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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Mystery Elements and Sass Are the New Black – First Page Critique-The Dangerous Dame

Jordan Dane

@jordandane

Don your fedora and breathe in the smoky air of a shadowy life when you read this anonymous submission of 400 words for THE DANGEROUS DAME. My feedback will be on the flip side. Please share your thoughts in the comments.

CHAPTER ONE

Ida Lucas was Hamilton’s answer to Mata Hari – a blonde bombshell who mesmerized the upper-crust gents in the Circus Roof at the Royal Connaught Hotel. Some folks said that her scandalous strip-tease rivaled that of Gypsy Rose Lee. One night with Ida was rumoured to cost you a King’s ransom and that, in the Hamilton of 1948, translated into a cool 100 simoleons. For the working man – two weeks pay. But the working man was the last guy Ida wanted to see.

She came to my attention while I was doing some leg-work for a local law office. And I didn’t find out until much later that there was a helluva lot more going on in this shady lady’s busy life than I’d ever suspected.

It was a fine spring morning when I entered the White Spot Grill on King Street downtown. Spiro shot me a dark look from behind the counter as he grunted a tray-load of dirty cups into an industrial dishwasher with a loud clank. The sharp tang of burnt toast hung in the air and I guessed that Madge was late for her early shift this morning.

The food here was nothing special and the coffee was so-so but it was close to my office. And don’t get me started about its owner.

“Don’t often see you in here, Max. Now that you’re a big-shot private dick with a fancy assistant and a secretary and all,” he said.

I’d met Spiro last summer when I opened my private detective agency on King Street, across from the Connaught, and right off the bat we’d developed a spikey kind of relationship. But with the ladies, of course, he was always the perfect gent – “Yes, Ma’am, right away, Ma’am. My, you’re looking swell today.”

I ignored his ‘big shot’ remark and slid onto the end stool at the counter. “A large carafe to go. If it ain’t too much trouble.”

He bounced his hard look off me but I didn’t react. Then he motioned with his head toward the rear of the café. “Bob said he wanted to see you if you came in. I told him –”

“Okay. I’ll be back in a minute.”

At the end of the row of booths, Spiro had rigged up a small table that looked like a cut-down student’s desk. It was low enough that my veteran friend, Bob, could use it while seated aboard his wheeled dolly. A brave soldier overseas, he’d lost both his legs on that godforsaken, stony beach in Dieppe on August 19, 1942 – a date forever seared into the memory of every Hamiltonian.

Bob was puzzling over a Daily Racing Form and scribbled something in the margin as I approached. He looked up, then parked his pencil behind his right ear. “Hi-de-ho, Max. How goes it?”

“Everything’s copacetic,” I said as I pointed to the paper. “Trying to pick me a winner at the Woodbine track?”

FEEDBACK

There is plenty to like with this submission and the ease of a voice that reminds me of old black and white detective movies. The attention to detail of the White Spot Grill and the guy filling in his race track form with a pencil is Bob, a WWII war veteran–the sights and sounds and smells are vivid and drew me in.

Time Frame & Setting – I would like to know what time frame this is written for. A simple tag description at the start would be a simple fix – What year and city?

Where to Start – Given the Noir voice of this submission, I liked the intro and got into the description of Ida Lucas, but that intro is coming from a character I’m not properly introduced to. The first two paragraphs are about Ida Lucas and I don’t know why because there is no link made to her and Max, the narrator. There doesn’t appear to be a connection that explains why the woman PI begins the story with her–plus there isn’t action to jump start this passive beginning.

My suggestion would be to start with the action of the woman PI walking into the White Spot Grill (3rd paragraph). I would rework the new introduction to be meatier with a mystery centered on the woman entering the grill alone, hinting at why she had come.

A simple fix:

BEFORE: It was a fine spring morning when I entered the White Spot Grill on King Street downtown. Spiro shot me a dark look from behind the counter…

AFTER: When I entered the White Spot Grill on King Street downtown, my high heels clacked on the black and white checkered linoleum and Spiro shot me a dark look from behind the counter. He grunted a tray-load of dirty cups into an industrial dishwasher with a loud clank. I felt like a porterhouse in a world of ground round.

Max obviously knows all the names of the people who work at the diner. Why not take the opportunity to introduce the narrator when she walks into the restaurant? All we know is her first name is Max.

If the author saved the first two paragraphs, those could be used later, once the reader understands why Ida Lucas is important to this rendezvous. As it stands now, the first two paragraphs are isolated (as to purpose).

First Person POV Gender – From the start, I pictured the voice to be that of a man, but it’s not until dishwasher busboy Spiro says “Yes, ma’am” that I realized the narrator is a woman PI. Even the nickname of Max doesn’t shed light on gender. If the author takes my suggestion of starting with the action of the woman PI making a mystery clandestine meeting at a low rent grill, adding words like “my high heels clacked on the sidewalk” or have Max put on lipstick outside. Or have Spiro be the only one who calls her Maxine and she rolls her eyes and has a snappy comeback.

SUGGESTION: “No one calls me Maxine, Spiro. Not even my mother. How many times do I have to say it?” Working as a single woman in a man’s world, I preferred the nickname, Max.

I stumbled over this – When Spiro is trying to get Max to check in with his boss, Bob, she acknowledges his request but says, “Okay, I’ll be back in a minute.” I didn’t get this line. It made me think Max had to get her coffee order back to her office and that she would return to visit with Bob when she could stay longer. I had to reread it a few times. Maybe the author meant that Max would come to the “back” of the restaurant after she gets her order. I would recommend the author clean this up and make the transition clearer.

Mystery Elements/Where to go from here – Does Bob get Max into a case involving Ida? I don’t know what to suggest since I don’t know where the story is going. To tie this in better and make the story start with a mystery, Max could be holding a note clutched in her hand, a cryptic message asking her to meet at the diner. She could recognize the handwriting, but the note isn’t signed. Or for added interest, the note could end with a compelling mystery line – something like “I’m sorry, Max, but I need to know this time.”

Bob could have tried a few times to trace the whereabouts of Ida for personal reasons. Max sees the cryptic note and she knows who wrote it. Her mind could flash on Ida and her reputation (where the author brings back the first two paragraphs without spilling the beans on why she makes the connection).

I would recommend adding mystery elements to draw the reader into this intro. The exchange between Max and Bob is too casual and chatty, with no tension or mystery to their interaction. Why not add something? Have the reader walk into Max’s life with a mystery she’s been working on with Bob. It would give more purpose to this introduction and the reason Ida Lucas will play a part.

More Sass – I think there is potential for Max to have sass throughout this novel. We’re only seeing the first 400 words, but I would like to see more of a hint of it in this brief opener. That’s why I added the line, “I felt like a porterhouse in a world of ground round.” This reads like a period piece and to have a woman working in a traditionally male career, Max would have to be over the top aggressive in order to get work as a private detective. She’d have to have guts and think out of the box just to compete.

I once researched women bounty hunters and the stories I found online and in newspapers on how they outsmarted the male fugitives (for higher bounty) are hilarious. I see Max street savvy and smart mouthed, able to talk her way through anything. Adding color to Max’s voice and her life could make the difference in setting this story apart from other novels.

Overview – There is a lot to like about this submission. I would definitely read on since I love police or PI procedurals. I love the author’s attention to the detail of sights, sounds and the reader’s senses. I’m also intrigued by the voice of the woman detective. Well done.

DISCUSSION:

What would you add, TKZers?

 

 

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