Noir (regardless of whether it’s classic, neo or psycho) is a niche market, I think we all know that (readers and writers alike). If you are tuned into its wavelength then it’s the wildest ride you can go on. But the fact is that most readers aren’t tuned in, or if they are they’re only tuned in halfway, so that the interference mixes it up with a load of other stuff. It only takes a bit of extra tuning to turn the wavelength all the way.
Harlen Coben, for instance, takes the ordinary man in waaaay over his noggin (a noir staple) and puts a different slant on it; more positive in outlook, more likeable characters, more emphasis on milking all possible suspense and action from the scenario. In the wrong hands this might turn into total crap, but Coben’s got a master’s hand, so he makes it work beautifully, and the audience loves him for it, in droves.
Lee Child takes the hardboiled, laconic, tough as nails hero and sends him into action. Jack Reacher really is just Kells in A Fast One, or Mike Hammer, or any number of hardboiled and western heroes, but put inside a modern-day shell. Readers love him for it, and again in droves.
Elmore Leonard is a great example of a writer who has taken elements of noir and hardboiled fiction and made a tidy audience from it and his publishers have packaged his work superbly, especially in the wake of Jackie Brown (Tarantino’s adaptation of Rum Punch).
George Pelecanos effortlessly straddles noir and hardboiled styles and sells rather well too.
All the elements are there in noir to connect with a modern audience, but somehow the use of the term almost certainly dooms most of its practitioners to the section marked ‘special interests’ or, more bluntly, ‘weird stuff’. You know, that special place that guarantees very few sales.
Then I had a thought, why the hell can’t noir sell in the modern market? Part of the problem is perception: the notion that noir is niche being the main problem; the way it’s sold to the audience is another; and the fact that the Big Six publishers really don’t give a damn about anything other than giving the audience what it thinks it wants is also an issue.
Hard Case Crime seemed like a good start, and I was really excited about a comeback for noir, until I saw those covers. Frankly, they’re not the answer. Don’t get me wrong, they’re nicely designed and illustrated but the whole enterprise screams NICHE! That style of illustration was of its time and it helped sell copies way back when, when you needed to make an instant impression on a concessions stand in a bus or train station, but what is it honestly likely to achieve in this day and age? It’ll sell to people like us, the folks who buy Cornell Woolrich, Jason Starr and Ken Bruen anyway, but what about Mr and Mrs Random Browser? Will they be compelled to buy based on these covers? Somehow I’m not so sure. I hope they succeed, I really do, because I love noir; I love reading it, writing it, watching it; and if they can make it work then maybe they can bring some of those long forgotten masters into the modern age. But I’m still not convinced by their approach.
Personally, I think the right covers and the right kind of marketing can make bestsellers out of anything. The levelling of the playing field by ebooks and the fact that, at the moment at least, Big Publishing can’t compete in price terms means the opportunity to revitalise noir is probably the best it’s ever been. Sell the readers a wild ride (even if it is a down slide) and there’s no reason why noir can’t make a comeback. Sell readers the kind of crazy shit that only noir can deliver, in spades, and on this new level playing field there’s no reason why we noir practitioners can’t have bestseller after bestseller.
There’s a new age upon us…