Retro Reads: Hardboiled Fiction

Retro Reads is a series of posts highlighting the best, most interesting, and most hilarious trends of the fiction of yesteryear.

Image by Joel Kramer. See license here.
shells by Joel Kramer. CC by 2.0.

“I don’t mind if you don’t like my manners. They’re pretty bad. I grieve over them during the long winter evenings.”
                                                      ― Raymond Chandler, The Big Sleep

Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett, arguably the two biggest names in hardboiled fiction, ushered in the golden age of a new type of detective story when they introduced the world to their cynical, sarcastic antiheroes. More often than not down-at-the-heel, and always hard drinking, the ‘private dicks’ they created were men (and occasionally women) who had seen enough of the world to know they couldn’t change it. Unlike Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes, the detectives who populate Chandler and Hammett’s worlds are possessed of no particular genius or skill. When they are able to solve their cases, it is because they are persistent, or they are pissed off, or sometimes they just need the money.

Sometimes, they even do the right thing just because it is right.

In hardboiled fiction, the characters – good and bad – indulge in wholesale violence, and the heroes are prone to casual sex and strong language. They are insightful, yet sardonic narrators, and aren’t shy about voicing their observations to crime bosses, crooked cops, and dizzy dames. And just in case we doubted their toughness – their ‘hardboiled’ essence – there’s almost always a femme fatale waiting in the wings to be tangled with.

The genesis of the genre is relatively straightforward – in the beginning, there was Carroll John Daly. Daly’s work was published in Black Mask magazine in the 1920s, and often featured recurring character Race Williams. Though Daly is the lesser-known predecessor of Hammett and Chandler, he has been credited with producing the first-ever hardboiled private eye story, published in 1923 to beat out Hammett by a matter of months. At, Stephen Mertz argues In Defense of Carroll John Daly that Daly’s Race Williams was no less influential than Hammett’s Contintental Op, and was a staple of pulp magazines well into the 50s.

Fast on Daly’s heels came Hammett in the 1930s with his beloved Sam Spade, star of The Maltese Falcon, and Nick and Nora Charles in The Thin Man. Spade was immortalized on screen by Humphrey Bogart in 1941, and Nick and Nora became the foundation of the recurring literary and cinematic trope of romantically involved partners-in-crime (detection). Though Hammett never wrote another novel starring the couple, he did pen two of the five sequels starring the duo that were adapted to film.

Raymond Chandler styled himself a detective writer in the late 30s, after losing his job to the Depression, and his first novel, The Big Sleep, was published in 1939. His iconic private eye, Philip Marlowe, was a “lonely, honest, wisecracking, poetic, worldweary modern knight” (see Mertz, above), who, along with the others, advanced the modern archetype of the troubled, solitary avenger. Their influence is seen in characters such as the Shadow of the 30s, who asked “Who knows what evil lurks in the hearts of men?”, to Rorschack of Watchmen fame in the 80s and 00s.

The Last Cop Out by Brendan Riley. See license here.
The Last Cop Out by Brendan Riley. See license here.

Though the heyday of hardboiled fiction is considered to have been the 30s to 50s, authors in every subsequent decade have imitated and paid homage to the early masters of the style, and modern incarnations of the hardboiled P.I. can be found under the imprint of Hard Case Crime, founded in 2004. Though the imprint’s covers are substantially more tame than Mickey Spillane’s 1973 The Last Cop Out, they stay true to the tough-guy, underworld feel of the ‘originals’, and have graced the work of mega best-seller Stephen King and one of my own personal favorites, Donald E. Westlake.

The modern hardboiled canon has also shifted to create room for female-authored work like Sue Grafton‘s ‘alphabet’ series, starring female P.I. Kinsey Millhone. Unfortunately, women authors of hardboiled fiction tend not to be as well known as their male counterparts. Though I haven’t read most of the authors on this list (embarrassingly, I haven’t actually heard of most of them), it looks like a good place to start.

Published by nicolarwhite

Author of romantic urban fantasy, science fiction, and mystery.

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