I love noir fiction and movies. So do millions of others. Why is that?
For me, it’s clear: Noir comes closer than any other genre to capturing the human condition. You won’t find superheroes in noir, and redemption only occurs by the cubic centimeter. When it does, it’s more likely that bad intentions get their comeuppance than a person changed for the better and now doing good for humanity. What would you expect from stories populated by damaged protagonists, femmes fatales, and enough double-crosses to line the Appian Way?
The noir protagonist is usually a put-upon person. He likely emanates from an environment that robbed much of his hope, perhaps done in by poverty, war, prison, trauma, booze or drugs or being jilted, and reckons he deserves better. He’s different from your basic bad guy. He still has a glimmer of goodness and believes someday, after his ship comes in, he’ll get himself on the right track. Meanwhile, he’s on the wrong track, so every station he goes by is the wrong station. He doesn’t see things through a moral prism; he comes from hunger. He may not even know what he’s hungry for. It’s why he’s vulnerable to the double-cross and the femme fatale. He gets outwitted; he is like a puppy in traffic and why we pull for him despite his flaws.
The most interesting relationship in noir fiction is between the protagonist and the femme fatale. What man cannot understand the magnetism of a beautiful woman? What woman cannot understand that in a world where institutions are run by men, most of whom are also physically stronger, you use everything you got? Neither the femme fatale nor her unwitting victim is a good person. Each uses the other for nefarious ends. They are in a dance like the mating of praying mantises: You may get her, but better take wing before you lose your head; she’ll have it digested before you notice your body stops at the neck. So character flaws and their consequences propel noir stories. They tell us less how to be than how not to be; they are less morality tale than lay open the human soul to expose desire, need, unfairness, and powerlessness.
It’s said that sci-fi monster movies and books of the 40s & 50s were an artistic response to the public’s inchoate fears of nuclear annihilation. I speculate the current popularity of noir may derive in part from anxieties caused by the explosion of social media—a phenomenon with which we have yet learned to cope, given its unleashing of raw hostility and unfettered antagonisms. Noir may well be a response to our nihilistic fears, thirst for redemption, and tribal comfort through privity to alienated and alienating lives—in other words, misery loves company. As a writer of crime fiction, I have always taken a cue from Faulkner: “The work of the novelist is the human heart in conflict with itself.” Noir gives you a double feature: two hearts in conflict—each with itself as well as another.