In 1945, the literary critic Edmund Wilson penned an eye-rolling put-down of detective stories titled "Who Cares Who Killed Roger Ackroyd?" His question (he was referencing a 1926 Agatha Christie title) was rhetorical, just a snide way of saying that crime fiction was worthless. But if he were around today to pose the same question, he might do so a little more gingerly. Or he might not ask the question at all, because the answer is so glaringly obvious: darn near everybody. ... Would those numbers be enough to make Wilson change his mind about crime writing? Probably not. As far as he was concerned, tripe was tripe. But if Wilson read some of the contemporary authors practicing in the genre he despised, he might not so quickly rush to judgment. ...Read the whole thing. Newcomers to noir will find helpful Jones' history of the genre and analysis of what makes it effective. ("In noir, you've got to care. ... It's not the mechanics that make noir work. It's the emotional core of the story that has to ring true.") And that emotion, of course, is despair at watching a protagonist inexorably plummet to his doom. Seems like a recipe for despondent nihilism, doesn't it? Only it doesn't have to be. No matter your personal philosophy, you can probably agree that humanity's natural state isn't utopic, that everyone has character flaws, that such flaws can lead to very bad things, and that all of this is worth tackling in our writing. If you find yourself nodding, then think about opening up noir's toolbox. It's got everything you need inside.
It's hard to say where this dystopic view first found root in American letters, but you see it as early as Poe and then again in Melville and Twain. It surfaces again during the Depression, when economic hopelessness cast a long shadow over the work of such writers as Horace McCoy (They Shoot Horses, Don't They?), James M. Cain (The Postman Always Rings Twice), and Edward Anderson (Thieves Like Us). The French were the first to label the genre, in the '40s, but the stories and movies that caught their attention were mostly American, and hopelessness, futility, and, most important, failure were not supposed to be part of the American Dream.
(Picture: CC 2007 by dipster1; Hat Tip: The Violent World of Parker)