Hard-Boiled Fiction Essay - Critical Essays

Hard-Boiled Fiction


Hard-Boiled Fiction

Although the genre of crime fiction has existed in continental and American literature since at least the nineteenth century, the particular form of it known as “hard-boiled” fiction reached its greatest popularity during the period of the 1920s through the 1960s. Critics point out that authors who shaped the genre during this era—especially Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler, and Ross McDonald—reinvented the crime fiction style popularized by such predecessors as Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and Dorothy L. Sayers in several key ways. They placed their crime stories not in a rural setting, as was typical of earlier crime fiction, but in a sinister and forbidding urban environment. Perhaps most importantly, they introduced the figure of the tough-talking, brave, but also disillusioned and alienated private eye, who contrasted markedly with the intellectual type of detective exemplified by Sherlock Holmes. On the thematic level, hard-boiled fiction focused on the secrets, mental depravity, and human weakness that lead to crime, rather than on the swift restoration of law and order. Neither high literature nor pulp fiction, hard-boiled fiction was crafted to be accessible to the common reader, yet it also incorporated modernist themes and techniques. While some critics have denigrated hard-boiled fiction as nothing more than a lengthy puzzle, others have written about the genre as a tool for social commentary and a vehicle for discussing changing notions about justice, morality, and personal and civic virtues.

In novels such as Hammett's The Maltese Falcon (1930), Chandler's The Big Sleep (1939), James M. Cain's The Postman always Rings Twice (1934), and Mickey Spillane's I, the Jury (1947) and Kiss Me, Deadly (1952), the hard-boiled detective emerged as the major point of interest in the work. The individual detectives—Sam Spade, Philip Marlowe, Lew Archer, Spenser, and Travis McGee—became as famous as the authors themselves, and their personal journeys toward solving the crime in question took on more importance than the resolution of the plot. The hard-boiled detective's main traits were cynicism, toughness in difficult situations, and a wise-cracking sense of humor, but also a strong sense of morality, the desire to see justice done, and the willingness to be physically or emotionally wounded. Scholars have traced the evolution of this character type in later hard-boiled novels, such as those of Jules Feiffer, Richard Brautigan, and Thomas Berger. These later authors present a more complex view of evil, with lines sometimes blurred between victim and criminal, and with a private eye who is less certain of the justice of his or her mission or of the system he or she serves. Still, many common elements remain in later hard-boiled fiction: violent crime, an intricate and exciting plot, and a brave but vulnerable private eye in the center of the action.

There has been much critical interest in the hard-boiled novel since its beginnings, but especially from the 1970s onward. Critics John G. Cawelti, Larry E. Grimes, and Gary Levisi have examined the characteristics, development, and central role of the hero in hard-boiled fiction. The theme of evil in hard-boiled fiction is the subject of studies by James F. Maxfield and Frederick Isaac. Studies of the hard-boiled novel's style have also been popular—for example, of humor, by Isaac; of the influence of modernism, by Scott R. Christianson; and of naturalistic elements, by Michael Pettengell. Many critics of the 1980s and 1990s have focused on women in hard-boiled fiction, both as authors and as protagonists. Studies by Robert Sandels, Timothy Shuker-Haines and Martha M. Umphrey, and Priscilla L. Walton and Manina Jones have probed the ways in which hard-boiled fiction has been influenced by the emergence of such private eyes as Sue Grafton's Kinsey Millhone and Sara Paretsky's V. I. Warshawski.

Representative Works

Dwight V. Babcock
The Gorgeous Ghoul (novel) 1941
A Homicide for Hannah (novel) 1941
Hannah Says Foul Play (novel) 1946

Thomas Berger
Who Is Teddy Villanova? (novel) 1977

Andrew Bergman
The Big Kiss-Off of 1944 (novel) 1974

Richard Brautigan
Dreaming of Babylon: A Private Eye Novel (novel) 1942

James M. Cain
The Postman always Rings Twice (novel) 1934

Raymond Chandler
The Big Sleep (novel) 1939
Farewell, My Lovely (novel) 1940
The High Window (novel) 1943
The Lady in the Lake (novel) 1944
The Little Sister (novel) 1949
The Long Goodbye (novel) 1954
Playback (novel) 1958

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
The Valley of Fear (novel) 1915

Harlan Ellison
Web of the City (novel) 1958
Spider Kiss (novel) 1961
Mefisto in Onyx (novel) 1993

Jules Feiffer
Ackroyd (novel) 1977

Sue Grafton
F Is for Fugitive (novel) 1989
H Is for Homicide (novel) 1991

Dashiell Hammett
Red Harvest (novel) 1929
The Maltese Falcon (novel) 1930
The Glass Key (novel) 1931
The Thin Man (novel) 1934

