Why is Noir so dark?

Jackie McLean

There’s something sinister, bleak and dark that lies at the heart of close cousins Tartan and Scandi Noir, isn’t there? I’ve taken part in several author panels at crime writing events, where people have asked for thoughts on why this might be. I always wished I had a clever answer at the time, and have often pondered over it.

More recently, I’ve begun work on a non-fiction book on a history of literature as illustrated by postage stamps (bear with me here), and my research for it has given me what I think might be at least part of the answer to the Noir question. Let me explain…

In researching the history of literature, I’ve become fascinated by the very earliest recorded storytelling, such as the great Greek epics that many of us will be familiar with even today (think Cyclops, the Trojan horse, and all that). These accounts of the Trojan War were written into Homer’s epic poems Iliad and Odyssey around 700 BCE, although the tales had existed for several centuries before that. In these, and in epics that came before it or that followed, the stories featured larger than life heroes who embarked on superhuman daring and adventure, pitting their strength and wits against the gods.

About the gods. The early mythologies (and all cultures had them) were ways of attempting to understand and explain big questions such as the nature of the stars, the purpose of human life, why the seasons changed, and so on. They were also ways of trying to understand human motivation (for example, ‘Cupid made me do it’ might be a handy excuse for all sorts of errant behaviour).

Looking a little deeper, I soon discovered some fairly fundamental differences between Greek and Roman mythologies, say, and Nordic mythology. These differences are nicely illustrated in many sets of stamps for around the world. Take these two examples – I think they do the job quite well.

Here are two stamps from a rather lovely set of five produced by Greece in 2009.

We can see the heroic, almost glamorous view of the early Greeks and perhaps how they came to explain the things they observed in a warm and pleasant environment. Their heroes were valiant and victorious.

As for the Nordic mythologies? Look at the difference in these stamps produced by Sweden in 2008.

It’s clear their heroes were living in a much harsher climate, and the resulting tales are of hardship and endless battle against demons and monsters that can never be tamed or overcome. Dark tales indeed.

And it is this, the stories that were developed in these cultures thousands of years before our own – stories that helped explain the sunlight or the darkness that people lived in – which I believe endures in our literary consciousness today and lies at least partly at the heart of why Tartan and Scandi Noir are so dark.

Copyright Jackie McLean 2020

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