Hard-Boiled Detectives

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The hard-boiled detective story is a genre of popular fiction that reached the height of its creative expression and popular acclaim during the middle decades of the twentieth century. Focusing on the exploits of tough, often cynical detectives who rely on their fists, wits, and the skills of their trade as much as on their intellects, the hard-boiled crime story created a workingman hero especially suited to the industrial city. Pitching him against intractable sources of corruption, the genre tended to convey a populist anger at the abuses of the wealthy and powerful that made it particularly appealing during the Depression.

Hard-boiled detective stories first appeared in pulp magazines of the mid-1920s, especially the renowned Black Mask, in which they drew directly on pre-existing conventions of the western and of nineteenth-century urban melodrama. Adapting those conventions to the modern city, such innovative writers as Dashiell Hammett and Carroll John Daly used the genre to explore the anxieties created by the crime wave that accompanied Prohibition. Like the closely related gangster fiction of the period, such as W. R. Burnett's Little Caesar (1929), hard-boiled crime fiction portrayed a disordered city in which traditional legal institutions were too corrupt or impotent to secure justice. In novels such as Daly's The Hidden Hand (1928) or Hammett's Red Harvest (1929), hard-boiled writers depicted their hero's often extra-legal efforts to search out the roots of corruption and to impose order on a lawless environment.

While the genre grew steadily in popularity in the pulps through the 1920s, it came to new prominence during the 1930s as Hammett and later Raymond Chandler brought sophistication and intellectual prestige to the fiction. Chandler, who began his literary career during the mid-1930s, was particularly important in adapting the genre to concerns raised by the Depression. Abandoning the cool skepticism of Hammett's fiction, Chandler imagined his detective hero as a knight-errant crusading for justice in a corrupt world and driven by sentimental affection for the victims of an unjust society.

In subsequent years, many other writers would follow Chandler and use the genre as a potent vehicle for exploring corruption and social injustice, making the hard-boiled detective story an ever-vital vein of popular mythology. Beginning with John Huston's film adaptation of The Maltese Falcon (1940) and Howard Hawks's version of The Big Sleep (1946), the hard-boiled story also became a staple of the movies and, from there, of radio and TV.



Chandler, Raymond. The Big Sleep. 1939.

Chandler, Raymond. Farewell, My Lovely. 1940.

Hammett, Dashiell. The Maltese Falcon. 1930.

Hammett, Dashiell. The Glass Key. 1932.

Nolan, William F. The Black Mask Boys: Masters in the Hard-Boiled School of Detective Fiction. 1985.

Sean McCann