Crime Fiction | ‘Roman Noir’ and Hardboiled Private Eyes

You were dead, you were sleeping the big sleep […], oil and water were the same as wind and air to you. You just slept the big sleep, not caring about the nastiness of how you died or where you fell. Me, I was part of the nastiness now. Far more a part of it than Rusty Regan was.

Philip Marlowe in Raymond Chandler’s The Big Sleep

Crime fiction revolves primarily around mystery and action, although the acts of examination and observation are key to understanding the genre’s many nuances. The detective’s eye for scrutiny makes him/her the perfect archetype for such stories. Today, we look at two of the most prominent sub-genres of crime fiction: noir and hardboiled, in relation to several different writers and works. Most notably, two novels, both landmarks of their respective sub-genres: Raymond Chandler’s The Big Sleep and Jim Thompson’s The Grifters.[1]

The Grifters

In The Grifters, 60s Los Angeles is depicted as a lurid noir landscape, a city of violence and deception, as generous as it is unforgiving. A place where no one can be trusted, not even one’s own mother. The story follows three interlinked narratives. First, there’s Roy Dillon, a 25-year-old con artist trying to make a dishonest living. Then there’s Lily Dillon, Roy’s estranged and neglectful mother, a veteran grifter working for the mob. The final protagonist is Moira Langtry, Roy’s bombshell lover, who bears a striking resemblance to Lily.

Thompson’s novel is a roman noir with all the usual tropes. Lily embodies the dangerous and seductive femme fatale, but what separates antihero Roy from the Chandler and Hammett tradition is his criminal identity. There are also occasional leanings towards detective tropes, such as when Roy unravels the mystery behind the death of someone close to him. It is here that Thompson showcases a brilliant use of misdirection which we shan’t spoil here. The novel ends on a bleak note, none of the characters able to escape the grift, no matter how hard they try.

Both sub-genres, much like the gothic, deal with excess. Decadence, shameful secrets, and the seamy second lives we would rather remained hidden. Take James Ellroy’s The Black Dahlia[2], which examines in detail the titular murder victim Elizabeth Short, while also exploring a fictionalised solution to the real-world mystery surrounding her death. Themes of blackmail, incest, police corruption, and unresolved trauma in light of the Great War abound. This is only logical as both the roman noir and hardboiled, while influenced by American pulp writing and Italian giallo fiction, also grew out of Victorian sensation fiction, a genre built around shocking secrets and upended social orders. Furthermore, differences of character also set the two genres apart, as noir protagonists tend to be delinquents and criminals, whereas hardboiled fiction takes the classic bourgeois detective and reinvents him as the cynical, no-nonsense, working-class Private Eye.

Bogart in The Big Sleep: Gray Birdseye Wool Suit | BAMF Style
Humphrey Bogart as Philip Marlowe

Take the most famous PI of them all, Philip Marlowe. Typical of the genre, the The Big Sleep[3] boasts a complicated, multi-stranded plot in which wealthy LA oil baron General Sternwood hires Marlowe to resolve his youngest daughter Carmen’s blackmail debts. Carmen’s modesty is being held hostage with scandalous pictures by lowlife pornographer Arthur Gwynn Geiger. Later, Marlowe gets to know elder daughter Vivian, from whom he learns of her recently disappeared ex-bootlegger husband Rusty Regan. After finding Carmen drugged and naked in the pornographer’s studio, Geiger dead at her feet, the conspiracy, rather than unfolding for the reader, seems to wind tighter and tighter until the very end, when the main players responsible for Regan’s murder are revealed to have been those closest to him. His body was right under Marlowe’s nose from the very beginning.

The Big Sleep

Although he solves the mystery and the story resolves itself, there’s no moral judgement on Marlowe’s part. It doesn’t matter to him that Rusty Regan was rumoured to have absconded with Mona, wife of crook Eddie Mars. Nor does it matter that Regan was lying dead at the bottom of a stump in the Sternwood oilfields. Nor even that the deranged Carmen killed him after he’d spurned her advances, and that sister Vivian had paid gunman Lash Canino to hide the body. In his line of work, it’s best not to dwell on human nature.

