I recently contacted Chris F. Holm after reading his debut novel from Angry Robot, Dead Harvest, and loved it so much I asked him to stop by The Sci-Fi Guys to share a bit about the genre of noir.
The New Noir
Chris F. Holm
“Noir” is perhaps the slipperiest term in all of literature. That’s in large part due to its muddy origins; our modern use of the term derives from the film noir of the ’40s and ’50s, which in turn borrowed heavily from the bleak crime tales that began cropping up in the U.S. during the Depression. James Cain, author of THE POSTMAN ALWAYS RINGS TWICE and DOUBLE INDEMNITY, is widely credited as the creator of the modern roman noir. Before Cain, the term was used to refer to what we’d now call Gothic novels, but afterward, the term took on a life of its own.
Thing is, Cain wasn’t wild about the label, and those classic film noir flicks? Yeah, they weren’t called that then. The title was bestowed upon them by a French critic years after they began popping up in theaters, and the so-called noir canon wasn’t really well-defined until the ’70s, when critics and cinema historians adopted it en masse; before then, most of what we consider film noir were simply melodramas. So really, noir fiction is the result of a decades-long game of telephone that bounced from books to movies and back again, with stops on two continents along the way. (For a modern analog, ask any group of kids what “emo” means. I’ll bet you get a couple dozen different answers, none of which will correctly trace the term back to the hallowed ’80s D.C. hardcore punk scene. But I digress.)
The definition that’s gotten the most traction of late is noir preservationist Eddie Muller’s; he called noir “working-class tragedy,” That ain’t half-bad, but it’s more descriptive of where noir’s been than what noir is. For my money, noir boils down to bleak humanism. It’s all about lousy options, bad decisions, and dire consequences.
But regardless of whose definition you go with, you’ll notice something’s lacking: namely, any mention of genre. That’s because for as much as noir’s assumed to be a subset of crime fiction, it’s more vibe than subgenre. And, as many an enterprising modern writer seems intent on proving, that vibe is one that plays just as well with fantasy and science fiction as it does with crime. Witness William Gibson’s brilliant NEUROMANCER (which, okay, came out a while back, but then Gibson’s always been ahead of the curve), Jeff VanderMeer’s unsettling FINCH, or any number of works put out by my (utterly fantastic) publisher, Angry Robot, by folks like Adam Christopher, Tim Waggoner, and Lauren Beukes.
Or, if you’d prefer, witness my humble entrant in the realm of fantastical noir, DEAD HARVEST.
DEAD HARVEST is the tale of Sam Thornton, a man condemned to collect souls of the damned for all eternity, and ensure they find their way to hell. Sam was collected himself decades ago, after striking a deal with a demon to save his dying wife. When Sam’s dispatched to collect the soul of a young girl accused of slaughtering her family, he comes to believe she’s been framed. So he decides to do something no Collector’s ever done before: he defies hell and sets out to prove her innocence.
Yeah, sure, DEAD HARVEST contains its share of crime. But I’d argue it’s not the crime that makes it noir. What makes it noir is Sam’s predicament – the fact that his choices led him down a path where the only redemption he’ll ever achieve in life is in his own mind, because his fate is long since sealed. What makes it noir is the fact that every option available to him is shit, and absolution’s off the menu.
Of course, I could be wrong. But then, the book is what the book is, regardless of how it’s tagged. And if I’m very, very lucky, maybe twenty years from now, some enterprising historians will lump me and all those other folks together under the moniker of new noir.
Hell, if I’m read that far out, they can call me whatever they’d like.