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.
Dwight V. Babcock
The Gorgeous Ghoul (novel) 1941
A Homicide for Hannah (novel) 1941
Hannah Says Foul Play (novel) 1946
Who Is Teddy Villanova? (novel) 1977
The Big Kiss-Off of 1944 (novel) 1974
Dreaming of Babylon: A Private Eye Novel (novel) 1942
James M. Cain
The Postman always Rings Twice (novel) 1934
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
Web of the City (novel) 1958
Spider Kiss (novel) 1961
Mefisto in Onyx (novel) 1993
Ackroyd (novel) 1977
F Is for Fugitive (novel) 1989
H Is for Homicide (novel) 1991
Red Harvest (novel) 1929
The Maltese Falcon (novel) 1930
The Glass Key (novel) 1931
The Thin Man (novel) 1934
Murder on the Yellow Brick Road...
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Criticism: Overviews And General Studies
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 between those who would leave the town to the outlaws, and those who think they should tough it out. The braver element prevails and the townspeople determine to stay. They petition the governor for a new sheriff. In the nick of time, a heroic figure, beautifully dressed in fringed buckskin and riding a magnificent stallion rides out of the desert. With his help the townspeople successfully defend themselves against the outlaw bands until, in a final confrontation, the hero exposes, tracks down and outshoots the corrupt politician who has tried to drive the people out and take over their land. With law and order restored, the hero leaves a grateful townsfolk behind and rides off into the desert (and the sunset) with his faithful partner....
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SOURCE: Geherin, David J. “The Hard-Boiled Detective Hero in the 1970s: Some New Candidates.” Armchair Detective 11, no. 1 (1978): 49-51.
[In the following essay, Geherin presents a survey of detective fiction from the 1970s, finding writers Robert Parker Spenser, Roger Simon, and Andrew Bergman faithful to the hard-boiled tradition.]
The hard-boiled detective hero has had a long and illustrious career in American detective fiction: Sam Spade, Philip Marlowe, and Lew Archer are the most famous examples of the type and, taken together, illustrate the gradual development of the hard-boiled private eye over the past fifty years. But Ross Macdonald has now had the stage pretty much to himself for the last two decades and a question arises—Is the hard-boiled detective novel written out, an anachronism in the 1970s, or are there young writers with skill enough to carry on the tradition and to invite favorable comparisons with Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler, and Ross Macdonald?
It is obvious that any writer who attempts to write in this genre faces a particularly difficult task. To receive attention, he almost has to be better than his predecessors, with whom he will be inevitably compared, usually to his disadvantage. Also, he must be faithful to the conventions of the genre without becoming slavishly imitative. Any private eye who has to work in the shadow of Sam Spade, Philip...
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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 Show, Foul Play, Play It Again, Sam, and Murder by Death. Joe Gores' Hammett, Roger Simon's Moses Wine books, the le Vine novels of Andrew Bergman, and Andrew Fenady's The Man with Bogart's Face are representative of the wide range of popular detective novels (serious, upbeat, comic, nostalgic) derived from the formula.1 Indeed, interest in the formula has spilled over into the world of serious fiction in recent years. It is the purpose of this paper to examine the effect of that spill-over on the formula. To do so, I will examine re-visions of the formula in novels by three nondetective writers of some literary repute. The works I will discuss are Jules Feiffer's Ackroyd, Richard...
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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 their r's give it the same pronunciation. I still didn't see anything in it but the meaningless sort of humor that used to make richardsnary the thieves' word for dictionary. A few years later I went to Personville and learned better.1
It would be interesting to eavesdrop on a reader opening Dashiell Hammett's first novel on its release in 1929. What is this first paragraph supposed to say, anyway? Is it a simple linguistic joke, played by a sly author trying to unsettle an sophisticated reader? Or is it a swipe taken by the narrator toward his opponents, as yet unseen? It is, of course, hard to tell at this point, before the speaker has even introduced himself to his audience. The real point of the...
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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 problematize the study of popular culture—more specifically popular literature, and in particular detective fiction, avoiding in the process the reductive methodology of adversarial approaches to “mass culture” (from both the right and the left) as well as the “euphoric celebration” (Polan 169) of popular literature to which writing about detective fiction has been peculiarly susceptible. Beyond merely problematizing, the paper will take the position that “mass art may be a potentially contradictory cultural form, blending progressive and regressive elements.”1 I will employ, to use Tony Bennett's words, “a critical strategy aimed at deconstructing the category of Literature … in short, the canonized tradition”...