Stuart Kaminsky
Murder on the Yellow Brick Road (novel) 1977
You Bet Your Life (novel) 1979
Catch a Falling Clown (novel) 1982

Jonathan Latimer
The Lady in the Morgue (novel) 1936

Ross McDonald
The Wycherley Woman (novel) 1963

Sara Paretsky
Indemnity Only (novel) 1982
Deadlock (novel) 1984
Killing Orders (novel) 1985
Bitter Medicine (novel) 1987
Blood Shot (novel) 1988; also published as Toxic Shock, 1988

Robert Parker
God Save the Child (novel) 1974
The Godwulf Manuscript (novel) 1974
Mortal Stakes (novel) 1975
Early Autumn (novel) 1981

Bill Pronzini
The Snatch (novel) 1975
Scattershot (novel) 1982

Roger Simon
The Big Fix (novel) 1973
Wild Turkey (novel) 1975

Mickey Spillane
I, the Jury (novel) 1947
Kiss Me, Deadly (novel) 1952

Rex Stout
The Black Mountain (novel) 1954
Champagne for One (novel) 1958

Criticism: Overviews And General Studies

John G. Cawelti (essay date fall 1975)

SOURCE: Cawelti, John G. “The Gunfighter and the Hard-Boiled Dick.” American Studies 16, no. 2 (fall 1975): 49-64.

[In the following essay, Cawelti compares the image of the hero inherent in hard-boiled detective fiction with that found in Western fiction and films. He notes that the hard-boiled hero embodies a darker, more violent, and more anarchic view of the world than his Western counterpart.]

The thriving little frontier settlement is suddenly beset with outlaws. Coming out of nowhere they viciously attack, beating the citizens and killing the old sheriff. Desperately the citizens gather in the church. After prayer for divine guidance, a debate breaks out...

(The entire section is 8560 words.)

Larry E. Grimes (essay date autumn 1983)

SOURCE: Grimes, Larry E. “Stepsons of Sam: Re-Visions of the Hard-Boiled Detective Formula in Recent American Fiction.” MFS: Modern Fiction Studies 29, no. 3 (autumn 1983): 535-44.

[In the following essay, Grimes explores three modern novels as “revisions” of Raymond Chandler's hard-boiled detective formula that increasingly focus on the role of the imagination in detection.]

During the past decade, a small industry has developed, using American hard-boiled detective stories as its primary raw material. Both films and fiction have been made from this well-established formula. A partial list includes such successful films as Chinatown, The Late...

(The entire section is 4763 words.)

Frederick Isaac (essay date 1987)

SOURCE: Isaac, Frederick. “Laughing with the Corpses: Hard-Boiled Humor.” In Comic Crime, edited by Earl F. Bargainnier, pp. 23-43. Bowling Green: Bowling Green State University Popular Press, 1987.

[In the following essay, Isaac presents an overview of the various forms of humor to be found in hard-boiled detective fiction, emphasizing humor in description, characterization, action, and relationships.]

I first heard Personville called Poisonville by a red-haired mucker named Hickey Dewey in the Big Ship in Butte. He also called his shirt a shoit. I didn't think anything of what he had done to the city's name. Later I heard men who could manage...

(The entire section is 9789 words.)

Scott R. Christianson (essay date 1990)

SOURCE: Christianson, Scott R. “A Heap of Broken Images: Hardboiled Detective Fiction and the Discourse(s) of Modernity.” In The Cunning Craft: Original Essays on Detective Fiction and Contemporary Literary Theory, edited by Ronald G. Walker and June M. Frazer, pp. 135-48. Macomb, IL: Western Illinois University, 1990.

[In the following essay, Christianson examines hard-boiled fiction in the context of modern literature. He argues that, like, for example, T. S. Eliot's The Wasteland, hard-boiled fiction presents an “oppositional” stance toward the world, while at the same time upholding many of its values.]

First of all, this paper will attempt to...

(The entire section is 7084 words.)

Michael Pettengell (essay date spring 1991)

SOURCE: Pettengell, Michael. “The Expanding Darkness: Naturalistic Motifs in Hard-Boiled Detective Fiction and the Film Noir.” Clues 12, no. 1 (spring 1991): 43-55.

[In the following essay, Pettengell contends that hard-boiled detective fiction is part of the Naturalistic literary movement in American literature because it emphasizes common experiences and everyday life.]

Although Naturalism as a literary type of American fiction is defined by the work of a relatively small group of writers spanning a short period of time; the influences and implications of the movement branched out (much like Norris' “Octopus”) into almost every artistic endeavor of the...

(The entire section is 4233 words.)