Hard-Boiled Detectives

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Characteristics of the Hard-Boiled Style

(Masterpieces of Fiction, Detective and Mystery Edition)

From the writings of Daly, Hammett, Chandler, and other pulp writers of the 1920’s and 1930’s, it is possible to tease out the basic characteristics of the original hard-boiled detective story. Other writers whose works contribute to this analysis include Raoul Whitfield, Frederick Nebel, Jonathan Latimer, and Brett Halliday.

Stories by these writers are almost always set within large urban environments that are run by corrupt institutions (Hammett’s Red Harvest is a notable exception). Their protagonists are always highly individualistic and often lone operators, such as Sam Spade and Philip Marlowe. Even when the heroes are members of organizations, they typically do their work in idiosyncratic and autonomous ways, In the tradition of Hammett and Chandler’s detectives, later hard-boiled protagonists are typically laconic, understated, and unflappable wisecrackers. Their prime virtues are not preternatural powers of deduction and reasoning but single-minded persistence and the toughness to withstand the stress and violence that may beset them in pursuit of their cases. Often, the cases they initially undertake to investigate turn out to be something like red herrings; in pursuit of the truth, they must dig deeper than their clients may wish them to go, sometimes at great cost to the detectives themselves.

Violence always plays an important part in hard-boiled narratives. Not only are murders portrayed more gruesomely, more realistically, and more intimately than in cozy mysteries, but the detectives themselves are often violent persons. Some hard-boiled private eyes—notably Daly’s Race Williams and Mickey Spillane’s Mike Hammer—relish their ability to visit violence upon adversaries. Others—notably the Continental Op—fear that too much violence may cause them to go “blood-simple” and become the same as the criminals they seek to combat.

Finally, narrative voice and style are important to hard-boiled tales. Often, but by no means always, the stories are narrated in a laconic first-person vocie. In the tradition of Hammett and Chandler, and following Joseph T. Shaw’s edicts, the style of these tales is often fast-paced, clipped, and understated. Dialogue is peppered with street slang and police and criminal jargon. Emphasis is rarely placed on the detectives’ personal lives and backgrounds but is instead focused on examining the clients, criminals, and misfits who venture into the detectives’ lives.