What Makes a Noir Novel? Considering Nightmare Alley

When I helped lead a presentation for Inkling Folk Fellowship on William Lindsay Gresham’s novel Nightmare Alley, there were some sub-topics I wasn’t sure would come up. There was a chance we would talk about the movie Shadowlands, or about how Gresham’s spiritual journey compared to C.S. Lewis’ spiritual journey. Since the 1947 movie Nightmare Alley qualifies as film noir, there was also a chance that we would have to talk about what makes a noir movie or a noir novel.

Here’s a short explanation of noir that I had ready in case it came up. Most of its ideas are expanded from “Notes on Fairy-Tale and Noir,” the last section in an article I wrote for A Pilgrim in Narnia about Gresham’s Nightmare Alley and C.S. Lewis’ That Hideous Strength.

Nightmare Alley and Noir

Academics and fans alike have defined Nightmare Alley as a noir novel. This is a complicated term, because noir is the somewhat inbred offspring of hardboiled fiction. Writers like James M. Cain, Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler created hardboiled fiction in their stories for 1920s American pulp magazines. These stories were about urban crime, corrupt police and private eyes who aren’t above bending laws to get the truth. It was a very different attitude about crime than Golden Age Detective Fiction, created in the same period by C.S. Lewis’ friend Dorothy Sayers and others.

Is Hardboiled Nihilistic?

However, hardboiled and Golden Age Detective Fiction may not be total opposites. On the one hand, in his 1950 essay “The Simple Art of Murder,” Chandler criticizes Sayers, A.A. Milne and others for making crime too neat. On the other hand, he ends the essay saying all good art has redemption. For Chandler, that apparently meant that hardboiled stories should be realistic, but the detective should bring justice to a messy world:

“In everything that can be called art there is a quality of redemption. It may be pure tragedy, if it is high tragedy, and it may be pity and irony, and it may be the raucous laughter of the strong man. But down these mean streets a man must go who is not himself mean, who is neither tarnished nor afraid. The detective in this kind of story must be such a man. He is the hero; he is everything. He must be a complete man and a common man and yet an unusual man. He must be, to use a rather weathered phrase, a man of honor-by instinct, by inevitability, without thought of it, and certainly without saying it. He must be the best man in his world and a good enough man for any world. I do not care much about his private life; he is neither a eunuch nor a satyr; I think he might seduce a duchess and I am quite sure he would not spoil a virgin; if he is a man of honor in one thing, he is that in all things.

He is a relatively poor man, or he would not be a detective at all. He is a common man or he could not go among common people. He has a sense of character, or he would not know his job. He will take no man’s money dishonestly and no man’s insolence without a due and dispassionate revenge. He is a lonely man and his pride is that you will treat him as a proud man or be very sorry you ever saw him. He talks as the man of his age talks-that is, with rude wit, a lively sense of the grotesque, a disgust for sham, and a contempt for pettiness.

The story is this man’s adventure in search of a hidden truth, and it would be no adventure if it did not happen to a man fit for adventure. He has a range of awareness that startles you, but it belongs to him by right, because it belongs to the world he lives in. If there were enough like him, the world would be a very safe place to live in, without becoming too dull to be worth living in.”

Raymond Chandler, The Simple Art of Murder: An Essay

In short, for Chandler, the hardboiled detective is a knight. Leigh Brackett, who adapted Chandler’s The Big Sleep and The Long Goodbye to the screen, described this detective as “the knight in shining armor with a shabby trench coat and snap-brim felt hat” (Films in Review 1976 interview, republished here). Given Chandler’s World War I service, one could compare this mix of realism and honor to the mix of pessimism and desire for hope in so many WWI poets.

From Hardboiled to Noir: A Complicated History

In the 1940s, several events created a shift from hardboiled to noir fiction. Cornell Woolrich published The Bride Wore Black in 1940, which according to John M. Reilly, was allegedly marketed in France as a roman noir novel (Twentieth Century Crime & Mystery Writers, pg. 1511). In 1945, publisher Marcel Duhamel started the imprint Serié Noire, which published many hardboiled novels, further making “noire” synonymous with crime fiction. At the same time, hardboiled novels were being adapted (sometimes by hardboiled authors) into stylized movies like Double Indemnity and The Maltese Falcon. In 1946, French critics Nino Frank and Jean-Pierre Chartier labeled these movies “film noir.”

Gresham’s novel Nightmare Alley came out at the cusp of this change, and may help explain what separates noir from hardboiled fiction. Novelist Megan Abbot says that hardboiled fiction borrows its moral sensibility from an earlier genre:

“The common argument is that hardboiled novels are an extension of the wild west and pioneer narratives of the 19th century. The wilderness becomes the city, and the hero is usually a somewhat fallen character, a detective or a cop. At the end, everything is a mess, people have died, but the hero has done the right thing or close to it, and order has, to a certain extent, been restored.”

Megan Abbott, Literary Hub interview with Annie Adams

This fits Chandler’s idea that the hardboiled detective brings reform to a raw environment. The fact that most hardboiled stories were written during the 1920s, when American authorities were struggling to enforce often ludicrous Prohibition policies, further highlights this concept. This was a time when law and order had become hard to enforce and authorities not always respected. Someone had to restore order, and in hardboiled fiction, the detective did it.

Noir, in contrast, has crime, but doesn’t require such a moral code per se. As Abbot explains it, “in noir, everyone is fallen, and right and wrong are not clearly defined and maybe not even attainable.” The detective is gone. We see this attitude in Nightmare Alley, a book about crime, that has no detective protagonist. Justice happens because Stan Carlisle’s house of cards falls in on itself, not from the authorities finding him.

Another way to understand hardboiled versus noir is that they focus on different concepts. Eddie Dugan argues in his essay “Writing in the Darkness” that hardboiled fiction highlights societal corruption, while noir highlights personal psychology. In Nightmare Alley, Gresham shows Stan’s childhood, which could become a discussion on how the 1930s Depression forced men to leave home and fight dirty to make a living. Instead, Gresham emphasizes how Stan’s childhood shaped him, and shows Stan’s psychoanalyst exploiting what she learns. It’s a story with the 1930s at the back of its mind, set in the uncertain 1940s. However, Gresham is more interested in Stan’s personal journey than in the era that shaped him.

As much debate as there has been about the line between hardboiled and noir fiction, there has been just as much debate about whether noir is nihilistic. Some, such as Thomas Hibbs, have argued that noir gets close to nihilism, but uses despair to open up a conversation about why we feel despair. If we despair at life’s amoral workings, that implies we are born with a yearning for morality and order. Nightmare Alley has perhaps the bleakest ending of any noir novel, but as some reviewers noted when the 2021 movie version came out, it’s best seen as an Old Testament style fable. Thus, it certainly differs from the Inklings work, but perhaps serves as a dark complement. Its view of life is bleak, but it doesn’t give into nihilism. Ryder W. Miller said this this when he reviewed Nightmare Alley’s 2010 edition:

Nightmare Alley succeeds as a great study of the individual trying to cope with a difficult and bizarre world… The Inklings in their heroic fiction tends to focus more on clean-cut folks with worthier aspirations. This book is more an exploration of the desperate places of the soul — but not without its merits for all that, or perhaps even because of that.”

Reviews: Nightmare Alley, Mythprint 48:5 (#346) in May 2011

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