Hard-Boiled Detective Fiction

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Hard-Boiled Detective Fiction

Hard-boiled detective fiction is often defined in terms of what it is not. It is not set in an English village; the solution is not reached by analyzing clues. To paraphrase Raymond Chandler, one of its most famous writers, it is not about dukes and Venetian vases, or handwrought duelling pistols or curare or tropical fish. Hard-boiled detective fiction emerged in 1920s America as an antidote to such things. It exploits familiar urban and industrial settings; its heroes, and now heroines, are ordinary people, working alone.

Hard-boiled detective fiction can be recognized by four main elements: the language, the setting, the detective, and the detection. The first of these is what links hard-boiled detective fiction with other literature of the period. Hard-boiled language describes things rather than ideas: adjectives are kept to a minimum; it reports what happened and what was said, not how it felt. Perhaps the most famous writer of non-detective fiction in this style is Ernest Hemingway, and many writers of hard-boiled detective fiction have said that they began by imitating him.

This style was also affected by financial concerns. Hard-boiled detective fiction first appeared in the "pulp" magazines and novel-ettes that were popular during the 1920s; the writers for these magazines were paid by the word, and editors were keen to eliminate unnecessary description that would cost them money. Some "pulp" writers, such as Horace McCoy and Dashiell Hammett continued to use this pared-down style in their later novels, while others, such as Raymond Chandler, thought that readers would actually enjoy description if it were done well. His language still reports only what happened and what was said, but settings and people are described in a poetic and often complex way. Since the 1980s, some hard-boiled writers, such as James Ellroy, have tried to eliminate the single narrative voice altogether; Ellroy presents his readers with transcripts of newspaper and radio reports about the investigation, heightening the illusion of realism and objectivity.

The setting for hard-boiled detective fiction is almost always urban. Perhaps because of its origins in the period of Prohibition and the Depression of the 1920s, the cities it describes tend to be dark, dangerous places run by corrupt politicians and gangster syndicates. Early writers of hard-boiled detective fiction considered themselves to be describing city life in a new, realistic way. The sort of crime that takes place in their stories also could be read about in newspapers. The people in the stories were like people the readers knew or had heard about; they seemed to speak as people really spoke. As Raymond Chandler puts it, the world they describe is "not a very fragrant world, but it is the world you live in."

The hero of hard-boiled detective stories is most often, though not always, a private detective. It is generally thought that he first appeared in Black Mask magazine in 1922 in the form of Carroll John Daly's Race Williams. Sara Paretsky, who began her V. I. Warshawski series in the 1980s, was among the first to create a hard-boiled detective heroine. Before then he was always a man, and the audience for the stories he appeared in was almost exclusively male. The origins of the hard-boiled detective hero are in the frontier heroes of the nineteenth century, and it could be argued that both types of hero bring order to the lives of the people they choose to help. Where they differ is that the frontier hero assists in establishing new settlements and a new civilization, while the hard-boiled detective only patches up an old and corrupt one. Despite the efforts of writers like Paretsky, since the mid 1970s the police procedural has been the dominant detective fiction form. While the language and action of these novels often owes much to the hard-boiled style, the emphasis on the police implies that the lone hard-boiled private detective is no longer a convincing defense against society's many ills.

The fourth defining characteristic of hard-boiled detective fiction is the method of detection itself. In keeping with origins in Western and romance stories, the hard-boiled detective is usually presented as being on a quest, and it is the quest itself, rather than its solution that forms the main source of interest for readers. Even in the best examples of the genre, the solution to the mystery is often unsatisfactory or contrived, but rather than wanting to know what has already happened, readers want to find out what will happen next. More particularly, they want to know how the detective will deal with physical and moral difficulties encountered along the way.

From Race Williams to V. I. Warshawski, hard-boiled detective fiction reassures us that individuals can succeed where government law enforcement has failed. Hard-boiled detectives are ordinary people who take extraordinary risks for the sake of what they see as right. They suggest to their fans that however mundane their lives may seem, and however dangerous the world appears, they too have a little of what it takes to be heroic.

—Chris Routledge

Further Reading:

Cawelti, John G. Adventure, Mystery, and Romance: Formula Stories as Art and Popular Culture. Chicago, University of Chicago Press, 1976.

Chandler, Raymond. "The Simple Art of Murder." (1950). In Pearls Are a Nuisance. London, Pan Books, 1980. 173-90.

Geherin, David. The American Private Eye: The Image in Fiction. New York, Ungar, 1985.

Messent, Peter, editor. Criminal Proceedings: The Contemporary American Crime Novel. London, Pluto, 1997.