noir – far too much cholesterol in that genre for me. Restaurant in Vancouver for best poached eggs? Hmmm… lots to choose from in this city as long as you don’t get collaterally shot in a drive-by given the current gang war here.

  10. Thanks for a great post, Garry, and for all the comments. This is something I’ve wondered about.

    Alas, for me, I like my crime fiction waaayyyy left of HB. What I like best about crime fiction are the courtroom scenes, not the back alley scenes (although, I do understand those are essential…to know why I’m in the courtroom.)

    I also enjoy JSB’s crime/courtroom novels; and Kay’s cozies. I’m an eternal optimist, believing there is no one on planet earth, in this age or any age, who is irredeemable. And I want to see that at the end of the story. I don’t enjoy books or movies with such murky madness that I can’t identify the black hats and white hats. And my brain and heart can’t take graphic evil.

    Thanks for letting me weigh in on this…TKZ withdrawals are now assuaged, and it’s back to work. 🙂

    • Thanks for the shout-out, Deb.

      And I loved what you said: “I’m an eternal optimist, believing there is no one on planet earth, in this age or any age, who is irredeemable.”

    • Good morning, Deb. Thanks for assuaging in with the egg comments 🙂 I guess my writing seat at this breakfast table has my m/c wearing a white hat and downing black coffee. Enjoy you work day!

  11. Genre and subgenre aren’t just for marketing. Their formula is about reader expectations so a smart writer gets it right.

    Agatha Christie and Dorothy Sayer aren’t noir or hardboiled. Christie’s Miss Marple is Golden Age cozy/amateur sleuth category, and Poirot Golden Age private investigator. Lord Peter is a Golden Age amateur sleuth. (Genres change through the years, hence the Golden Age classifications. More recent versions of mysteries in these genres have a different feel in setting, narrative, and characters. So, no, you shouldn’t write like Golden Age authors.)

    A quick and simple classifications of various types of mystery: http://murderby4.blogspot.com/2010/06/13-types-of-mysteries.html

    I taught Jim Butcher’s STORM FRONT, an urban fantasy with a noir detective plot, some time back, and I’ve posted my articles on my blog. Click my name then, when you reach my blog, click “Jim Butcher” in the labels. The first few articles go into depth about the intricacies of the noir detective novel with a few nice links on the subject.

    • Thanks for the mystery explanation link, Marilynn. This is clear and informative. I found the author’s differentiation between crime, PI (hardboiled), and noir interesting. I appreciate this!

  12. Terrific comparison of the hard-boiled and noir crime fiction sub-genres, Garry. I also liked the literary history you included.

    As a reader, I prefer hard-boiled, with a large side of hope to go with it. As a writer, I’m definitely on the “soft-boiled” side as others have mentioned above. I like endings that redeem and renew my heroes, and uplift the reader, even as the narrative may have gone to some dark places.

    Thanks for another great post!

    • Thanks so much, Dale. I had to do some digging to understand this stuff. There seems to be many takes on what’s true to the sub-genres. Like Sue said, there are so many variants and like JSB said, noir can have some hopeful outcome. My style is having a conclusion that makes the reader remember the story and can live with the outcome. That might be a tough sell with true noir.

  13. Excellent posts by all.
    I think Noir in crime or other fiction is characterized by cynicism, fatalism and moral ambiguity.
    Cynicism-the inclination that people are only motivated by self interest
    Fatalism-a belief that all events are predetermined and therefore inevitable
    Moral ambiguity-the lack of certainty about whether something is right or wrong.

  14. I agree with Abbott’s distinction between hardboiled and noir. I’d say the difference is best illustrated by Mickey Spillane and Raymond Chandler.

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