Some Noir Definition:
Fiction on the Dark Side

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What is the definition of "noir"? Where does the term "noir" come from, and what is noir fiction?

The word "noir" is the French word for "black", and was first used to refer to the dark, gritty dramas, thrillers, and mysteries which came out of the 1940's and 50's Hollywood B-studios, which Europe looked at and dubbed "film noir".

These movies were existential, psychological, and urbane. They were movies for adults, dealing with jealousy, revenge, murder - but due to movie censorship, sex was not allowed and criminal acts had to get punished on-screen. However, innuendo abounds in film noir, and half the time you can't tell who the "good guy" is - if there even is one.

Plots were convoluted, pessimistic, and rarely ended well. Flashbacks were common: in one classic (Sunset Boulevard), the entire story was told from the point of view of a dead man floating in a mansion's swimming pool.

Film noir had a particular visual style: low light, darkness, lots of rain, with deep shadows and the glare of headlights. Camera angles were skewed. Directors would do things like shoot through beveled glass to show distortion of the character's mind. And later on, films in color (the famed "neo-noirs" of the 60's through today) used color in a wild variety of ways (Chinatown, Sin City, Blade Runner, Basic Instinct, Scandal) to show character development or make a statement.

So what does this have to do with fiction?

Many films noir were taken from the hard-boiled mysteries of the 1930's. The fedora-wearing detective and the slinky femme fatale which appear now in so many of the parodies of noir come directly from these books. Yet the trend has gone from book to movie, and now back to books.

Noir fiction has exploded in the years since film noir's heyday, and it's often much the same: dark, psychological, written for adults. The famous "happily ever after" is seldom seen in noir (sometimes not even "happily for now"), because these stories are often set in terrible places where terrible things happen.

In noir fiction, the main character is a self-destructive anti-hero, usually either a victim of circumstance, a suspect, or a perpetrator during the course of the story (sometimes, all of the above). They may also be a fedora-wearing detective, but they don't have to be. The setting is bleak: if set in the future, it's some dystopian future. Most present-day noir fiction is set in corrupt political situations, the main character is trapped among criminals, or they live in impossible poverty for which drastic action is the only escape.

Expect gritty drama and brutal crime motivated by greed, jealousy, and lust. Plots are full of flashbacks, double-crosses, and desperate people who've seen too much. Better keep your eyes open and your wits about you if you expect to solve the crime before the main character does (or gets blown away).

Like your crime fiction on the dark side? Then noir is probably for you.

Patricia Loofbourrow is the owner of Felony Fiction and the NY Times and USA Today best-selling author of the far future steampunk noir series, Red Dog Conspiracy. You can find all her work at her website,

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