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 (novel) 1977
You Bet Your Life (novel) 1979
Catch a Falling Clown (novel) 1982
The Lady in the Morgue (novel) 1936
The Wycherley Woman (novel) 1963
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
God Save the Child (novel) 1974
The Godwulf Manuscript (novel) 1974
Mortal Stakes (novel) 1975
Early Autumn (novel) 1981
The Snatch (novel) 1975
Scattershot (novel) 1982
The Big Fix (novel) 1973
Wild Turkey (novel) 1975
I, the Jury (novel) 1947
Kiss Me, Deadly (novel) 1952
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...
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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...
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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...
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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...
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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...
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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...
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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...
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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...
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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...
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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.
(The entire section is 189 words.)