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.)

Criticism: Major Authors

E. R. Hagemann (essay date 1979)

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...

(The entire section is 4491 words.)

James Naremore (essay date 1983)

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...

(The entire section is 9590 words.)

James F. Maxfield (essay date spring 1985)

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...

(The entire section is 6371 words.)

David Wilt (essay date 1991)

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...

(The entire section is 10385 words.)

Geoff Mayer (essay date 1993)

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...

(The entire section is 5145 words.)

Criticism: Women And Hard-Boiled Fiction

Robert Sandels (essay date fall 1989)

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...

(The entire section is 3558 words.)

Timothy Shuker-Haines and Martha M. Umphrey (essay date 1998)

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...

(The entire section is 5542 words.)

Priscilla L. Walton and Manina Jones (essay date 1999)

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...

(The entire section is 11180 words.)

Priscilla L. Walton and Manina Jones (essay date 1999)

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...

(The entire section is 11345 words.)

Further Reading


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.


(The entire section is 189 words.)