Hard-Boiled Detectives Analysis

Birth of the Detective and the Cozy Mystery

(Masterpieces of Fiction, Detective and Mystery Edition)

As many critics have noted, the modern detective story has numerous antecedents. However, its most essential origins are in a trio of stories written by the American author Edgar Allan Poe during the 1840’s. Poe introduced his genius detective C. Auguste Dupin in “The Murders in the Rue Morgue” (1841); Dupin is not a police officer but a gentleman of some means and a scholar; he solves crimes because of his personal interest in the cases, as in “The Purloined Letter,” or because of his intellectual curiosity, as in “The Murders in the Rue Morgue.” Some eighteen years after Poe introduced the trope of deductive reasoning, or “ ratiocination,” the English author Wilkie Collins published The Woman in White (1859); he later followed it with The Moonstone (1868). The latter novel, in its portrayal of a large gathering of well-to-do suspects and two police detectives who would come to represent mainstays of the genre—the brilliant detective and the bumbling incompetent—introduces many of the elements that would form the English detective novel.

The popularization of detective stories can be traced to Arthur Conan Doyle, creator of the genius detective Sherlock Holmes. Doyle introduced Holmes—and his narrator, Dr. Watson—in A Study in Scarlet (1887) and would go on to write three more brief novels and fifty-six short stories about them. Doyle’s Holmes and the patterns of his narratives owe a debt to Poe’s Dupin stories: Both have genius detectives, less skillful...

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Literary Trends and World War I

(Masterpieces of Fiction, Detective and Mystery Edition)

The hard-boiled reaction against the cozy formula might be attributed to the time when it arose as much as it is to any conscious decisions to break with the established formulas. Naturalism was the foremost literary trend in American fiction through the first two decades of the twentieth century. However, the term is misleading in that literary naturalism is not so much about the natural world as it is about using concepts familiar in the study of natural science, such as Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution, to examine subjects in literary form. Part of Darwinism and natural science is examining the impact of the environment upon the subject; as a result, naturalist novels were often critiques of society and humankind’s social environments. For example, Stephen Crane’s Maggie: A Girl of the Streets (1893) tells of a young “fallen woman” who is forced into a life of prostitution in New York. Frank Norris’s novel McTeague (1899) is about a working-class man who tries to overcome his social class and becomes a murderer. Similarly, many early hard-boiled novels were equally willing to critique the social milieu and challenge the social order.

The Western world was turned upside by World War I, which raged from 1914 to 1918. The war had many characteristics that distinguished it from earlier conflicts, such as its sheer scale, the huge numbers of combat fatalities, and the widespread postwar expectation that the war’s...

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Black Mask and Other Pulps

(Masterpieces of Fiction, Detective and Mystery Edition)

Mystery fiction was an important part of pulp magazine publishing, so named for the cheap and pulpy quality of the paper used in the magazines. One of the more important turn-of-the-twentieth-century pulps, The Strand Magazine, which was printed in England from 1891 to 1950, published many of Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories, as well as later works by Dorothy L. Sayers and Agatha Christie. The pulps were also home to other genres, such as romance, Westerns, men’s adventure stories, and horror and gothic fiction, all of which flourished in both the pre- and post-World War I eras.

One of the most important pulp magazines in the history of the detective genre, Black Mask was founded in 1920 by the famous columnist H. L. Mencken and editor George Jean Nathan to help finance their struggling arts and lifestyle magazine, Smart Set (1900-1930). After only eight months, they sold Black Mask at a profit. Initially, Black Mask published cozies, as well as romances, Westerns, and adventure stories. However, editor George W. Sutton, Jr., decided upon changing the magazine’s direction by emphasizing hard-boiled stories. After he left the magazine in 1924, his successors Phil Cody (1924-1926) and, most famously, Joseph T. “Cap” Shaw (1926-1936) continued to develop the distinctive hard-boiled flavor of Black Mask. Shaw was particularly important to both the longstanding success and reputation of the magazine and the development of the hard-boiled subgenre. He stressed that stories should be both plausible and realistic, that violence should serve a purpose in the narrative and not be simply gratuitous, and that writing should be clear and terse. Moreover, he thought that stories about crimes motivated by human nature were more entertaining than “whodunits” or complicated puzzles.

The birth of hard-boiled detective literature might fairly be traced to Black Mask, and more specifically to its December, 1922, issue. That issue contained Carroll John Daly’s first story, “The False Burton Combs,” and the first crime story of Dashiell Hammett (writing as Peter Collinson) “The Road Home.” In June, 1923, Daly introduced his two-fisted detective Race Williams in “Knights of the Open Palm.” In October of that same year, Black Mask published “Arson Plus” by Hammett (still writing as Collinson), who introduced the character he would later write about most often: the Continental Op.

