Noir and Nationhood in the Twenty-First Century

By Professor David Schmid, Ph.D.

What should the relation between noir and nationhood be in the twenty-first century?

Image of a Killer pointing the gun at a terrified woman

Noir (And) Nation

At first glance, this is a question with an easy answer. After all, ever since Raymond Chandler published his classic essay “The Simple Art of Murder” in the Atlantic Monthly in December 1944, noir has been seen as distinctly American.

At one point in the essay, Chandler admits that the examples of the traditional type of detective story that he demolishes enthusiastically “are all English” but he goes on to claim that this is “only because the authorities (such as they are) seem to feel the English writers had an edge in this dreary routine.” Chandler is fooling nobody.

Learn More: The Detective is Born

One of the best things about “The Simple Art of Murder” is that Chandler so clearly has an axe to grind, and the nature of the axe becomes clear when he reaches his famous discussion of Dashiell Hammett: “I doubt that Hammett had any deliberate artistic aims whatever; he was trying to make a living by writing something he had first hand information about. He made some of it up; all writers do; but it had a basis in fact; it was made up out of real things. The only reality the English detection writers knew was the conversational accent of Surbiton and Bognor Regis.”

Hammett is important to Chandler partly because he is what he later calls a “realist in murder” and partly because of his style, which, in one of the most elliptical parts of the essay, Chandler claims “does not belong to Hammett or to anybody, but is the American language.”

Despite the ambiguity of such a claim, “The Simple Art of Murder” seems to argue definitively that what we now think of as noir, that is, a gritty and realistic style of crime writing, is distinctively American. And yet, this apparently straightforward connection between noir and nation gets more complicated as soon as we examine it.

Film Noir

As is well known, the origins of the term ‘film noir’ are French, specifically two essays written in 1946 by Nino Frank (““Un nouveau genre ‘policier:’ L’aventure criminelle”) and Jean-Pierre Chartier (“les Américains aussi font des films ‘noirs’”). The popular understanding of these articles is that they discuss exclusively American films, but in fact the term ‘film noir,’ as Charles O’Brien has shown, both pre-dates its use by Frank and Chartier and was also applied to French films during this period, including Quai des brumes (1937) by Marcel Carné and La Bête humaine (1938) by Jean Renoir.

Two points bear emphasizing here:

1. Both France and the United States seem to have a valid and substantive claim to the term ‘noir.’

2. The use of ‘noir’ as a term to describe either American crime films or fiction is both an import and a retrospective one, at that, making the link between noir-type crime narratives and Americanness as articulated by Raymond Chandler both more indirect and more complicated than it first appears.

Noir Narratives

Given the number and variety of positive associations that have been attached to noir narratives (realism, complexity, relativism, ambiguity, cynicism, and social critique, just to name a few), it is understandable that the bragging rights that come from national ‘ownership’ of the term would be hotly contested.

In order to respect both the history and the complexity of the term ‘noir,’ the relation between noir and nationhood must be treated carefully, today more than ever, when the international reach of crime fiction is greater than ever before. The current prominence of ‘Nordic Noir’ is a salient reminder not only of the boost given to the international profile of crime fiction by the success of Stieg Larsson’s ‘Millennium’ trilogy but also the extension of the term ‘noir’ to national spaces outside of France and the United States.

Image of map of Sweden through magnifying glass

Learn more: Nordic Noir

Examples of this extension can be seen everywhere, including ‘Noir Nation,’ a biannual ebook journal of international crime fiction, ‘Detectives Beyond Borders,’ Peter Rozovsky’s excellent blog on international crime fiction, and the Akashic Books Noir Series, a collection of anthologies featuring original noir fiction set in cities all over the world.

Resources such as these both reflect the fact that more international crime fiction is available in translation today than ever before, and contribute to the further development of this phenomenon.

Defining the Relationship Between Noir and Nation

Despite the many advantages of such resources, however, they also create the potential for a problem, and one that is the opposite of defining the relationship between noir and nation too narrowly, namely, defining it too broadly. The Akashic Books series, for example, now includes dozens of titles, all of which include ‘Noir’ in the title, whether their geographical location is Brooklyn or Moscow, Haiti or Mumbai. Presumably, ‘noir’ means something different in each case, and yet there is a danger that these differences will be flattened out through geographical expansion, resulting in the term ‘noir’ becoming increasingly emptied of any specific meaning beyond stylistic signifiers of the blandest possible kind.

To put it another way, if we should resist the implication that ‘noir’ is exclusively American, perhaps we should also resist the suggestion that ‘noir’ is an infinitely mobile and exportable concept, relevant in one way or another to all cultures across the globe.

Image of one blurred person (back turned) can be seen to the left. Grainy (real film grain).

Striking a Balance Between Extremes

In closing, I want to suggest that one way to strike a happy medium between the extremes of specificity and generality when considering the relation between noir and nation is to argue for a politically motivated definition of noir. This might seem like a contradictory move, but what I have in mind is unsettling the relation between noir and nation by making the connection between these two terms antagonistic rather than affiliative.

In other words, we need to accentuate the ways in which noir can critique the dominant discourses of nationhood, especially the premium such discourses place on belonging, hierarchy, and the status quo. Whether we’re thinking about the critique of welfare state liberalism in the Martin Beck series by the Swedish writers Maj Sjöwall & Per Wahlöö, or the analysis of the criminal activities of the Mexican state in Paco Ignacio Taibo II and Subcomandante Marcos’s The Uncomfortable Dead, perhaps we need to reclaim a sense of noir against nation.

Professor David Schmid is an Associate Professor in the Department of English at the University at Buffalo, The State University of New York (SUNY).
His lecture series, The Secrets of Great Mystery and Suspense Fiction is now available to stream at The Great Courses Plus
Works cited
Akashic Books,  Noir Series
Carne, Marcel, Quai des brumes (1937)
Chandler, Raymond,  “The Simple Art of Murder”
Chartier, Jean-Pierre Chartier “les Américains aussi font des films ‘noirs’
Frank, Nino, “Un nouveau genre ‘policier:’ L’aventure criminelle”
Larsson, Stieg, “Millennium” trilogy
Maj Sjöwall & Per Wahlöö, “Martin Beck” series
O’Brien, Charles, “The Death of Film Noir: On the Streets of Paris”
Paco Ignacio Taibo II and Subcomandante Marcos’s, “The Uncomfortable Dead
Renoir, Jean, La Bête humaine (1938)
Rozovsky’s, Peter, “Detectives Beyond Borders”