What’s the Difference in Hard-Boiled and Noir? It’s All in the Protagonist.

Hard-Boiled and Noir

(This guest post was written by author and P.I. Tales creator Michael Pool)

There’s an old saying in the writing industry: “Genre is for the marketing department.” And that’s true, to a point. Identifying a book’s genre (and sub-genre) is a key part of identifying a book’s audience. If a publisher, author, or anyone else in the publishing process doesn’t understand who a book will be marketed to, that book is much more likely to fail than another book, even if it is intrinsically a better book (a subjective assessment in its own right).

This does not mean, however, that genre is EXCLUSIVELY for the marketing people. Quite the contrary. Genres and sub-genres each have their own set of tropes, precedents, and context that authors must internalize as much as their audiences do.

But there seems to be a lot of confusion with certain genres, particularly when it comes to sub-genres. Perhaps no two sub-genres in the mystery fiction world are more often conflated than hard-boiled and noir. 

Film Noir: Where the Confusion Began

I trace the confusion about hard-boiled and noir back to the days of film noir, where hard-boiled detective novels were often brought into film alongside their more classically noir counterparts. Granted, at the time film noir was not a genre at all. That classification happened later. This is responsible for much of the confusion. Films adapted from novels like The Big Sleep are as much a part of the “canon” of film noir as are actual noir novels such as Double Indemnity. The difference is that one of these books is hard-boiled, the other is noir, though the films based on each are referred to as film noir.

In fact, I chose these two stories in particular because the novels the films are based on perfectly encapsulate the differences in noir and hard-boiled fiction. To properly explain these differences, it can be helpful to start with a working definition of each sub-genre, which I will provide here.

In a nutshell, the difference is all about the protagonist. Read that again. It’s. All. About. The. Protagonist. I don’t mean superficial traits such as clothing, setting, or background. I mean it is about the protagonist’s approach to their life, their intentions, and how they deal with their own personal shortcomings.

Let’s start with noir.

Noir

To borrow from Christianity, the definition of sin is when an individual knows a behavior is bad and engages in it anyway. In religious terms, such individuals are doomed unless they choose to repent. And more importantly, to change.

Similarly, in noir fiction, the protagonist is a sinner, by choice and by action. The noir protagonist has a weakness, a deep character flaw they seem unable or unwilling to eschew. As the story arc of a noir protagonist plays out, rather than repenting from that flaw, they will continue to double down on it, over and over, until total self-destruction is achieved.

The noir protagonist cannot cast the ring into the fire, no matter how much turmoil the ring brings them. And yes, I just brought Tolkien into the discussion.

Noir protagonists are losers who lose the game by failing to grow and change. Their flaws reveal a selfishness in them, an inability to conform to reasonable norms. This selfishness will eventually consume them entirely.

Dennis Lehane said it like this: “In Greek Tragedies they fall from great heights. In noir, they fall from the curb.”

A noir protagonist, such as James M. Cain’s Walter Neff in Double Indemnity, has a deep character flaw that they tend to view as an advantage. They can be likable, they can be charming, and they can be worth rooting for, the same as any other protagonist. And yet they are obsessed with taking the easy way out, even when the easy way may be harder in the long run. Even when their desire to rise is noble and applaudable, the shortsighted way they choose to go about that rise dooms them from the start.

The important verb in Lehane’s quote above is FALL. Noir protagonists fall. Most of all, they fall victim to their own shortcomings, schemes, and worst-laid plans. They may or may not be anti-heroes, but they are doomed to fall, plain and simple. They fall while climbing out of the gutter using the same strategies that put them into the gutter in the first place. That is what Lehane means by falling from the curb. The noir protagonist won’t get far in their climb toward greater heights because their climbing apparatus is faulty.

Since noir stories have undergone a television revival in recent years, I’ll provide an example from that medium to emphasize my point. I can think of no better example than Vince Gilligan’s Jimmy McGill, popularized through Breaking Bad (a fantastic noir tale in its own right), and lionized in the spinoff Better Call Saul, now airing its fifth season. In fact, it was while watching this show, as well as digesting a recent interview I gave regarding why I started P.I. Tales, that I first had the idea for this article.

Jimmy is likable in every way, and even a bit earnest. He’s capable, intelligent, and charming. And in many ways, Jimmy is even good. His heart is often in the right place, and he cares for those around him.