Carroll John Daly

(Masterpieces of Fiction, Detective and Mystery Edition)

Although Dashiell Hammett is generally acknowledged as the founder of hard-boiled detective literature, the contributions of Carroll John Daly should not be underestimated. Daly’s stories were probably less influenced by broad literary trends than those of Hammett. Although Daly’s writing contrasted starkly with the cozy mysteries written by Doyle, Van Dine, Chesterton, and Christie in many ways, this is at least in part because his work stemmed from a different literary tradition. Daly’s detective Race Williams owes much more of his persona and methods to the pulp adventure and Western heroes that preceded him than he does to earlier detectives such as Sherlock Holmes. Williams rarely solves a crime through deductive reasoning. Instead, he typically takes up his pistols and simply goes after the most likely suspects. Unlike Sayers’s Lord Peter Wimsey and Van Dine’s Philo Vance, Williams is a professional private investigator who is paid for his investigations. At the same time, at least part of his motivation stems from the adrenalin thrills he gains from hunting criminals. Boastful and supremely confident, Williams has no compunction about gunning down adversaries. Much of the harsh violence associated with hard-boiled detective writing has its origins in Daly’s stories, even if his depictions are not always as realistic as would eventually be true of the form. Like his Western and adventure hero progenitors, Daly’s Williams is typically protective toward women; his ire greatly raised when they are endangered.

Daly was not the same caliber of writer as Hammett and Chandler. Dialogue in his stories often falls flat, and his characters have a tendency to present their expositions clumsily and often. Nevertheless, his stories are fast paced and packed with action. Sales of Black Mask magazine rose whenever he published in its pages, and his novels sold extremely well during the 1920’s and 1930’s. Daly published more than thirty stories in Black Mask, and more than twenty in Dime Detective, which was published from 1932 until 1953. He also serialized six Race Williams novels and eventually published seventeen books. In Williams’s immense capability and autonomous nature, later super-competent and violent hard-boiled detectives such as Mickey Spillane’s Mike Hammer and Robert B. Parker’s Spenser find their origin.

Dashiell Hammett

(Masterpieces of Fiction, Detective and Mystery Edition)

More than any other writer, Samuel Dashiell Hammett may be said to have originated the hard-boiled form. A World War I veteran (and later a World War II vet), Hammett actually worked for the Pinkerton Detective Agency for two years before World War I and for a year afterward. Forced into convalescence by tuberculosis, he turned to writing to earn some income. After selling a few humorous pieces and literary stories, he turned to detective fiction. Although he initially wrote under pseudonyms, he soon began using his real name, dropping the Samuel.

The character who appeared most frequently in Hammett’s stories is his unnamed Continental Op, an operative for the Continental Detective Agency. Based loosely on a superior whom Hammett had known in the Pinkerton Detective Agency, the Op differs greatly from the such gentlemen sleuths as Lord Peter Wimsey and S. S. Philo Vance. Short, balding, and overweight, he uses street slang and is comfortable with the criminal language and is decidedly working-class. Although not afraid of violence, he prefers to avoid it; his goal is always to do his job, not to gain revenge, win the girl, or even necessarily see justice done. Above all, he is a professional. His very namelessness is, in a way, indicative of his professionalism, as his personal life never intrudes into his stories. He uses deductive reasoning but rarely solves crimes with his deductive prowess alone. Rather, he depends on careful methodology, interrogation techniques, infiltration of his opponents’ organizations, persistence, and when in need, carefully orchestrated chaos to achieve his ends. Hammett published some thirty-six stories about the Op, almost all in Black Mask magazine. He also published his five...

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Raymond Chandler

(Masterpieces of Fiction, Detective and Mystery Edition)

In Raymond Chandler Shaw found the next great writer for Black Mask. Raised partly in England, a veteran of World War I, and classically educated, Chandler turned to writing after failing to succeed as an executive for an oil company. Less prolific than most of his contemporaries, he did not publish his first short story, “Blackmailers Don’t Shoot,” until 1933, when he was forty-five. While publishing nineteen stories over the next six years, Chandler made use of a number of private eye characters such as Ted Carmady, John Dalmas, and Mallory. He would rework some of these narratives into his seven novels, and more important, rework these early private eyes into the character who—along with Hammett’s...

