Welcome to Part 1 of June Classic Crime Read-Along, where we introduce this month’s selection. Today we’ll look at the origins of noir & hard-boiled crime fiction in preparation for reading Dashiell Hammett’s The Maltese Falcon. Please feel very invited to join in the conversation at any point along the way! You can check out the calendar for the full read-along schedule.
This month for Read-Along, we’re looking at Dashiell Hammett’s The Maltese Falcon, the first mystery featuring iconic private investigator Sam Spade. Sam, who runs a detective agency in 1920s San Francisco, is a hardened, often short-tempered, jaded tough-talker who isn’t afraid to talk back to cops or load his gun and hit the streets.
Although Hammett wasn’t the first author to write what we now call “noir” or “hard-boiled” fiction, he broke major ground in this sub-genre, and Sam Spade is looked to as a source of inspiration for detectives who have come since. The Maltese Falcon was published by Alfred A Knopf in 1929, and it changed the face of crime fiction. Popular mysteries in the 1920s had been dominated by British “Golden Age” writers, most of them female, whose plots were often self-contained, playful, and/or adherent to “Fair Play” conventions. With The Maltese Falcon came the new crime fiction aesthetic. The crimes are very dark, the narrative often violent, and the action frequently runs headlong into the unsavory fringes of society—no parlor dramas here. The detective’s cases can’t always be solved, and even if they are solved there’s no guarantee of a happy or satisfying ending. The “good guys” are pretty bad themselves—flawed, tortured, conflicted in a classic Hero-versus-Monster that must have tickled Joseph Campbell’s fancy. Noir fiction drags you into a dark fantasy world—one where all the worst case scenarios come to pass, and where internal darkness colors the action as much as external. As James Ellroy famously said of detective Sam Spade, “Hammett wrote the man that he was afraid he had become.” Hammett, an ex-Pinkerton detective and a private eye himself, let his own dark fantasy live out on the page in Sam Spade.
So what exactly is noir fiction?
Or, actually, let’s dial it back. What exactly is “noir”?
You probably know that “noir” means “black” in French. But if you’re at all like me, you’ve relied on a vague, impressionistic understanding of what that meant in terms of artistic aesthetic without really thinking too hard about it. When I was trying to put my finger on some characteristics of noir for this post, I thought, maybe it means violence? Grittiness? Maybe it means that in the movie theater in my head, the story plays out in black-and-white and there are lots of dank and/or rainy scenes?
I embarked on a little genre investigation, but all my detective work raised more questions than it provided answers. How appropriate.
So, again, what exactly is noir?
First of all, apparently, any labeling of “noir” for books of this period is anachronistic. On noirfiction.tripid.com, George Tuttle writes:
The term was first used by the French in the Eighteenth century to describe the British Gothic novel…. Americans first heard the term “noir” from film critics. They were introduced to it in 1968, by Charles Higham and Joel Greenberg in their book Hollywood in the Forties (published by A.S. Barnes). Higham and Greenberg had imported the term from France, where it had been coined back in 1946, by Nino Frank. It was not until much later . . . that Americans started seeing “noir” in reference to literature.
But all that doesn’t mean that the word “noir” doesn’t mean something specific to us when we use it to talk about crime fiction from this period (and on). On Criminal Element, Robert K. Lewis feels my pain (fun essay, by the way, if you’re looking for more reading):
All of my literary heroes were, and still are, Noir writers. But, damnit, what really constitutes “Noir” writing and stories? It was a bitch of a question, and that was a fact…. Their [the great noir writers'] stories are dark, often bleak explorations of not only our own inner psyche, but of the inner psyche of our society, and our culture (if that’s what you can call it these days). But, what makes a book Noir?….Bleakness. No clear black-and-white moral lines. The Noir character inhabits a tough world, like Chandler epitomizes in this little gem from Farewell, My Lovely: ‘I needed a drink, I needed a lot of life insurance, I needed a vacation, I needed a home in the country. What I had was a coat, a hat and a gun. I put them on and went out of the room’.
So really, there is no straightforward answer, just a feeling. It’s not “what exactly is ‘noir’?” but, more accurately, “what exactly does does ‘noir’ mean to you?”
For me, personally, “noir” means dark fantasy. I read noir fiction the same way I read fantasy novels—although for very different (perhaps even opposite) reasons. For a pure sense of escapism, I follow real, human-feeling characters into a world that runs on slightly different rules than my own. In fantasy novels, this might mean a world where magic and heroism are possible. In noir, the fantasy world—so close to our own—is relentlessly damaged and dangerous and unjust; it is a world where all empowerment is contingent entirely upon an ability to overcome your own humanity and tap into the darkness inside of you.
This is not an original opinion, and I don’t claim to be the first person to feel this way. But I’ve been thinking about this for so long—for years—I can’t remember the sources who have influenced my definition. Yes, I know that’s bad journalism—if you know any nice authoritative people for me to reference on this, I’ll appreciate your suggestions.
But—here’s the great thing about genre. There comes a point when it’s not about journalism or articulated philosophy anymore, and instead it becomes a matter of collective conscience. It doesn’t really matter to me, the reader, why OTHER people read noir, as long as I know why I read it.
That doesn’t make the reasons any less interesting to talk about, though.
What is your personal definition of noir?
What are some of your favorite examples of the genre/aesthetic? Books, film, or other media suggestions are all invited.
Based on your personal definition of noir, do you have thoughts on Hammett’s precursors? What 19th- or early 20th-century authors do you think broke ground for this ground-breaker?