The PI is a solitary character, unattached and better for it. (Marlowe, despite being a wise-cracking hard-drinker, is quite the philosopher and chess-player). His motivations are primarily money-related, striving towards simple goals like paying the rent or feeding a booze addiction. There are few aspirations to speak of. Both sub-genres, despite their frequent dalliances with the femme fatale, rarely see their characters embroiled in any kind of lasting romance, and changes to the formula are usually red herrings, as lovers and potential sweethearts often end up sacrificed in service of the plot.

Hardboiled detectives like Marlowe and Sam Spade tend to seek out simple goals, whereas noir fiction explores the promise of a new and better life just out of reach. The characters strive to scrape enough together to pay off their debts and leave the grift behind. The irony is that the grift refuses to let them go.

Jim Thompson throws us into the The Grifters just as Roy has been hit in the stomach with a baseball bat, after a con gone wrong. We learn that he lives on a knife-edge, teetering ever-closer to a precipice with every con he pulls. Without any meaningful relationships in his life, he drifts from one city to the next, unable to settle down. We discover the extent of Roy’s loneliness in a scene where he seems, for the first time, to have found a real friend. But this belief quickly gives way to paranoia as he wonders if he’s being conned. The tragedy of Roy’s character is that he can’t allow himself to trust anyone, lest he fall victim to the same grift he practices.

While the nuances of the roman noir and hardboiled fiction may at first seem too closely-knitted to disentangle, they are in fact quite distinct in tone, although both sub-genres share one thing in common. They are intrinsically voyeuristic – all about looking, seeing, watching – specifically watching and waiting. Dennis Porter links the private eye genre to “the (forbidden) pleasures associated with Freud’s scopic drive[4][5], which James Ellroy utilizes to great effect in The Big Nowhere[6]. Danny Upshaw’s “Man Camera” grants him the means to satisfy, albeit fleetingly, the excessive, repetitive and destructive desires of the id[7].

James Ellroy - IMDb
“Demon dog of American crime fiction”, James Ellroy

As Ellroy himself puts it, “[they go] around looking to be eroticized by interceding in the big events, lives, and criminal cases […] countermand[ing] [their] internal chaos by imposing order on external events.”[8] Ellroy’s protagonists are highly moral, despite their brutality and willingness to break laws, often possessing chaotic interior lives. Ellroy is so ruthless with his main characters, in fact, that it’s not uncommon for him to abruptly kill them off at a moment’s notice, allowing the story to continue from another character’s perspective. This goes to show that nothing is sacred in the worlds of crime fiction. Questionable morals and reckless actions, however well-intentioned, must all lead to an untimely end.

Contrastingly, Robert Coover’s self-parodying novel Noir[9] maintains a second person perspective throughout, which allows the reader to piece Philip M. Noir’s, or rather your, character together through his thoughts and observations. Noir is the very essence of an archetype and the novel’s labyrinthine plotting and fractured style mimic the tropes of many of crime fiction’s seminal texts. Interestingly, despite its title, Coover’s novel doesn’t fall under the roman noir genre, because, as we have learned, it is the hardboiled protagonist’s virtuous, if cynical, morals that separates him from the criminal antiheroes of Double Indemnity[10] and The Postman Always Rings Twice.[11]

Noir by Robert Coover

James Ellroy blurs the lines even more by having his protagonists commit terrible acts in their pursuit of justice. Unsympathetic and brutal, Ellroy’s characters are worlds away from Chandler’s idealised detective: “[the] [un-mean] man […] neither tarnished nor afraid […] the hero […] a complete man and a common man and yet an unusual man […] a man of honor”[12]. Ellroy’s Buzz Meeks, Budd White and Dave Klein all, while virtuous in their own ways, embody a far more cynical, destructive type of character than, say, Coover’s Philip M. Noir. Moreover, Ellroy is famous for his terse style that lacks unnecessary ornamentation, stripped of adverbs and most definite articles and pronouns, focusing wholly on the plot and images at hand. He writes in the first person as often as the third, but it is the first person narrative voice and perspective that allow for a sufficiently broad means of “observing and representing the world. Not only is what is said important but how it is said and the voice that says it.”[13] For Dennis Porter, this voice is a “distinctly male voice, the voice of a man who has knocked about a bit, and knows how to handle himself”[14]. The voice of a man drawn in shades of grey rather than black and white.

