Literary Hub

Megan Abbott on the Difference Between Hardboiled and Noir

The following interview appears in full in the new issue of The Sewanee Review.


The Edgar Award-winning author Megan Abbott feels at home writing about subjects most of us wouldn’t touch with a ten-foot pole. Her newest novel, Give Me Your Hand, concerns a young scientist researching premenstrual dysphoric disorder, a severe, poorly understood form of PMS. Periods aren’t the only taboo Abbott’s intent on examining. Her previous novels engage parent-child relationships, mass hysteria and the desires of young people with a Hitchcockian fluency and sense of urgency.

Abbott is the author of nine novels and The Street Was Mine, a nonfiction study of gender and race in 20th-century hardboiled fiction which grew out of her graduate studies at New York University. In time, Abbott’s enthusiasm for detective novels led to a somewhat accidental career writing novels that inhabit the world of classic noir while tangling with contemporary issues. Her books are described as crime fiction, psychological thrillers, and domestic noirs, labels which disguise the fact Abbott’s stories are first and foremost works of supremely consumable art. There is an art in sustained momentum, after all, on artfulness in telling a story so well that readers simply “can’t put it down.” Abbott is gracious but skeptical of the labels applied to her work, with a keen sense of the impulses that drive us, often subconsciously, to use certain words or categories.

Abbott traveled from her home in Queens to meet with me over two days in February in an office off of Times Square, now nearly unrecognizable as the grimy 1970s setting of The Deuce, the David Simon HBO series about New York City police corruption, organized crime, and the dawn of the pornography industry, for which Abbott is a writer. Abbott’s encyclopedic knowledge of film, psychology, and pop culture led our discussion to such fascinating and unlikely places as noir’s popularity in times of tumult, the gothic nature of the suburbs, and why The Real Housewives reality-TV series reminds her of an Edith Wharton novel.

–Annie Adams


Annie Adams: Your first book, The Street Was Mine, is a critical study of the white male hero figure in hardboiled fiction. It grew out of your PhD dissertation at NYU, correct?

Megan Abbott: Yes. At that time, the late 90s, there was very little academic study of hardboiled fiction being done—it was considered pulp, not to be taken seriously. But, for me, these books were—and are—so rich. I became very interested in the trope of the “tough guy” as we see it take shape in the genre. The “tough guy” persona derives primarily from writers like Mickey Spillane. His detective hero, Mike Hammer, is hypermacho, wildly violent: he’ll take on the mob, the Russians. He’s almost a Superman. But when you look at most hardboiled heroes, they’re not so tough. Instead, you find a kind of gender panic. Masculinity in crisis.

Take Raymond Chandler’s detective hero Philip Marlowe—in those books, manhood is constantly under threat. He risks violence at the hands of powerful men, emasculation at the hands of the femme fatale. Masculinity doesn’t feel secure, and it doesn’t feel like the solution to anything. Alternately, Marlowe seems to find a fascination with—and fear of—the feminine. If Spillane has control over everything, Marlowe feels control over nothing, not even himself. Race is complicated in these books too. There’s a great fear that whiteness doesn’t mean what it once did—it no longer guarantees privilege.

When these tough guys appeared in Hollywood movies, however, all that ambiguity and hysteria was erased. Instead, you have Humphrey Bogart as Marlowe, or as Dashiell Hammett’s Sam Spade, and he’s so cool and tough and can handle anything or anyone. People tend to remember the movies, but those books present a much more ambiguous and sometimes even subversive view of identity.

During my research, I read nothing but noir for about two years, immersing myself in Chandler, Chester Himes, and James M. Cain. I just fell head over heels for these books, the world they painted, and the interest was more than critical, more than theoretical. They stirred my imagination, and I began writing what became my first novel, Die a Little, as a way to inhabit the world of these books from a different angle—not from an analytical perspective, but an imaginative one. It was very liberating: I felt as if I’d discovered a place where there were no rules, which I think is the feeling you  get with first novels.

AA: Before we go any further, how would you define the term “hardboiled” versus “noir” fiction?

MA: Hardboiled is distinct from noir, though they’re often used interchangeably. The common argument is that hardboiled novels are an extension of the wild west and pioneer narratives of the 19th century. The wilderness becomes the city, and the hero is usually a somewhat fallen character, a detective or a cop. At the end, everything is a mess, people have died, but the hero has done the right thing or close to it, and order has, to a certain extent, been restored. Law and Order is a great example of the hardboiled formula in a contemporary setting.

Noir is different. In noir, everyone is fallen, and right and wrong are not clearly defined and maybe not even attainable. In that sense, noir speaks to us powerfully right now, when certain structures of authority don’t make sense any longer, and we wonder: Why should we abide by them? Noir thrived  in the 40s after the Depression and World War II, and in the 70s, with Watergate and Vietnam, for similar reasons.

AA: So the public gravitates toward noir in times of instability?