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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 twentieth century.
It is not surprising that the ideas of these, for the most part, elite writers filtered down into popular art. It is again no surprise that these ideas which dealt with the realistic squalor of life, the unexplainable violence of man-against-man, the unforeseeable hand of fate, and the unimportance of man in the universe should surface roughly ten years after the demise of the elite movement in popular literature. As these ideas began to take hold within the popular consciousness, they were fictionally resurrected in the form of hard-boiled detective fiction which seemed to belch forth like steam out of a sewer. Years later, when Americans were experiencing the pessimism of a World War, Naturalism again crept...
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SOURCE: Hagemann, E. R. “Introducing Paul Cain and his Fast One: A Forgotten Hard-Boiled Writer, a Forgotten Gangster Novel.” Armchair Detective 12, no. 1 (1979): 72-76.
[In the following essay, Hagemann presents an overview of the career of hard-boiled writer Paul Cain, author of the novel Fast One—“the best of its kind ever to appear,” according to Hagemann.]
During his professional writing career, 1932-1948, he used Paul Cain for his fiction and Peter Ruric for his movie work, passing off the latter as his real name; yet he was born George Sims in Iowa, 30 May 1902. Nothing is known of his personal life and little of his professional life either before or after he broke into print in March 1932.
In a discarded Introduction (ca. 1946) to The Hard-Boiled Omnibus, Joseph T. Shaw, its editor known for his supervision of Black Mask, cites Ruric's “recollections of his boyhood experiences in Chicago where [he] saw something of life in its toughest phases. We suspect that Peter drew from these first-hand glimpses for his first published work, a book-length Black Mask serial titled Fast One.”1
And it is for Fast One, and Fast One alone, his only novel, that Cain should be remembered but inexplicably has not been.
Having accepted Cain's Chicago youth...
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SOURCE: Naremore, James. “Dashiell Hammett and the Poetics of Hard-Boiled Detection.” In Art in Crime Writing: Essays on Detective Fiction, edited by Bernard Benstock, pp. 49-72. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1983.
[In the following essay, Naremore discusses style, characterization, and themes in the novels of Dashiell Hammett, praising his handling of language and placing his works in historical context.]
Dashiell Hammett is a profoundly romantic figure, and the most important writer of detective fiction in America after Edgar Allan Poe. During the years when he was doing his best work—chiefly the late 1920s—he managed to reconcile some of the deepest contradictions in his culture. He was a man of action and a man of sensibility, an ex-private-eye who looked like an aristocrat; he wrote five novels and a few dozen stories which provided material for scores of film, radio and television adaptations, but at the same time he evolved one of the most subtle and influential prose styles of his generation. Unfortunately Hammett was an alcoholic in an era when alcoholic authors were glamorous, and this helped cut his work short. In other ways, too, he was a deeply symptomatic writer of the twenties, and his career seems to have ended with the historical conditions that had sustained it. Afterwards, according to Stephen Marcus, ‘His politics go in one direction; the way he...
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SOURCE: Maxfield, James F. “Hard-Boiled Dicks and Dangerous Females: Sex and Love in the Detective Fiction of Dashiell Hammett.” Clues 6, no. 1 (spring 1985): 107-23.
[In the following essay, Maxfield focuses on Dashiell Hammett's The Glass Key, suggesting that the author's seemingly straightforward, objective style contrasts with the ambiguous, self-contradictory characterizations in the novel.]
The Glass Key is perhaps the most controversial and problematic of Dashiell Hammett's five novels. Julian Symons gives the novel his highest praise: “The Glass Key is the peak of Hammett's achievement, which is to say the peak of the crime writer's art in the twentieth century”; in Robert I. Edenbaum's judgment, “The Glass Key is Hammett's least satisfactory novel.”1 Edenbaum supplies clearer reasons for his negative assessment than does Symons for his laudation. Edenbaum sees the novel's central weakness as Hammett's failure (or perhaps refusal) to clarify the motives of his protagonist: “… it is impossible to tell what is under Ned Beaumont's mask.”2 As a result, crucial actions of the novel's hero are left ambiguous. The effect of this ambiguity, Peter Wolfe suggests, is to deprive Hammett's characters of any depth: “The book's dark glimmering surface reveals characters who resemble silhouettes or sheet-tin cutouts.”3...
