I have published around eighty short stories in the last four years. (Those who are interested can see the list here, with links.)
Most of them are straight literary tales, with the usual emphasis on character development, relationships, existential angst, and, of course, nuance of language. But about ten percent of them are noir: tales of violence, betrayal, and despair, written with an emphasis on atmosphere and events as well as character. My two self-published novels fall into this category, as do two more looking for a traditional publisher. I need not make any excuse for these stories. They explore the human condition, after all.
One could argue that violence, betrayal, despair, atmosphere, existential angst, and events are part of many literary stories as well—but it is a matter of emphasis. In a noir story, the protagonist generally meets a bad end, or fails in a duty even when succeeding in the tasks defined by that duty. The expected outcome is often thwarted: mysteries may be solved, vengeance achieved, but justice is either not done, or is enacted in ways contrary to the protagonist’s desires.
I suspect that what noir does, as a genre, is revive the ancient Greek literary concept of hubris and the attention it draws from the Fates. The noir protagonist is battling fate itself, and is bound to lose, because the very effort is insulting to the gods.
It’s not a cheerful genre, but its popularity indicates that it explores psychic realms that loftier fiction may fear to deal with. After all, we are doomed; that much we know, and that is why we invent the comforts of religion, or surrender to drugs, or devote ourselves to nihilism, vain pleasures, or the bitter cynicism that scabs the heart in most noir tales.
Noir explores the shadow we hate to face—but which we can fade from the distance afforded by the written word, the book or tablet held in the lap in a comfortable chair that will likely survive you.