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What Is Noir Fiction?

By A. Leverkuhn
Updated May 23, 2024
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Noir fiction is a specific kind of crime fiction that originated in the twentieth century. This type of writing is a part of the larger genre of “hardboiled” crime fiction. Hardboiled fiction is so-called for its dark, gritty portrayals of urban life or criminal elements.

In general, readers associate both noir fiction and hardboiled crime fiction with the American setting, but these genres can be set anywhere in the world. A group of American writers made the genre popular in the U.S., and their work is also highly read beyond the continent. This type of crime writing often relies on somewhat modern premises, describing the decay of modern societies. Some experts say that the term evolved from the French analysis of American works, hence the French wording.

One essential element of noir fiction is its blunt portrayal of realities that other forms of fiction may not frequently tackle. Another is sexual tension; experts say that the noir fiction genre is partly defined by its use of sexual elements. Another prime ingredient in this type of fiction is fatalism, and happy endings are the exception rather than the rule. This type of writing is characterized by a kind of dark outlook that often fuses with its settings and character portrayals.

Although noir fiction is notably dark, others also associate it with humor, albeit a dark and often sarcastic humor. Some of the characters in the best work works of crime fiction are not dour or depressed, but rather, inwardly calm or even slightly gleeful, in ways that are sometimes meant to be reassuring, and other times disturbing, to readers. The specific way that a writer follows these unique characters is part of the appeal of noir fiction to readers.

In modern times, noir has come to be associated with “gumshoe fiction” or stories about private investigators, but this kind of fiction can really be about anyone. Some popular noir stories that have been produced for the American cinema feature a bail bondsman, an air hostess, and a series of criminals. Some experts point out that by a technical definition common in the heyday of this genre, noir fiction is supposed to have as a protagonist someone who is involved in crime, not an “outsider” but someone who has “gotten his or her hands dirty.” Still, modern versions of noir tend to feature law enforcement types, who may be operating outside of the law but, in many cases, still resonate as “good guys” with their audience through their adherence to personal moral codes.

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Discussion Comments
By pleonasm — On Apr 19, 2012

@umbra21 - Most people wouldn't think of Dexter as being classic noir crime fiction as he is such an unconventional hero, but I suppose it does fit most of the criteria.

I really like the Raymond Chandler books which are real hard boiled detective stuff. I need to read more of them actually.

By umbra21 — On Apr 19, 2012

I would actually argue that the Dexter series is a kind of Noir fiction, given the parameters in this article.

I hadn't really thought about it that way before but it fits the genre really well.

The series (which is also a TV series, although the TV series is very different in tone) is very dark and the first person narrator is a forensic scientist who works with a crime lab but is also a serial killer in his spare time.

So, they have the mystery element, as he's always working on a particular criminal in his job, but at the same time he's engaging in similar activities himself. It definitely doesn't shy away from the harsher realities of life.

The only thing missing is the sexual tension, as he's portrayed for the most part as being relatively asexual.

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