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SOURCE: Wilt, David. “Dwight V. Babcock.” In Hardboiled in Hollywood, pp. 121-47. Bowling Green, OH: Bowling Green State University Popular Press, 1991.
[In the following excerpt, Wilt recounts the varied career of hard-boiled writer Dwight V. Babcock, evaluating his achievements in the fields of the novel, pulp fiction, screenwriting, and television work.]
Dwight V. Babcock's writing career spanned more than 25 years, and included numerous short stories, several novels, and many motion picture and television scripts. From 1934 to 1939 he was one of the more popular and prolific writers for Black Mask, considered the apex of detective/mystery fiction pulp magazines. After authoring several well-received mystery novels, Babcock turned his back on public acclaim and entered the ranks of screenwriters, a largely unsung lot.
Currently, many of the works of Dwight Babcock are hard to locate for reexamination. Babcock was not a prolific writer, especially when compared to wordsmiths like Erle Stanley Gardner, a fellow Black Mask alumni. Babcock's pulp stories have never been reprinted, and his novels are likewise long out of print (the paperback versions are probably scarcer than the hardcover originals). The films he wrote were virtually all “B” pictures, generally ignored by film scholars and certainly not discussed in terms of their scripts; and television has a...
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SOURCE: Mayer, Geoff. “A Hard-Boiled World: Goodbye Paradise and The Empty Beach.” Literature/Film Quarterly 21, no. 2 (1993): 112-19.
[In the following essay, Mayer discusses film adaptations of Raymond Chandler's works, commenting on ways in which Chandler's style becomes altered in the screen realizations of his novels.]
In anything that can be called art there is a quality of redemption. It may be pure tragedy, … and it may be pity and irony, and it may be the raucous laughter of the strong man. But down these mean streets a man must go who is not himself mean, who is neither tarnished nor afraid. … He must be, to use a rather weathered phrase, a man of honor, by instinct, by inevitability, without thought of it, and certainly without saying it. He must be the best man in his world and a good enough man for any world.1
This passage from Raymond Chandler's 1946 essay, “The Simple Art of Murder,” established a crucial difference between his conception of the hard-boiled genre and the paradigm largely established by Dashiell Hammett and Carroll John Daly in the pages of Black Mask magazine in the early 1920s. Although Chandler freely acknowledged his debt to Hammett, the arbitrary world assumed within Hammett's fiction was rarely duplicated in Chandler's novels. Chandler, on the other hand, emphasised the...
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Criticism: Women And Hard-Boiled Fiction
SOURCE: Sandels, Robert. “It Was a Man's World.” Armchair Detective 22, no. 4 (fall 1989): 388-96.
[In the following essay, Sandels explores the characterization of Sara Paretsky's V. I. Warshawski in several of her novels, noting that, despite Warshawski's feminist tendencies, she has much in common with her male counterparts.]
Contemporary writers such as Sara Paretsky, Sue Grafton, and Marcia Muller are only a few of the growing number of female authors who have developed female private eye characters in recent years. Lady detectives are, of course, nothing new. Nor is the feminism implicit in their choice of profession new. What is new, of course, is the imitation of the violent and cynical male hardboiled detective. Dorothy Sayers, Agatha Christie, and Amanda Cross represent a more genteel tradition of female detection which stretches back into the nineteenth century and the writing of Anna Katherine Green. That tradition reminds us, however, of the limitations which culture and the market have always placed upon the feminism of those intellectual puzzle mysteries and places now on the contemporary tough-guy adventures of female private eyes.1
To become a sleuth at all is to impose oneself upon the world. Successful detection alters the course of social events, forcing courts and police to bow to the superior art of the detective. For the female sleuth, therefore,...
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SOURCE: Shuker-Haines, Timothy and Martha M. Umphrey. “Gender (De)Mystified: Resistance and Recuperation in Hard-Boiled Female Detective Fiction.” In The Detective in American Fiction, Film, and Television, edited by Jerome H. Delamater and Ruth Prigozy, pp. 71-82. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1998.
