Typically, the noir novel avoids both length and judgment as it tells the story of an outsider with little or no agency who is – or soon will be – alone, afraid, angry, amoral, and alienating. The author of such a novel typically tells his or her story with little exposition and no resolution, but with a lot of fragmentation and disorientation, and thus breaks up any residual sense of cause and consequence with a non-linear narrative, the narrator’s limited perspective, and his or her questionable reliability.
Stereotypically, the noir novel focuses on how the five attributes listed above lead to the disintegration of the outsider’s sense of self as he – for the noir protagonist is stereotypically a man – doggedly makes his way through a dark world that has been the ruin of many a poor man, a world of jive-talking cynics, wise-cracking criminals, and tired salesmen still trying to sell non-noir futures under neon signs advertising 24-hour liquor stores as silent strangers form faceless night-time crowds in silhouetted asphalt jungles forever obscured by clouds and rain, jungles in which anonymous men float in and out of late-night bars wreathed in thick cigarette smoke, vainly hoping to bed some sultry femme fatale sheathed in a thin cocktail dress which will later inevitably be discarded among another man’s sweaty bed sheets while down in the dimly lit streets of this eternal purgatory shots ring out and broken human beings die like vermin – pointlessly, instantly forgotten, and never to be mourned.
What is mourned is a past which never was, and what that soon leads to is existential dread, inarticulate resentment, radical disengagement, desperate self-annihilation, and rapacious eroticism, none of which in turn leads anywhere near a happy end. That, of course, should come as no surprise, since the noir novel with a happy end has never been written, nor can it be, because it is about life’s losers – people who lose, lose repeatedly, and lose big. Some do so because their authors decide to defeat their best efforts by setting their stories in a negatively predetermined universe, others because they make their own decisions yet are denied either the intelligence or the independence they would need to make good ones, and since they are all driven by an ever-increasing desperation, they make one bad decision after another in a life which is little more than a struggle for survival. In both cases, then, things start bad and end worse.
Now, if this quick run-through of noir stereotypes seems as well-worn as a highlight reel of Hollywood pictures from the mid-20th century, it does so for an interesting reason. Literary noir has a shared history with film noir, and though these days the two art forms have little more in common than their name, over the years enough writers have filled their pages with the clichés developed on screen to create a superficial association even in the minds of otherwise educated audiences. This goes back as far as the 1940s, when a fertile, cross-Atlantic discourse started which was to span several decades. As the preeminent scholar of film noir, James Naremore, recaps, “The discourse on American film noir was initiated by two generations of Parisian intellectuals, most of whom declared the form extinct soon after they invented it… Eventually, as old movies became increasingly available on television or in retrospectives, a European image of America was internalised by the Americans themselves. By the 1990s, noir had acquired the aura of art and had evolved into what Dennis Hopper describes as ‘every director’s favourite genre’.” In the meantime, enough writers had borrowed from the dramatic motifs and narrative techniques of those directors for literary noir to be both re-popularised – and in many places re-marketed en masse – as a literary version of film noir, its very own brain child to which it had given birth all those years ago by providing material for movie adaptations.
As a result of this retrospective focus on the halcyon days of film noir, countless cinematic images have been projected on to the term ‘noir’, so much so that two historical facts have often been overlooked: one, as indicated above, most literary noir looks nothing like those cinematic images, and two, most of the material which was eventually adapted and re-adapted in noir’s cross-fertilisation process was created a long way from the silver screen. As the author and critic Barry Graham points out, “Even while Arthur Conan Doyle was writing his Sherlock Holmes cozies in the 19th Century… his brother-in-law, E.W. Hornung, was writing the dark tales of Raffles, Victorian gentleman and cricket star who moonlights as a burglar. Raffles seems to be a gentleman of leisure, but it’s all about surface appearance and desperate avoidance of losing his upper crust status… he is always one theft away from destitution.” This border state – noir’s raison d’être, its belief that those worth writing about are only ever one step away from the abyss – has become both a popular aesthetic attitude and a counter-cultural space for the most subversive of minds.
Buoyed by the surge of sensational American pulp fiction – which was primarily addressed to working-class men and popularised in the 1920s – and buoyed further by the surge of the literary crime novel – which was promoted by middle-class book clubs and popularised in the 1930s – tough guy writers like Carroll John Daly and Dashiell Hammett pioneered a prose style in those early decades of the 20th century which soon became known as ‘hard-boiled’. Throughout the remainder of that century, this heightened passion for literary toughness was channelled into books and screenplays about the lowest reaches of human nature by such notable writers as James M. Cain, Horace McCoy, W.R. Burnett, Cornell Woolrich, Erskine Caldwell, Day Keene, Dorothy B. Hughes, Jim Thompson, James Hadley Chase, Chester Himes, Charles Williams, John D. MacDonald, David Goodis, Charles Willeford, Patricia Highsmith, Peter Rabe, Gil Brewer, James McKimmey, Elmore Leonard, Derek Raymond, Donald E. Westlake, Lawrence Block, Ted Lewis, and James Ellroy. Together, these noirists paved the way for 21st century noir by processing a growing awareness of violence in the period around World War II, a return to consumer economies, a rise in crime rates, the ideological tensions of both the Red Scare and the Cold War, and a widespread popularisation of psychoanalysis.
