Why does noir crime fiction resurface during times of uncertainty, when societies seem to have lost their moral compasses? Perhaps when reassuring parables with happy endings don’t ring true, tougher-minded readers reach for books that are, at heart, dystopian and dark, charting the inevitably downward course of doomed losers who are driven to their fate by their own demons.
In noir the protagonists aren’t outsiders called in to restore order, but rather people directly connected to the crime: victims and perpetrators. So noir isn't about private detectives (or their frequent surrogates, reporters) where a hero—or anti-hero—may emerge battered and bruised and even more cynical, but restores some kind of moral balance (and restores the reader’s faith in society). And no way is it police procedural, where the workings of law-enforcement—even if they are flawed—trump over lawlessness.
In noir, if there are cops (or other representatives of the establishment), which are "bent," they're serving their own outlaw agenda. And unlike traditional mysteries, capers and procedures, where the story is all about the crime, noir is all about the characters.
What I have always admired about noir fiction is the unflinching way the best of it deals with tough social issues, so when I started writing crime novels set in South Africa--one of the most violent and corrupt countries in the world—I found noir to be the most accurate prism through which to view this society in turmoil.
Apartheid is over, but a crime epidemic, poverty and the highest incidence of HIV/AIDS on the planet present new challenges. The ex-commissioner of police was sentenced to fifteen years in prison for corruption. One in three South African women will be raped in their lifetime. Teenage girls are sold into slave marriages in the name of tradition and men believe that raping our virgins—often children—will cure them of AIDS. Noir country, for sure.
American noir, too, has always questioned its society (from James M. Cain to James Ellroy) and it’s unsurprising that this dark brand of fiction is the engine-room of radical new crime writing emerging from the U.S. Younger writers like Frank Bill (Crimes in Southern Indiana) and Keith Rawson (The Chaos We Know), have both recently published anthologies that paint a bleak picture of the heartland of post-9/11 America: stories of unemployment, disintegrating families and rural meth labs.
So, what better time than now—as protests against the established order sweep the globe—for a resurgence of this brand of existential, deeply pessimistic crime fiction?
(Excerpted from The Mystery Writers.)