What is Noir?
Roman Noir is French for black novel. The term was originally used by French critics in the 18th century to describe British Gothic novels, but by the 1930s it had acquired a new meaning, and was being used to describe American hardboiled thrillers. The French applied the term broadly--French literary scholar Jean-Jacques Schleret states
"For the French historians and critics, the "roman noir" is the hardboiled genre...the roman noir begins with the stories of John Carroll Daly, Dashiell Hammett and all the Black Mask writers of the 20's and the 30's, continues with the second generation (the paperback writers, Harry Whittington, Gil Brewer, Day Keene, Charles Williams, Jim Thompson...) to the 90's (Lawrence Block, Elmore Leonard, James Ellroy, Thomas Harris). "
Most Americans first became aware of the term "noir" in reference to the film style. Film critics Charles Higham and Joel Greenberg imported the term from France in 1968, where it had been applied to certain American movies from the 1940s by the French critic Nino Frank.
In 1984 author and editor Barry Gifford founded Black Lizard Books, and started the line with reprints of three Jim Thompson novels: The Getaway, Pop. 1280, and A Hell of a Woman. Gifford wrote a preface for these books that introduced Americans to the term noir as a literary concept. He wrote "The French seem to appreciate best Thompson's brand of terror. Roman noir, literally "black novel," is a term reserved especially for novelists such as Thompson, Cornell Woolrich and David Goodis."
Black Lizard books went on to reprint more titles by Thompson, as well as long out-of-print classics by David Goodis, Peter Rabe, Harry Whittington, Dan J. Marlowe, Charles Williams and Lionel White. This led to a rediscovery and new appreciation of the roman noir in America.
A definition from Benet's Readers Encyclopedia of American Literature (HarperCollins, 1991), edited by George Perkins, Barbara Perkins, and Phillip Leininger:
A type of detective or crime story in which an air of realism is generated through laconic and often vulgar dialogue, depiction of cruelty and bloodshed at close range, and use of generally seamy environments. The genre was perhaps a product of the prohibition era, but it was also a reaction against the attenuated prettifications of the Conan Doyle school and an attempt to apply the literary lessons taught by such serious American novelists as Ernest Hemingway and John Dos Passos. Hard-boiled fiction seems to have appeared first in a magazine called the BLACK MASK (founded 1919), and its development was closely associated with the editor, Joseph T. Shaw. Many critics today feel that the first full-fledged example of the hard-boiled method was Dashiell Hammett's story "Fly Paper," which appeared in August 1929 in BLACK MASK. In 1946 Shaw compiled THE HARD-BOILED OMNIBUS: EARLY STORIES FROM BLACK MASK, including stories by Hammett, Raymond Chandler, Raoul Whitfield, and George Harmon Coxe. To these names should be added W.R. Burnett, Jonathan Latimer, and Peter Cheyney. Later, hard-boiled fiction in a particularly violent phase became hugely popular in the Mike Hammer novels of Mickey Spillane.
A bit of a comment from William L. DeAndrea's Encyclopedia Mysteriosa (Prentice Hall, 1994).
The term hard-boiled has been around since WWI, during which (according to mystery novelist Donald E. Westlake) it was an adjective applied to the tough drill sergeants who made men out of boys and soldiers out of civilians. When the war ended, those soldiers turned back into civilians, popularizing the term hard- boiled into something referring to any person, or action, that reflected a tough, unsentimental point of view. The general consensus seems to be that defining "hardboiled" is like defining "jazz." There are some trademarks that a lot of the stories will have (tough guys, tough dames, slang, guns, booze, cigarettes, violence, corruption, alienation and sociopathic behavior), but you needn't have any or all of these to be hardboiled. Many hardboiled stories don't have detectives (e.g., Jim Thompson and James M. Cain). Some writers you wouldn't think of as fitting into the genre did write in a hardboiled way, and some writers who are usually classified as hardboiled didn't. Mario Taboada mentioned Ernest Hemingway, John Dos Passos and Geoffrey Household as three writers who are hardboiled, but never get classified with pulp writers..
James Gunnison, of adventurehouse.com writes: Pulp magazines became popular just before the first world war. Originally began as "Dime Novels," another cheap publication focused mostly toward young boys and girls. Frank A. Munsey turned his dime novel publication - GOLDEN ARGOSY into the new form of "Pulp" magazine. This change was a larger page count, full color covers and a focus on an older audience. The paper used was inexpensive newsprint or pulp paper, hence the term. Street & Smith created their first pulp when they re-titled their Dime Novel - Nick Carter Weekly into DETECTIVE STORY MAGAZINE.
Between World War I and World War II, the pulps became one of the dominate forces in popular culture. Magazines and writers came and went by the score. Some key magazines that came into being included: (they are not in any particular order)
As paperbacks and comics took over each end of the spectrum that the pulps served, the industry saw a decline. Yet if you could define the "heyday" of the pulps, you would have to proclaim the 30's as the "pulp 30's." The majority of the magazines published found their way onto the newsstands and into millions of homes during that turbulent time. From depression through the start of World War II, the pulps helped millions escape from their troubled lives.
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