Noir and Romance: A Marriage Made in Heaven or Hell?

What defines noir fiction? The language is lyrical, evocative, brooding, and a touch philosophical. But what about the characters and plot? Which do you remember most when you think of your favorite noir fiction? Do you remember the plot? Take as a prime example Dashiell’s Hammet’s paragon noir novel, The Maltese Falcon. At issue was a statue of the Maltese Falcon. Somebody stole it and the detective has the task of recovering it. Most readers hardly remember the plot because the statue is actually insignificant in the scheme of the book.But most readers remember the dame–the slinky, conniving, sexy dame. The last thing the hero needs is a woman—especially this woman. But he is helpless against her charms. In most noir fiction you might remember the plot, you might remember where it’s set, and you likely remember the atmosphere. But what started the whole plot rolling and kept it going to the end was the dame, and the hero’s romantic, hopeless attraction to her.

Name any fiction that you consider noir and pretty much the first thing that happens in the book is that a dame walks into the detective’s (police or private) office. Or the detective goes to her house to investigate a crime. Or she latches onto him at a party or at a restaurant. One way or another he meets a woman who has a problem. She’s pretty sure he can solve it. Whether helpless or hard-boiled, she’s sexy, she needs him–and she’s lying. Our hero knows the woman is bad news, but something about her grabs him and won’t let go.


Sometimes noir writers add another woman to the mix—the sweet one. She’s got short hair, a cute little face, an earnest way about her and she’s in love with the detective. The hero would give anything to be in love with her, but he’s a sucker for the dame.


That holds true for the new noir writers as much as the old ones. One of my favorites from last year was Matt Coyle’s Yesterday’s Echo (a debut novel that won the Anthony Award). Melody Malana walks into Rick’s life and he’s a goner. Even when she is arrested for murder, he keeps trying to make excuses for her—that is when he isn’t admitting to himself that she is bad news. As the cover blurb says, when she asks for help, “the former cop says no, but the rest of him says yes.”


A couple of years ago Galveston, by Nic Pizzolato (the mind behind the TV series True Detective), was a debut noir novel. Deep, bitter, compelling, it followed a washed-up criminal as he…what exactly? Who remembers exactly what the plot was about? What you remember is Tiffany. She’s too young for Roy, too ditsy, too scared, too damaged. And yet the doomed pair clings to each other, knowing the end isn’t going to be a walk into the sunset. He knows he should walk away, but he can’t.

Noir and Romance: A Marriage Made in Heaven or Hell?

The plot is always about the hero against a cold, uncaring world. That world has been cruel to the woman, and the hero is determined to make it right for her—or get beaten within an inch of his life trying. And in the end, he’s almost always disappointed. The dame deserts him, either because she dies or is arrested, or goes back to the bad man she loves, or she realizes their love will never work because he’s too damaged. Only once in a while does she stay around—usually because she feels sorry for him.


Now pick up any romance novel. The plucky heroine is determined to make her way in the world, but is facing tough odds. She either yearns for or disdains to have a man in her life. But a man walks in and she’s interested in spite of herself. He’s arrogant, secretive, has a suspicious past. But he’s also handsome and sexy. At first she resists him, but gradually he wins her over. Like noir fiction, the plot can be anything: The heroine is about to lose her business to a big, bad corporation, or she’s determined to save the farm, or she’s incredibly talented and undervalued, or…anything. But the book is about the romance. Unlike noir, in the romance novel, the heroine and the hero almost always end up together.


Noir and romance fiction are two sides of the same coin. Noir may have a darker world, a tense plot and a lot of mayhem that ends in heartbreak, but it’s all tied up with the romance. In a romance novel, the prose may be less brooding and the plot may be about more ordinary people in ordinary situations, and the lovers end up together—but either way, it’s about the romance.