In 1887 Arthur Conan Doyle created Sherlock Holmes and the success of his great detective spawned an entire genre of detective fiction that imitates to some degree or another to this date. The light-hearted and relatively straightforward approach towards solving crime reached its pinnacle in what has become known as The Golden Age of crime fiction, the 1920s and 1930s. The large majority of the authors writing in this popular style of fiction were British and this was reflected in the settings and general sense of manners contained within.
The inter-war years were a difficult time both socially and politically and this change in society saw crime fiction edge towards what was a more realistic, and more depressing tone with content that would almost certainly shock the characters found within an Agatha Christie novel. The pioneers for this movement towards realism were, perhaps unsurprisingly, Americans and this style became known as hard-boiled.
Taking its name from the style of preparing eggs that leaves the hard shell intact and the yolk fully solidified, the protagonists of hard-boiled fiction are tough skinned, street wise, sharp tongued and ready to solve a mystery with violence if necessary (and it almost always is.)
These are cops, private detectives, ordinary citizens coming up against prohibition gangsters, organised crime, crooked cops, and looking to stand up for what is morally correct. One lone man against an entire system; grown cynical and expecting the worst of people but hoping for the best, he’s the kind of guy who’s seen every horror and will surely see worse before he solves this case.
Hard-boiled is a naturalistic style of writing combined with a cynical, world-weary attitude. This evolved in to Noir fiction, a genre that is if anything even darker; it’s protagonists are usually morally suspect at best and at worst are degenerates, psychopaths and cold blooded murderers.
The most succinct and accurate definition of the difference between the two styles is this:
Noir is the world. Hard-boiled is the character. You can have Noir without the Hard-boiled, but not the other way around.
Carroll John Daly is credited with creating the first hard-boiled story for Black Mask magazine in the 1920s and his first hard-boiled novel Snarl of the Beast (1927) marks the first of, what I shall deem, the essentials of the genre. At the time Daly was the most popular author of the genre he essentially started but he has since been unfairly labelled a hack (the writers opinion only) for simply not being of the same quality as the famous authors he inspired.
Hot on the heels of Daly was Dashiell Hammett, the former Pinkerton operative turned author, who between 1929 and 1934 published the only novels he ever wrote. At least two of which are widely considered masterpieces of the genre. Red Harvest (1929) featuring the unnamed detective known as The Continental Op and perhaps his most famous work The Maltese Falcon (1930); it’s PI Sam Spade is credited as being the archetype that all other hard-boiled detectives are based on, with his personal detachment from the case and unflinching devotion to ensuring justice his strongest characteristics.
The man who would follow in his footsteps, Raymond Chandler, said of him:
“Hammett gave murder back to the kind of people that commit it for reasons, not just to provide a corpse…He put these people down on paper as they are, and he made them talk and think in the language they customarily used for these purposes.”
A more obscure name with an essential of the genre crops up next, Raoul Whitfield; his debut novel Green Ice (1930) was described by Dashiell Hammett as “280 pages of naked action pounded into tough compactness by staccato, hammerlike writing” but he never seemed to live up to his early success and retired from writing fiction only a few years later.
There are three names that everybody mentions when discussing this period of early hard-boiled American fiction. Hammett is the first, his Maltese Falcon regularly winning polls for best hard-boiled novel also, but to his name you will also find added the words Chandler and Cain.
Raymond Chandler decided to try his hand at writing after losing his job during the Depression and in the process seemed to capture America the way that America wants to be remembered. His hero is Philip Marlowe, his beat is L.A., a brave warrior in the Sam Spade mould but with a softer underbelly. In his classic debut The Big Sleep (1939) we find a PI who likes to drink, is handy in a fight and cynically wisecracks his way through most situations but this is also a man who plays chess, reads poetry and has philosophical questions playing on his mind. The generally acknowledge highpoint in Chandler’s (and Marlowe’s) career would come later with The Long Goodbye (1953) and demonstrates the literary nature of the genre, author and character.
James M. Cain on the other hand was largely active in the noir category; in his major works his characters were not detectives but men corrupted by sex and money. Double Indemnity (1943) is the story of an insurance agent who plots against his employers to get a woman and some money. The Postman Always Rings Twice (1934) features a mixture of sexuality and violence in a love triangle situation.
With the big names out of the way I will share two more important figures in the formative years of this genre that are a lot harder to find and therefore more obscure.
Cornell Woolrich, who also wrote with some success under the pseudonym William Irish, is virtually out of print today but his importance on the development of the genre remains. His work more often that not evoked despair and cynicism in the everyday life scenarios and as was the case with the bleaker examples of the genre was more popular in France than America. If you can find them, I recommend The Bride Wore Black (1940) and The Black Angel (1943) as good starting points.
Dorothy B. Hughes is another essential early noir author that few people have heard of. Her In A Lonely Place (1947) has recently been republished as a Penguin Modern Classic and quite rightly so, is a fine example of her tightly plotted and tense approach towards noir and features a truly heinous protagonist in Dix Steele. Amongst her other work The Blackbirder (1943) is a story of fear, paranoia and dread.
In Part Two I’ll be taking a look at the second generation of authors who worked during the boom in paperback fiction of the 1950s.
This is a guest post by blahblahblahtoby; You can find him discussing books on Goodreads, discussing movies on Letterboxd, tweeting nonsense as blahblahblahtoby and on his blog blahblahblahgay, feel free to say hi.
There are literally dozens of great authors and great novels that could have been suggested as essential reading for this guide. The writer of the article went through agonising decisions over who to leave out and is more than aware that your favourite author probably hasn’t been mentioned but feel free to start a discussion in the comments.
This post is part of a four post series exploring the history of Hard-Boiled and Noir Fiction, for recommendations check out each post;
The 1930’s – 1940’s
The 1960’s – 1980’s
The 1990’s – Onwards