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Women as Victims, Temptresses, and Femmes Fatales

(Masterpieces of Fiction, Detective and Mystery Edition)

As a number of critics and scholars have noted, early hard-boiled novels seem to be hyper-masculine in a number of ways, particularly in terms of their violence, masculine codes of honor, and almost masochistic trials of endurance and survival. More troubling are portrayals of women in these stories. Typically, women in such stories are depicted as victims in need of saviors—such as Merle Davis in Chandler’s The High Window (1942) and Gabrielle Dain Leggett in Hammett’s The Dain Curse—or as temptresses trying to lure detectives away from their quests— like Helen Grayle in Chandler’s Farewell My Lovely or Dinah Brand in Red Harvest.

Quite often, women clients, love...

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Hard-Boiled Crime and Gangster Stories

(Masterpieces of Fiction, Detective and Mystery Edition)

The initial impetus of hard-boiled detective writing focused on private eyes to such an extent that in 1930 Black Mask’s editor Joseph T. Shaw felt it necessary to write an explanatory note to justify the magazine’s serialization of Hammett’s The Glass Key, in which gangster Ned Beaumont works as a kind of detective to further his boss’s designs. The intensive violence, understated prose, laconic narration, witty dialogue, and immediacy of hard-boiled fiction were all quickly taken up by most writers of crime fiction in general. For that matter, many writers saw no conflict in writing stories that used thieves and gangsters as their protagonists in stories that viewed the detectives, in a sense, from the...

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Crossover Novels: Cozy and Hard-Boiled

(Masterpieces of Fiction, Detective and Mystery Edition)

As soon as the hard-boiled detective story became a recognizable formula by the early 1930’s, a number of writers sought to have their literary cake and eat it by merging forms of the cozy mystery with the emerging tropes of the hard-boiled form. Chief among these writers are Erle Stanley Gardner and Rex Stout.

Although Gardner’s fictional attorney Perry Mason would become one of the most famous television characters ever created, in his initial incarnation in the 1933 novel The Case of the Velvet Claws and through Gardner’s next several novels, Gardner drew upon both cozy and hard-boiled formulas. Mason is an attorney, not a private detective, but he employs detective Paul Drake to help him. Mason has to...

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From Film Noir to Roman Noir

(Masterpieces of Fiction, Detective and Mystery Edition)

Noir, a French word for “dark” or “black,” was first used to categorize hard-boiled, black-and-white films by French film critic Nino Frank during the mid-1940’s. Although the term was originally applied to American films of the 1940’s, many concepts developed in noir criticism, such as the femme fatale, have become a part of the lexicon in discussions of hard-boiled writing. Similarly, bookstores and publishers frequently use “noir” as a synonym for hard-boiled, even when the texts in question have never been filmed or are widely divergent from the early works of hard-boiled detective literature. A number of academic scholars, such as William Marling, have taken to calling hard-boiled writing roman noir....

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Post-World War II Developments

(Masterpieces of Fiction, Detective and Mystery Edition)

Within a decade or so of its invention, hard-boiled writing was every bit as formulaic as the cozy mysteries against which it had rebelled. Nevertheless, a large number of hard-boiled writers have managed to distinguish themselves. During the 1940’s and 1950’s, two radically different writers entered the fray. Mickey Spillane who established his vengeful, pistol-packing detective Mike Hammer in such novels as I, the Jury (1947) and Vengeance Is Mine (1950), is much more a follower of Carroll John Daly than Raymond Chandler. Gone from his novels is the kind of social critique found in Hammett—although Spillane is not fond of the rich. Hammer is something like an all-American supermale. Through more than...

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The 1970’s and Beyond

(Masterpieces of Fiction, Detective and Mystery Edition)

During the 1940’s, readers may have suspected that hard-boiled literature would become too formulaic to last as a subgenre without becoming self-parodying. Certainly many writers have followed in the footsteps of earlier authors without managing to overcome the limitations of the form. However, the genre has grown and developed in ways that Black Mask editor Joseph T. Shaw might never have dreamed. For example, the wisecracking banter that is considered intrinsic to the genre reached a kind of apogee in the crime novels of Elmore Leonard, who moved from writing Westerns to crime novels with The Big Bounce in 1969. The 1970’s also saw the emergence of one of the most enduring hard-boiled detectives since the...

(The entire section is 545 words.)


(Masterpieces of Fiction, Detective and Mystery Edition)

Cawelti, John G. Adventure, Mystery, Romance: Formula Stories as Art and Popular Culture. Bowling Green, Ohio: Bowling Green University Press, 1976. Thorough discussion of genre formulas in popular fiction, including hard-boiled detective fiction.

Chandler, Raymond. The Simple Art of Murder. New York: Vintage Books, 1988. Selection of Chandler’s short fiction that also includes “The Simple Art of Murder,” his essential 1944 essay on both the origins of hard-boiled fiction and his understanding of the role of the genre and the private eye.

Geherin, David. The American Private Eye: The Image in...

(The entire section is 341 words.)