But there is a deep flaw in Jimmy. He has an almost insatiable thirst for the grift. No matter how much his prospects are looking up, no matter how often he threatens to break out of the spiral and take his place among the hardworking and successful, in the end this character flaw will destroy his progress.

Jimmy continually trips over the curb on his way to standing back up. Whether that means doctoring addresses on important legal paperwork, taking bribes to conceal criminal behavior, or scamming the system on behalf of his clients, Jimmy will always, always fall off the curb back into the gutter. Even when handed a near-certain path to success, Jimmy ultimately eschews the opportunity once his flawed approach has already essentially destroyed it. And just like that, he is out of the corner office and back in the closet of the nail salon, where he started.  

Jimmy is a noir protagonist, and that is the reason we leave him at the end of Breaking Bad drowning once again in the fruits of his flaws. How thrilling to get to see his rise to the edge of that curb over and over in Better Call Saul.

Hard-Boiled

Now that we have noir defined, we can move on to hard-boiled. To return to our literary example, let’s take a look at Raymond Chandler’s Phillip Marlowe, the protagonist in The Big Sleep. Like a typical noir story, Marlowe’s world is bleak, full of the crooked and wicked, the abusers of power and prestige. Let’s look at what Chandler himself had to say about the hard-boiled detective before we begin to shape our definition.

“Down these mean streets a man must go who is not himself mean, who is neither tarnished nor afraid.”

We have enshrined this quote on the P.I. Tales website for a reason. Chandler lays out a near-perfect definition of the hard-boiled detective as a protagonist. Such protagonists may be rough around the edges, as Marlowe certainly is. But they are not “mean”, which was Chandler’s way of pointing out that they are not flawed at heart. The hard-boiled protagonist, similar to a noir protagonist, may have flaws, they may bend or break rules, and they may violate social norms as they go about their business. But the hard-boiled protagonist does these things to set the world right in whatever way they can. They may not climb to great heights, but neither do they fall into gutters.

When faced with greed, with malice, and with injustice, or the opportunity to partake in any of these, the hard-boiled protagonist does not fall for the moral bait. They don’t try to use circumstances to their advantage to usurp easy success. In fact, success is not the point at all, which is why so many hard-boiled detectives find themselves working long after their clients stop paying. This has become a trope in detective fiction for a reason.

Hard-boiled protagonists are anti-heroes and just plain heroes alike. Their methods might not shine under the light of day, but their intention is always to set the world back in order (at least as they see it within their own moral code). They are strong men and women who will stop at nothing to regain this order, and who will be tortured by every failure to do so for time immemorial.

If the hard-boiled protagonist is to become a victim to vice, that vice will be their obsession with their work. Which could be seen as a moral mission, rather than a flaw. They may break rules, take drugs, drink too much, or any other number of similar flaws, but their intentions are relatively pure. At the end of the day, this will save them from the fall.

And that is where the crossover, and thus the confusion, happens. Bleak landscapes and fatalism may be enough to define film noir, but when it comes to defining noir and hard-boiled fiction, these details are trumped by the protagonist’s motivations and resulting outcomes.

To take another case study from modern television (this one again adapted from excellent books), I will use Joe Lansdale’s Hap and Leonard series. Hap and Leonard are rough around the edges. They have anti-social tendencies, and they are out of sync with the law much of the time.

But that does not make them noir protagonists. Quite the contrary. Hap and Leonard are unstoppable forces once they get on the path to solving a problem. They feel a great drive to set their world in order, to right the scales. They will shy away from nothing, including death, to help those in their charge. They are textbook anti-heroes and textbook examples of hard-boiled protagonists. When given the choice between personal gain and personal responsibility, Hap and Leonard always choose the latter. This is why they are not noir protagonists.

Hard-Boiled and Noir: Grey Areas Abound

And, of course, there is much more crossover between these two genres than I list here. That will have to wait for another day. As an author who has written books in both sub-genres, I am here to tell you there is a lot to love in each. And, chances are, you will see a bit of each as the P.I. Tales collection grows over time. But, for now, I hope you will consider taking the time to check out my own hard-boiled protagonist, Riley Reeves, when her debut novel, Throwing Off Sparks, hits shelves on May 12, 2020.

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