MA: That’s one argument. When things seem to be going badly in a society, people sympathize with characters who distrust or operate outside of that society’s governing systems. Look at film noir. Our country had been in a dark place through the Depression, and then we went through a catastrophic war. We were victorious, of course, but still: monstrous things had happened that had never happened before, and when something happens that is without precedent, people’s certainties are shaken. In postwar Los Angeles, the putative birthplace of noir, there was rampant corruption in the police, rampant racism, these appalling “sex crimes” that dominated headlines. A low hum of hysteria in the air. We can feel it now. Even if crime is, say, here in New York City, at a historic low, the threat of domestic terrorism—school shootings, lone gunmen—feels palpable. In eras tinged with chaos in the popular imagination, noir thrives.

At the same time, noir is also weirdly ahistorical. Regardless of national mood, people respond on a visceral level to certain essential drives: wanting things we can’t have, wishing for things that are forbidden. I’m talking, now, about taboos, which noir has always depicted, especially in the realm of the sexual: incest, or adultery, or, when it was still considered a perversion, same-sex desire. Noir has always been a place where these desires run amok.

AA: Besides “hardboiled” and “noir,” critics also use terms like crime fiction, domestic noir, and domestic or psychological thriller to describe your work. Which do you prefer?

MA: I bristle a little at “domestic.” It’s a word laden with gender stereotypes. To me, it calls to mind old notions of women belonging in the home, the Victorian “Angel in the House.” But all these labels exist because they’re convenient. They’re shorthand.

AA: Presumably it’s linked to the growing presence of female authors in the thriller genre, as well.

MA: Yet these books have always existed. Shirley Jackson in the 1950s, Daphne du Maurier in the 30s and 40s—all the way back to, say, Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s story “The Yellow Wallpaper,” or the Brontës. These are quite subversive works, filled with complicated notions of female desire and often full of female rage. Today it’s a mantle picked up by novelists like Gillian Flynn, Paula Hawkins, and Laura Lippman, who write books that suggest very troubling things about marriage and motherhood and class and sex. It’s hard not to feel that limiting them to a term like “domestic” is a way of diminishing them. Trying to strip them of their twisty power. I don’t know, it’s like the term “beach read” or “chick lit.” It’s a way of making a book seem comfortable, and these books are not comfortable.

But I’m glad that the genre, whatever it’s labeled, is having a moment. I think there are several reasons why. On a practical level, once Gone Girl and The Girl on the Train had the kind of success that each of those works enjoyed, then publishers were more willing to take chances on other female-centered crime novels written by women. But let’s also think about the times we are in. Regardless of one’s political sway, the 2016 campaign was so much about gender and power and class. Intensely so. I think it brought all of this anger to the surface. The return of the repressed. We saw this last fall with the Harvey Weinstein sexual harassment scandal and the #MeToo movement. There’s a lot of rage on all sides that has bubbled to the surface. I think the moment for women’s crime fiction is going to last a lot longer than it might have otherwise, but then again, could it have arrived at any other time? As with everything in literature, something is present before it is quite articulated, and then someone identifies it, gives it a name, and the unconscious suddenly becomes conscious.

AA: Somewhat ironically, male authors have begun using female or androgynous pseudonyms like Tania Carver or A.J. Finn to sell novels. It subverts the way that women, in the past, used pseudonyms to pretend to be men.

MA: I don’t begrudge any author for taking a pseudonym for any reason at all. The publishing world is very complicated and there are a number of reasons to do it. That said, sometimes it grates on me. I think that male writers can write great female characters, even in first person. I don’t think there should be any rules about that. I write from the point of view of a murderer, but I’ve never killed anybody. Of course, there can be something kind of mercenary about concealing your gender or identity while publishing a book that in some way deals with issues of gender or identity. But, ultimately, the book stands if the book stands. That’s the final ruling on all of that.

AA: As Jeffrey Eugenides has said, “every novelist should possess a hermaphroditic imagination.”

MA: That’s right. I do have characters I find it difficult to identify with, but it’s not about their sex. In some ways, the hardest character for me to embody was the cheerleader who narrates my novel Dare Me. I never lived in that world—I’d been the highschool newspaper girl. It was all very foreign to me. But once I found her voice, everything changed. I grew to love her.

I would, however, probably balk at a first-person male narrator for an entire novel. Maybe it’s fear that I can’t pull it off. But there’s always a certain amount of arrogance to writing, to assuming one can adopt any voice, understand any experience.

Other considerations tend to play a bigger role in dictating point of view for me. In my last book, You Will Know Me, I imagined at first that I’d alternate the point of view between the husband and the wife, but it was tricky, doing a bit of sleight of hand with the reader, by which I mean concealing certain important slices of information, because you have to play fair and if you’re in a character’s head, you have to—to a degree—surrender that character’s knowledge to the reader. In other cases, and this was true for Give Me Your Hand as well, there is a darker character whose head I didn’t want to live in for the entirety of the narrative, though he or she may be my most dynamic character. In those cases, I’ll use another character, who doesn’t have a full understanding of the darker character, to tell the story.

AA: If, in Give Me Your Hand, the reader knew everything about Diane, whom Kit is haunted by for her entire adult life, there would be no opportunity for suspense.

MA: Yes and no: she’s the mystery, so you want to remain outside of her perspective, but in fact it would answer nothing to see the story from her perspective, because she doesn’t understand herself. This doesn’t mean that the protagonist needs to be perfect, or even likable. That would be tedious. But often you want to ground the novel with a stable presence, an anchor. In Give Me Your Hand, Kit is the anchor.

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