[In the following essay, Shuker-Haines and Umphrey explore the respective characterizations of Sara Paretsky's V. I. Warshawski and Sue Grafton's Kinsey Millhone, drawing some conclusions about the general attributes of feminist hard-boiled fiction.]
What should we make of the recent emergence of the female hard-boiled detective? In a literary-historical sense she is an oxymoron, standing outside the gendered traditions of both the classic female detective and the tough-guy dick. The classic archetype, a Miss Marple or a Jessica Fletcher, generally operates within the domestic sphere, solving drawing-room crimes and reestablishing harmony through a combination of skillful listening, good sense, and intuitive judgment about character.1 She uses her social knowledge and skills to identify the criminal and thus locate the source of social disruption, purifying and restabilizing society. The hard-boiled detective stands in stark opposition to this female figure. His locale is not the drawing room but the liminal zone of the criminal underworld, and his qualities are not intuition and social...
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SOURCE: Walton, Priscilla L. and Manina Jones. “Does She or Doesn't She?: The Problematics of Feminist Detection.” In Detective Agency: Women Rewriting the Hard-Boiled Tradition, pp. 86-117. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1999.
[In the following essay, Walton and Jones discuss some ways in which various hard-boiled detective novels written by women, and featuring a female detective, transform the hard-boiled genre by questioning elements of the tradition.]
If feminism is now an uncomfortable part of the thriller's cultural repertoire, it is one which necessarily calls the achievements of Hammett and Chandler into question. Down these mean streets no easy male/female transpositions are possible.
David Glover, “The Stuff That Dreams Are Made Of”
NEGOTIATING THE GENERIC CONTRACT
Many feminist scholars of detective fiction have been skeptical about the potential of women's practice of the hard-boiled detective novel to negotiate resistance, critique, or change within in a literary genre typically aligned with oppressive masculinity. While some critics applaud the feminist potential of the form in the hands of women writers, many others contend that any such potential gets lost in translation—that feminist political aims are necessarily negated by the inherently conservative demands of the...
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SOURCE: Walton, Priscilla L. and Manina Jones. “The Text as Evidence: Linguistic Subversions.” In Detective Agency: Women Rewriting the Hard-Boiled Tradition, pp. 118-48. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1999.
[In the following excerpt, Walton and Jones focus on the use of language in hard-boiled fiction written by women, pointing out that these female authors both appropriate and transform the tough language of the traditional detective.]
“If it's that delicate,” I said, “maybe you need a lady detective.”
“Goodness, I didn't know there were any.” Pause. “But I don't think a lady detective would do at all. You see, Orrin was living in a very tough neighborhood, Mr. Marlowe. At least, I thought it was tough. The manager of the rooming house is a most unpleasant person. He smelled of liquor. Do you drink, Mr. Marlowe?”
“Well, now that you mention it—”
“I don't think I'd care to employ a detective that uses liquor in any form. I don't even approve of tobacco.”
“Would it be all right if I peeled an orange?”
I caught the sharp intake of breath at the far end of the line. “You...
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Conquest, John. Trouble Is Their Business: Private Eyes in Fiction, Film, and Television, 1927-1988. New York: Garland Publishing, 1990, 497 p.
A comprehensive reference guide to authors, works, genres, and numerous other aspects of the private eye tradition.
Skinner, Robert E. The Hard-Boiled Explicator: A Guide to the Study of Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler, and Ross Macdonald. Metuchen, N. J.: The Scarecrow Press, Inc., 1985, 125 p.
A bibliographic guide to literary criticism and various other materials on the works of Hammett, Chandler, and Macdonald.
McCann, Sean. Gumshoe America: Hard-Boiled Crime Fiction and the Rise and Fall of New Deal Liberalism. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 2000, 370 p.
Examines the ways in which hard-boiled fiction reflected and commented on the political climate in the United States between 1930 and 1960.
Nyman, Jopi. Men Alone: Masculinity, Individualism, and Hard-Boiled Fiction. Amsterdam, The Netherlands: Rodopi, 1997, 384 p.
Explores the image of masculinity projected in hard-boiled fiction and discusses its stylistic, thematic, and social implications.
O'Brien, Geoffrey. “Juno Was a Man; or, the Case of the Hardboiled Homophobes.”...
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