Seminar in Techniques in Fiction: Noir & Contemporary Society

Overview: This course will focus on the type of crime fiction that falls under the fluid categories hard-boiled and roman noir, its relation to its filmic counterpart, film noir, and its relevance to contemporary society.

The course will trace the formation of the hard-boiled novel, focusing on progenitors such as Dashiell Hammett, James Cain and Raymond Chandler, and the films based on their work in order to view, recognize, and discuss the conventions that mark the genre.

We will be investigating to what extent the literary and filmic production of the noir era (usually framed by the years 1947 and 1958) was informed and inspired by the political climate (the formation of the OSS, Cold War hysteria, the Pleasantville façade, etc.) and we will explore the assertion that the genre never really died but was, rather, eclipsed by other forms and, in its current manifestations may even profoundly timely, especially in light of the types and degrees of corruption we are currently witness to.

The course will cover other trajectories as well. Rather than focusing exclusively on white male authors or being America-centric, this course will cover the works of authors such as Natsuo Kirino, a female Japanese writer who has used the hard-boiled formula to depict the dark side of modern-day Japan, and Rudolfo Anaya, a Chicano writer who crosses the hard-boiled style with cultural and anthropological (even what some will consider supernatural) probings. Among the important literary figures that have succumbed to the seductiveness of noir are Michael Chabon, Joyce Carol Oates, Louise Erdrich, Scott Turow, and Thomas Pynchon. We will be examining some of their works as well.

Student Learning Outcomes

A proficient understanding of the conventions attributed to hard-boiled fiction.

An understanding of both the social impact of hard-boiled fiction (and its visual/aural counterpart—film noir) during its seminal era (1941 1958) and its social implications in our current era.

The ability to place the student’s scholarly and creative work within broader critical and aesthetic conversations.

The overall goal of this course is that students will incorporate the zeitgeist of the noir era in ways that allow them to have a framework through which they can analytically and creatively view other texts, including the text that is the modern world. Literature breathes life into history and it is hoped that students can glean a richer understanding of the recent past and can play detective in their searches for new, sometimes even jargon-driven insights.


While all students are expected to respond critically, the course is offered as a creative writing class as well. It is hoped that creative writing students, by having the option to write in or parody the hard-boiled mode, will find they have new literary and informational tools to work with, tools that will inspire some first-rate fiction—or at least the early drafts of such.

The main requirement will be either a well-researched critical essay on a subject related to noir or a creative work of substantial length. Students will be writing weekly responses, and these can be either analytical or creative. Each student will also do a presentation on one of the texts.

Probable and Possible Texts

The Dark Side of the Screen: Film Noir, by Foster Hirsch; The Maltese Falcon, by Dashiell Hammett; The Big Sleep, by Raymond Chandler; The Talented Mr. Ripley, by Patricia Highsmith; Rio Grande Fall, by Rudolfo Anaya; L.A. Confidential, by James Ellroy; Charcoal Joe or Devil in a Blue Dress, by Walter Mosley; Out or Real World, by Natsuo Kirino; Mystic River, by Dennis Lehane; Inherent Vice, by Thomas Pynchon; and The Yiddish Policeman’s Union, by Michael Chabon; Plus, A course reader that will include work by Joyce Carol Oates, S.J. Rozan, Scott Turow, Dennis Lehane and others. Films that will be shown in part, or assigned to be viewed include Double Indemnity, The Maltese Falcon, The Big Sleep, The Postman Always Rings Twice, Out of the Past, The Long Goodbye, Chinatown, Body Heat, Devil in a Blue Dress, L.A. Confidential, The Talented Mr. Ripley, and Inherent Vice.