A Meaning of Noir
Christopher G. Moore, creator of the Vincent Calvino crime fiction series
When you come across the phrase “noir crime fiction. “ The first question is what is meant by noir? I have written private eye fiction set in Southeast Asia. My experience has probably been different from many other crime writers in the United States or Canada. The purpose is to start a discussion rather than reaching a definitive conclusion.
After twenty-five years writing the sixteen novels in the Vincent Calvino series, I’ve had a chance to think back about the books and find I’ve evolved a meaning of noir. Here’s my one sentence definition: Noir fiction serves to deconstruct the security state by exposing its acts, secret and public, of hypocrisy, venality, and brutality.
Above all the security state is unaccountable for its actions. During the course of an investigation the private eye in a noir novel reveals the dangers faced by ordinary people at a time and place where state authorities act with impunity. The noir story recounts his experience working inside such a system as he attempts to solve a crime or a find a missing person. What the reader discovers is that through a private eye’s investigation the evidence mounts as to how such a regime, in particular its justice system, operates like a blind force of nature, without logic or reason. It is this unpredictability of state authorities and the harm they inflict on ordinary people.
What makes a noir novel distinctive is the acceptance by the private eye, like those around him—except the romantic—is powerless to stop official acts of violence. Violence is the exercise of the raw power of the security state as if on permanent war footing. At war all critics are enemies and all enemies an existential threat.
A noir novel can be judged on the author’s success in recreating precisely this war mentality. The contradictions build up over the course of the novel. Choices of the characters are rarely binary, clear and absolute. Instead their choices in the struggle for justice become blurry, compromised, incomplete, pointless and absurd.
Like everyone else, the private eye in a noir novel has the choice to surrender to the dictates of the security officials or confront them head on and risk being destroyed. The pure noir moment is the realization that no one can escape from attention, dictates and forces of raw power. Everyone outside their narrow band of supporters is equally un-free.
The authority of a democratic, liberal political system is constrained, accountable, bounded by laws, regulations, and customs. There is no noir in such a system. For one very good reason: there is a consensus that the leaders in such a system have legitimate authority to make the security forces account for their use of violence, threats or intimidation.
Remove the democratic legitimacy and you enter a very dark place whistling through an infinite graveyard.