Research Day: The Difference Between Noir and Hardboiled

In a way, this post doesn’t really fit under the “Research Day” rubric. What typically happens on Research Day is that I identify a question about which I am ignorant, Google up some answers, and then report my findings here.

This, on the other hand, is an instance where I thought I knew something, and was informed otherwise.

I happened as I was interviewing people for my article on Web Noir. My original thesis was that online crime ezines were the modern equivalent of the pulps, though I was toying with the idea of writing the essay on the resurgent of interest in the pulp aesthetic. To that end, I decided to email to Charles Ardai of Hard Case Crime, to see if he had any thoughts on the matter. (Longtime readers will remember that I have previously professed my love for Hard Case Crime novels, and may suspect–perhaps correctly–that this entire project was an elaborate justification for me to send fan mail to Ardai).

After introducing myself, I posed a series of question to Ardai, the first of which was:

What are the hallmarks of hardboiled, noir stories?

His response, began like this:

To begin with, as I'm sure other folks either have told you or will tell you (people in this field love definitional arguments), the terms 'noir' and 'hardboiled' don't refer to the same thing. They describe orthogonal aspects of a story, in the sense that a given story can be either noir or hardboiled or both or neither -- one doesn't entail the other ...

Now, at this point, I was already writing my reply in my head, something along “oh jeeze, of course I know the difference between ‘noir’ and ‘hardboiled,’ I was just lumping the two together in the interest of brevity, etc. etc.”

Still, I know better than to stop reading someone who can nonchalantly work the phrase “orthogonal aspects” into a sentence, so I persevered. By the time I reached the end of his response … well, let’s just say that I was no longer entertaining fantasies of trying to impress Mr. Ardai with my worldweary, know-it-all attitude.

Here’s the kit & caboodle.

"Noir," though originally used to refer to a particular series of French paperbacks and then later to a category of black-and-white crime movie, is generally understood to refer to a story steeped in emotional (and often also literal) darkness. There is a feeling of dread and doom that suffuses the action; the story typically features a protagonist who's in trouble, who often doesn't deserve the trouble he's in (even if he's a bad guy, he often doesn't deserve the *particular* trouble he's in), and whose trouble just gets worse as the narrative grinds inexorably toward an unhappy -- often tragic -- ending. Once in a while, a book that's noir all the way through winds up having a happy or redemptive ending -- think David Goodis' THE WOUNDED AND THE SLAIN, which we just reprinted for the first time in ~50 years -- but those happy endings generally feel aberrant and tacked-on and untrue to the spirit of the enterprise. A noir story can be grim and suspenseful or grim and melancholy or grim and paranoid or grim and fatalistic -- but it's pretty much always grim. Its antecedents in literature include Oedipus, King Lear, and the work of Thomas Hardy; 'noir' posits a world in which either there is no god and men are left to make their way in a universe that's indifferent to justice and to their suffering or else a universe that is actively malign ("As flies to wanton boys are we to the gods: They kill us for their sport"). More modern practitioners in the literary sphere include Camus and the other existentialists; on the genre side, the masters were James M. Cain, Cornell Woolrich and David Goodis. The best description of noir I've ever read came from Woolrich: "I had that trapped feeling, like some sort of a poor insect that you've put inside a downturned glass, and it tries to climb up the sides, and it can't, and it can't, and it can't."

"Hardboiled," on the other hand, refers as much to style as to content -- it describes a story in which the characters and the dialogue are tough and colloquial, where there's usually plenty of action (gunfights, fistfights, guys getting knocked unconscious) and plenty of sex (leggy dames in seamed stockings, etc.) and plenty of atmosphere (smoky gin joints, exotic Chinatown opium dens, races across moody nightscapes). The distinction is between this sort of thing and the world of classic detective stories, which tended to take place in drawing rooms and manor houses, gardens and vicarages, and to involve quiet poisonings more often than fists to the adam's apple. After World War II, readers who had been exposed to the bracing realities of the Depression, Auschwitz and Hiroshima lost patience with dainty tales of violence-as-parlor-game and flocked to the work of authors like Chandler and (even more so) Spillane, the men who (in Chandler's words) "gave murder back to the kind of people who commit it for reasons, not just to provide a corpse; and with the means at hand, not with hand-wrought duelling pistols, curare, and tropical fish." Continues Chandler (he was writing about Dashiell Hammett): "He put these people down on paper as they are, and he made them talk and think in the language they customarily used for these purposes. He had style, but his audience didn't know it, because it was in a language not supposed to be capable of such refinements. They thought they were getting a good meaty melodrama written in the kind of lingo they imagined they spoke themselves. It was, in a sense, but it was much more. All language begins with speech, and the speech of common men at that, but when it develops to the point of becoming a literary medium it only looks like speech. Hammett's style at its worst was almost as formalized as a page of Marius the Epicurean; at its best it could say almost anything. I believe this style, which does not belong to Hammett or to anybody, but is the American language (and not even exclusively that any more), can say things he did not know how to say or feel the need of saying. In his hands it had no overtones, left no echo, evoked no image beyond a distant hill. He is said to have lacked heart, yet the story he thought most of himself is the record of a man's devotion to a friend. He was spare, frugal, hardboiled, but he did over and over again what only the best writers can ever do at all. He wrote scenes that seemed never to have been written before."

