A newspaper columnist who was kind enough to write about a book of mine once asked me what “noir” is. I know it when I see it, I replied, after a long pause. It was the best I could do, and that was just because I’d seen enough black and white movies that fit the bill to know what they look like – rainy, grainy, at least one world-weary guy in a trenchcoat and one wisecracking, sultry-looking dame with a steely exterior and a soft heart.
As for written noir, that’s a different story (no pun intended). A lot of detective stories are simply cop procedurals minus the cop, but they’re called noir because they’re detective stories.
I was challenged to write a noir story for an anthology several years back, so I invoked the formula as I understood it. The printed page took care of the black and white. I added a detective protagonist, set it in the 1930s and worked certain moral ambiguities into the plot. It was successful enough to be nominated for the Shamus Award, so I kept on writing stories about that detective. They were published in Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, in a section called The Black Mask – the name of a magazine that published classic noir back in the day.
When I look at those stories now it’s obvious that some were more noir than others. Indian Rose was the most successful in that respect.
Indian Rose is about a murder, two murders actually, but one is no mystery. The victim lived by a code and chose to violate it, so his days were numbered. The tale revolves around the other one. The detective is hired to find out who killed a 16 year old girl, and in the course of doing so loses his professional perspective to the extent that he wants to avenge her death. How he copes with that is the subtext, and it’s also what stamps the story as noir. It was published in the June 2009 issue of Ellery Queen’s.
Click this link for a free download of Indian Rose on my website. Whatever else that story might be, it’s noir, in my opinion. I’d be interested to hear if you agree.
And if you’re interested, check out my new noir novel, Smoke Got In My Eyes.