The noir/hardboiled protagonist, be him criminal or private eye, occupies a liminal role in society, although this is especially true of noir criminal characters. By transgressing boundaries off-limits to ordinary civilians, these characters are, as Christopher G. Moore writes, “rarely binary, clear and absolute. Instead their choices in the struggle for justice become blurry, compromised, incomplete, pointless and absurd.”[15] In Alice Thompson’s The Existential Detective[16], Scottish PI William Blake’s dire personal loss pervades the narrative, as he fixates on a mystery that seemingly cannot be solved. Blake’s slippery moral code, plus the perpetual purgatory he inhabits, convey his liminality to the reader. Like Noir, the ambiguous, hyperreal plot, and hardboiled style, and the uncanny setting of Portobello, all contribute to an eerie dreamlike landscape.

The Existential Detective, Alice Thompson - Salt
The Existential Detective

Readers and critics look down on crime fiction, perhaps because of its pessimism or its base subject matter. We must ask ourselves, what purpose does crime fiction serve then? In contrast to Hercule Poirot and Sherlock Holmes, both of whom, by solving crimes, help re-establish social order, the hardboiled detective, although he may solve the crime in the end, does not reassure us in the same way. He lingers on the brutal and seamy, unable always to provide the answers and reassurance that we desire. In today’s troubled world, Chandler’s frank, cynical Marlowe and Ellroy’s host of morally grey (if not outright corrupt) cops, ring especially true. Crime fiction’s reason for existence, particularly hardboiled and noir, is to “[deconstruct] the security state by exposing its acts, secret and public, of hypocrisy, venality, and brutality.”[17] The hardboiled/noir writer casts their cynical eye over society to keep us on our toes, reminding us that crime and civilisation are, and have always been, inseparable.


[1] Jim Thompson, The Grifters (New York: Regency Books, 1963).

[2] James Ellroy, The Big Nowhere (New York: The Mysterious Press, 1988).

[3] Raymond Chandler, The Big Sleep (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1939).

[4] Dennis Porter, ‘The Private Eye’, in The Cambridge Companion to Crime Fiction (Cambridge: CUP, 2003), p. 99.

[5] One of Freud’s four partial drives (oral, anal, invocatory, and scopic). The drive to look and observe, and finding these acts to be pleasurable ends in themselves to satisfy the pleasure principle – the unconscious desire for jouissance.

[6] James Ellroy, The Big Nowhere (London: Arrow, 1988).

[7] Porter, p. 95.

[8] Owen Hewitson, ‘What Does Lacan Say About . . . Jouissance?’ <> [accessed: 9 September 2017].

[9] Robert Coover, Noir (New York: Overlook Duckworth, 2011).

[10] James M. Cain, Double Indemnity (New York: Avon, 1943).

[11] James M. Cain, The Postman Always Rings Twice (St Helens: Orion, 2005).

[12] James Ellroy, in ‘Engaging the Horror’, Stephen Powell, ed., Conversations with James Ellroy (Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2012), p. 158.

[13] Raymond Chandler, in The Simple Art of Murder, James Nelson, ed., (New York: Norton, 1968), p. 530.

[14] Christopher G. Moore, ‘A Meaning of Noir’ <> [accessed 14 September 2017].

[15] Alice Thompson, The Existential Detective (Norfolk: Salt Publishing, 2014).

[16] Moore [accessed 14 September 2017].

[17] Porter, p. 99.

Written by Michael Conroy.

Copyright © 2020 Sirius Editorial | All Rights Reserved

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