Was this the first use of the term "hardboiled" to refer to this sort of writing? No -- but I think Chandler captures perfectly what the term means. A hardboiled novel is a plain-spoken, rough-hewn, unapologetically frank and crude and vibrant one, that tells a two-fisted tale of men and women at their worst -- and at their best. A hardboiled story can be gleeful and funny and entertaining, or it can be dark and tragic and grim. "Hardboiled" describes the comedies of Richard Prather and the lyrical tragedies of Chandler himself. A noir novel can be written in a hardboiled style, but a noir story can also be told in delicate or refined or purple prose. Again, the two qualities are entirely separate.

Which did you find in the pulps -- noir or hardboiled? Well, you found both...but you found hardboiled constantly and noir only some of the time. The crime pulps (as opposed to the science fiction or horror or romance pulps, which are a whole other story) pretty much only published hardboiled fiction -- that's what they existed to do. Some of the stories were rooting-tooting whizbangs just out to please the kiddies (of all ages) among the readership, while others were somber, moving, tortured stories of men swirling down the drain.

So: Not all noir is hardboiled, and not all hardboiled is noir; the old pulps published both, but more hardboiled; the new pulps (if you want to call them that) also publish both, but interestingly more noir than hardboiled. I believe this is because of the relative sophistication of the reading audiences -- or at least the current audience's sense of its own sophistication. A lot of readers today, I believe, feel is it is "cool" to like noir -- like black-outfitted, alienated teens, they relish embracing anything that seems dark and tortured -- while many feel they are "above" reading old-fashioned hardboiled yarns, which often aspired to nothing more than providing an evening's worth of what we'd now call "popcorn entertainment."

At Hard Case Crime, we publish both. Books like Richard Powell's SAY IT WITH BULLETS or Robert Terrall's KILL NOW, PAY LATER are hardboiled comedies; a book like Erle Stanley Gardner's TOP OF THE HEAP is a serious hardboiled novel; but none of them are noir. On the other hand, Woolrich's FRIGHT and Goodis' THE WOUNDED AND THE SLAIN are as noir as you can get, as are some of our originals, such as Seymour Shubin's outstanding WITNESS TO MYSELF, or my own SONGS OF INNOCENCE.

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18 comments.

  1. Wow. I bet you were really suprized and really happy to get such a long reply from some one you admier. Neat.

  2. Awesome. Thanks for posting this, I learned something.

  3. “As flies to wanton boys are we to the gods: They kill us for their sport” im just mega proud of myself for knowing this is a king lear quote. college did learn me something it seems.

    thanks for posting, learnt a lot tonight.

  4. Having studied film noir extensively, I thought I knew the answer to this before reading it all. Still I learned lots. And my To Read list just burst at the seams.
    Can’t wait for the opportunity to use “orthogonal aspects”.
    Thanks for posting!

  5. Meh. The existence of peanut butter and banana sandwiches or toast with jelly does not alter they fact that when I say peanut butter you say jelly. If you can name me a film noir off the top of your head that isn’t also hardboiled…well, I’d be impressed. Hammet and Chandler were the Marlowe and Shakes of their day, and they were both hardboiled and noir. I’m sure you can find me some obscure Elizabethan tragedy not written in iambic pentameter, where nobody dies, but those are still two of the qualites that define “Elizabethan drama.”

  6. Wow, I no longer feel like a pedantic jerk for going on at length about the difference between music described as “Country” and “Western.” Damn the Blue Brothers for making a joke that leads people to believe they are right to consider them the same thing.

  7. That’s -Blues- Brothers. But still, damn them!

  8. Since I’m an insufferable pedant at a major university, I’d rather discuss the reified discourse of Foucauldian paradigms in “The Maltese Falcon” and “The Big Lebowski.” I prefer my noir parboiled.

    Is “Finnegan’s Wake” noir or hardboiled?

  9. Some pedant. It’s _Finnegans Wake_, without the apostrophe.

  10. Cool. I learned a lot – and it was well-written, too.

  11. You’ve been served.

  12. Minesweeper is noir, but not hardboiled.

  13. If you can name me a film noir off the top of your head that isn’t also hardboiled…well, I’d be impressed.

    A Simple Plan

  14. If you read the Ian Fleming book _Casino Royale_, it is pure noir, it is crime fiction (more “espionage” than “detective”, but still crime fiction), and it is the right era or very close. It is most definately not hardboiled in language or the slice of society being portrayed; arguably the torture scene could fit the term but little else. It was also Fleming’s first Bond book, published in 1953.

    It is easy to come up with classic era hardboiled but not noir. All you need to do is type the word Spillane.

  15. Sometimes I read Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple mysteries and get all tingly in my swimsuit area.

  16. Thanks for this.

  17. Now _I_ need to write Mr. Ardai a fan letter.

  18. That was beautiful. I feel so goddamn educated.