NoirCon | Report #1

NOIRCON-sqI think of noir as a sensibility, one that acknowledges the grim realities that underlie the shiny, optimistic surface view of life.



This was my first year attending NoirCon, a celebration of all things noir held every other year in Philadelphia. In the interest of full disclosure, I will begin by noting that I did not attend the entire event due to limited capacity (the event is capped at 200 participants, and some of the social events were already booked up before my arrival) and I wasn’t there for the entire long weekend. Nonetheless, it proved an interesting experience and particularly expanded my understanding of the term “noir.”

Trying to define what does and doesn’t qualify as noir is a good way to start an argument, but still I’ll risk offering a personal definition. I think of noir as a sensibility, one that acknowledges the grim realities that underlie the shiny, optimistic surface view of life. The subjects of noir tend to be outsiders who aren’t particularly privileged or powerful, and who have learned firsthand that life is not fair (at least not for them). If a noir character is caught in a downward spiral, as many are, the reason may be their own actions (although the consequences may be unduly harsh in relation to the transgression), or it may simply be the workings of fate.

I first became aware of the noir sensibility through film, which is perhaps not surprising since film noir is one of America’s great contributions to the cinematic art. However, much of NoirCon 2014 was devoted to noir writing, which most often refers to crime fiction with a noir sensibility (some like to use the label “hard boiled,” but that’s just one part of the picture). Examples of classic writers in noir fiction include James M. Cain, Raymond Chandler, and Cornell Woolrich, while more contemporary writers working in the field include Dennis Lehane, James Ellroy, and Megan Abbott.

Noir fiction was, and is, incredibly popular in France, and the Série noir published by Gallimard featured many American writers. Even today, some American noir writers are more honored in France than in their home country, a case in point being Philadelphia’s own David Goodis. In fact, the forerunner to NoirCon was GoodisCon, held in 2009 and devoted to this master of the genre.

Goodis, born in Philadelphia in 1917, was a prolific writer whose best-known works include the novels Dark Passage (1946; adapted in 1947 as a film of the same name starring Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall) and Down There (1956; adapted in 1960 by Francois Truffaut as Shoot the Piano Player). Goodis’s personal life is a bit more mysterious. Following an unsuccessful stint in Hollywood, he returned to Philadelphia and lived in relative obscurity (while continuing to publish, mostly for the pulps) until his death in 1967 at age 49. The only biography available of him, David Goodis: A Life in Black and White, was written in French and only recently became available in English. When this biography was published in the 1970s, none of Goodis’s works were available in English, but now he’s featured in two volumes of the Library of America series and several of his books are available in paperback and/or in electronic formats.

Noir fiction is a thriving commercial genre today, a fact highlighted during Deen Kogan’s interview of Bronwen Hruska, an author, journalist, screenwriter, and publisher of Soho Press. Much of what you hear about book publishing these days is doom and gloom, so it was encouraging to hear about a press that publishes good books and is actually making money doing so. Soho has three imprints—Soho Press (literary fiction), Soho Crime (international crime fiction), and Soho Teen (YA mysteries and thrillers)—with Soho Crime the most immediately relevant to adult fans of noir. It’s my new favorite thing, anyway, as it publishes books combining crime fiction and international settings loaded with cultural detail. | Sarah Boslaugh

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