“A woman doesn't care how a guy makes a living, just how he makes love.”
—Rita (Helen Stanton) in The Big Combo (1949)
Even if you’ve never heard of the term “film noir,” you’ve probably read a book or have seen a movie in that genre. Film noir refers to “…stylish Hollywood crime dramas, particularly those that emphasize cynical attitudes and sexual motivations.” With roots in 1930s crime fiction, film noir’s first major wave was during the 1940s and 1950s.
This genre encompasses a broad category of films. It’s strongly associated with a private eye or law enforcement officer as one of the main characters. Other well-known elements are the femme fatale leading lady and an urban setting. It’s also important to note that “Thematically, film noirs were most exceptional for the relative frequency with which they centered on women of questionable virtue.” Noir even extended to science fiction, with films like Blade Runner and Dark City being notable examples of “science fiction noir.”
Given the scope of film noir and crime fiction, it’s no wonder the genres made their way into science fiction romance. J.D. Robb’s In Death series is one prominent example. In a nutshell, it’s noir-flavored crime fiction in a near-future setting. Beginning with Naked in Death, the series follows heroine Lieutenant Eve Dallas as she solves various crimes and embarks on an intense, complex romance with wealthy businessman Roarke. Eve’s character refreshingly subverts the typically male lead in this genre.
Ann Somerville’s gritty Pindone Files series take a similar route in that the police procedural action is set against the backdrop of a human inhabited planet in a futuristic setting (futuristic in the sense of its non-Earth location). The two heroes work to uncover the perpetrator responsible for a number of mysterious deaths. Included in the mix are a forbidden romance and characters with telepathic abilities.
Noir and crime fiction elements are also a component of Cathy Pegau’s Caught in Amber. The hero is a Colonial Mining Authority Agent who enlists the help of the heroine, a former drug addict, to rescue his sister from a dangerous drug lord. Like the Pindone Files, the story takes place in a non-Earth setting. I’ve been wondering if the buzz surrounding Caught in Amber is in part because of the film’s noir elements, crime fiction flavor, and easily accessible futuristic elements.
Here’s why: at Amazing Stories, Chris Gerwel speculated in one of his Crossroads columns (Science Fiction Romance - A Niche Before Its Time?) that noir/suspense elements might be a strategic move for SFR stories:
“Noir and suspense have developed a far more stable and recognizable set of conventions, which are in turn used and repeated across literature, film, and television. As a result, the reading protocols of noir/suspense are more solidly developed, which leads to a larger potential audience that I believe science fiction romance has left largely untapped.”
He postulated that J.D. Robb’s In Death series have had wider appeal than other sci-fi romances in part because “…the books are constructed as a classic police procedural mystery.” Of course, there’s the possibility that the In Death series is popular because it’s written by Nora Roberts. On the other hand, readers, as Chris Gerwel rightly observes, are very familiar with noir/crime fiction because of its history and prevalence. And so he wondered if science fiction romances with those elements would be more apt to attract readers.
What do you think about the romance + noir + SF combo? Would you like to read book versions in the vein of films such as Dark City? Is this indeed an untapped area, or has it remained untapped for a reason?
Heather Masseyis a lifelong fan of science fiction romance. She searches for sci-fi romance adventures aboard her blog, The Galaxy Express. She’s also an author in the subgenre. To learn more about her published work, visit heathermassey.com.