Before I go on, however, I ought to clarify something. Though it is occasionally useful for reference purposes, and often inevitable for practical reasons, it is also potentially misleading to discuss noir as though it was a specific cycle of films or fictions associated with a particular aesthetic period or national tradition, i.e. one readily defined and easily agreed creative and critical concept. In truth, the only thing which is not debatable about noir is that it is the French word for ‘black’. Everything else, from its chief influences to its generic conventions, has been debated ad nauseam, often with the laudable intention of saving arguably underrated work from obscurity, but just as often with a lamentable tendency towards antiquarianism. The problem, as Naremore explains, is this: “a concept that was generated ex post facto has become part of a worldwide mass memory.” So, as the noir writer Joe Lansdale concludes, “You can’t point at noir and call it one thing.”
This, of course, does not mean that the term should not be used to describe or discuss art which is identifiably noir. It simply means that we need to think of noir in broader terms. “Noir,” as Naremore reminds us, “functions rather like big words such as romantic or classic. An ideological concept with a history all its own, it can be used to describe a period, a movement, and a recurrent style.” And as this broadening of the term suggests, the on-going discussions about how to define such ‘big words’ arises from an old confusion about the way in which all generic concepts are formed. To be clear, people do not form them by grouping things objectively. They create extensive networks of relationship between things which are often produced in different periods and places by using their subjective forms of association. Thus, over time, several more or less authoritative definitions enter our cultural discourse.
In Scotland, rather confusingly, the noir novel did not start, nor did it reach its pinnacle, with ‘the King of Tartan Noir’, Ian Rankin. Saying so, I hasten to add, betrays neither a literary value judgment nor an attempt to court controversy. It is simply a statement of fact. Rankin does not write noir. Rankin writes police novels based on the far from noir premise that the legal, political, and social systems which govern Scotland are, ultimately, worth defending. So, although his cops have to bend or break the occasional law to preserve order, preserve it they do, and although they have the odd minor flaw, they manage it like the heroes they are. If Rankin wrote noir novels, his cops would not be bending or breaking any laws to preserve order, because there would be no order. If Rankin wrote noir novels, his heroes would not have any flaws, because he would have no heroes, just protagonists. And finally, if Rankin wrote noir novels, his protagonists would not care anywhere near as much about laws or flaws. They would be far too preoccupied with their noir fate of being alone, afraid, angry, amoral, and alienating.
So, how has somebody who does not even write noir come to be known as the King of Tartan Noir? As Rankin was happy to explain when I asked him that very question, he was given this unofficial title by James Ellroy, the notorious American noirist, before Ellroy had even read any of his writing:
“I met him at a crime fiction convention in Nottingham many years ago and I wanted to get him to sign a book for me. I was explaining to him that I was a crime writer as well, and wrote about Edinburgh and the darker side of Scottish life. I said, ‘You could call it Tartan Noir.’ He laughed and signed the book to ‘the King of Tartan Noir’. So then I pretended that he’d invented it. But in fact, I told him and then he wrote it down.”
After Rankin told a version of this story in public – minus the final admission, which he added only recently – people started parroting Ellroy and using his authority to lend credibility to a literary movement which Rankin had invented in jest, ‘Tartan Noir’.
Within a few years, Rankin had become the form’s internationally recognised figurehead, and this has had some rather long-lasting consequences. On the one hand, it has moved some actual noir from the margins of Scottish literature to the mainstream, because, along with Rankin’s popularity, the demand for Tartan Noir has risen dramatically. In response, the market has been flooded with literature promoted as such, and this has included some actual noir. On the other hand, however, it has also included some falsely labelled literature, the kind which merely gets labelled noir because it is a bit dark, not because it is noir in the aesthetic meaning of the word. Rankin’s false promotion as a noirist is one such example. Other examples – similarly famous and similarly false – are the likes of Arthur Conan Doyle and George Douglas Brown, whose occasionally dark-ish detective fiction and social realism is often cited in an attempt at locating the earliest – or worthiest – starting point of noir in Scottish literature. Yet while this may seem like a harmless vanity project, such false genre genealogies can have unfortunate consequences. Whenever they remain uncontested, they offer muddled minds models for even more mislabelling, so it is time to look at a few examples of actual, Scottish Noir…
To keep reading, click here: