Hard-boiled fiction rose from the pulps to prominence in the U.S. during the 1930s and 1940s. Not only did it reflect the pressures of the Depression and World War II, but it also offered a code for dealing with physical and economic conflict. Its villains changed from the small-time hoodlums of “Old Cap Collier” at the turn of the century to adventurers such as Casper Gutman of The Maltese Falcon(1930) and then to “white-collar criminals” like Walter Huff of Double Indemnity (1936). It began to incorporate sexual opportunism as a parallel theme, whether in male characters such as Frank Chambers of The Postman Always Rings Twice or in female ones such as Eileen Wade of The Long Goodbye. In the
1950s and 1960s Raymond Chandler and then Ross Macdonald delved into the psychology of their characters, bringing the genre to a point where it could employ a greater variety of plots, which suited the demands of movies and later of television. The genre had a formula, so audiences expected certain narrative elements, which writers and directors found easy to supply. Yet it could be varied to emphasize romance, violence, suspense, psychology, or popular political concerns such as Communism. Film accelerated the division of the genre into sub-genres, and since so many hard-boiled writers worked in Hollywood at some point, the exploration of new narrative variations proceeded quickly.
The Second Generation
It is not surprising that some of the writers grouped below as a “second generation” were considered amoral or decadent in their time. They offered a pleasing subversion of the rules of an increasingly powerful society, and they warned of dire penalties if you got caught — and you always did. This predestined fatality proved highly attractive to audiences, so the genre invoked issues of personal, social, or political concern to test their potency as catalysts of fatality. Mickey Spillane’s demonization of Mafiosi and Communists, his abysmal portraits of large cities and his misogynist depictions of women offer a kind of comic book version of McCarthyism. Jim Thompson’s schizophrenic killers epitomize a post-World War II dread about soldiers returning to society – a fear the G.I.s themselves often had, which we now term “post-traumatic stress.” Cornell Woolrich reinvented Poe’s tale of terror at a time when the threat of nuclear annihilation was serious. Ross Macdonald brought Freudian analysis from the university, where millions of students were learning it, to explain to a mass public why good people do bad things.
These four authors represent the four main directions of hard-boiled fiction in the 1950s and early 1960s. A comic-book writer to begin with, Spillane represents the reduction of the genre to pure action. We need only remember that Hammett supervised and sometimes scripted the comic strip Secret Agent X-9. See the page on Dick Tracy, Batman, and Superman (Radio, TV, and Comics). Characterization, development, and plausibility were discarded in this domain. Here female characters are either mothers or femmes fatales, used and discarded. Heroes and villains were easily identified. As several scholars have noted, these trends find perfect expression later in the movies of Clint Eastwood. The Harlem novels of Chester Himes fall into this category, as does the early work of 1960s author Ishmael Reed, both showing that simplification can add irony or black humor. Elmore Leonard and Carl Hiaasen continue this trend.
The focus on the mentally unbalanced protagonist represented by Thompson’s work was also amplified. Hemingway had made such characters the legitimate material of modernist fiction (“The Battler,” “The Killers,” both 1925). The mechanics of brutality or murder figure importantly, though the protagonists claim amnesia or blackouts. If some of these descriptions are as lurid as tabloid news photos, it is well to recall that photographers figured in earlier hard-boiled fiction as investigators and recorders of carnage (“Murder Mix-up,” George Harmon Cox, Black Mask May, 1936). In the late 1940s and 1950s the photographic work of Weegee, the New York tabloid photographer of Mafia and car crash victims, parallels the publications of Thompson. A bit later came the grisly reportage of such New Journalism classics as Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood (1966) and the junkie fiction of William Burroughs.
It was difficult for the second generation to surpass the founders stylistically. Hammett’s terseness, Chandler’s metaphors, and Macdonald’s detailed psychological plots set a very high standard. Yet there were other possibilities, which these writers, because of the nature of their gifts, the conventions of narrative, or public taste at the times they wrote, explored instead: different narrative points of view, graphic descriptions of sex and violence, political themes, female detectives, self-caricature, and fragmented plots assembled by readers. The survey below is not exhaustive, but intended to show the major directions taken in the genre. Some writers on the margin of the hard-boiled, such as John D. MacDonald and Amanda Cross, have been left out, since the edges do not define the genre. Cross, the pseudonym of scholar Caroline Heilbrun (below) was certainly a pioneer of the woman detective but not hard-boiled. .
Many detective novelists originally observed the central tenets of the mystery genre, which hold that readers be presented with all the suspects, that no clues be hidden from the audience and that the crime be plausible. They were not concerned with baffling or intricate plots to the extent that writers of the English school were, but they still created and preserved mysteries. There was presumed to be a much closer thematic relation between the apparent and revealed plots than in the English school.
But the hard-boiled genre had no sooner come into focus than writers began to innovate, as is typical of genre fiction. Writers look for ways to win new readers; they strive to keep the genre tuned to contemporary mood. Competing for the same audience were crime fiction and crime movies, which had already discovered that they could reverse the criminal/police equation, making interesting or even sympathetic protagonists from outlaws. Some of these had already appeared in frontier myth and Western fiction. Public rectitude and the movie censors, however, demanded that crime be punished in movies. Insofar as a criminal protagonist approached the status of “hero,” he had to be justified as a child of hard times, born in a ghetto, homeless during the Depression, or scarred by one of the World Wars. This made him society’s victim, occupying the same social margin inhabited by the private eye. Unlike the private eye, who could “see” through people, events, mores, and social strata, the criminal hero saw the rest of society as impenetrably walled off, incomprehensible. No knowledge or skill or manners would vault him over to the other side, where the winners, the lucky, and the rich lived. Thus, his or her whole life assumed the “fated” tone that was usually restricted to the discovery portion of the private eye novel. In David Madden’s invaluable collection on the “tough guy novelists,” Joyce Carol Oates (right) famously remarked of James M. Cain’s heroes that their knowledge of the world seems “limited to the radius of their desire.” Desire is key: not possessed of the private eye’s “vision,” the criminal protagonist usually seems to act out of desire, which s/he believes is the universal common denominator. Overlooked by readers is the fact that, when the criminal is a first-person narrator, s/he knows the outcome already but suppresses it. Readers, however, attend to crime fiction or movies only partially because of their identification with desire and its objects. They also know that there is a “corrective” to pure desire, be it arrest or death. The reader’s prurient identification is balanced by acceptance of this fate. The reading motive becomes: How far can desire proceed before the inevitable punishment? Both the private eye and the crime novels feature hero/ines who pay a price for pursuing an object or a quest and who are left the wiser, but the crime novel’s wisdom is far darker. At its most dire, there is statement of Cornell Woolrich (left): “First you dream, then you die.”
The hard-boiled novel began to branch as Raymond Chandler, in the late 1940s and early 1950s, sought to make it not only a vehicle of social comment but of autobiographical reflection. After The Long Goodbye (1953), some hard-boiled fiction began to shed its toughness and some of the “code.” Ross Macdonald came to the fore of this “progressive” edge of the genre in The Galton Case (1959) and took it to fulfillment in The Underground Man (1971). Scholars such as Eric Mottram believe that this exhausted the “formal” possibilities of the genre, for Lew Archer “finally sees the genre into impossibility, moving into fictions of self-deception and self expenditure.” 1
Archer had descendants – Robert Parker’s Spenser, for example – but it is true that hard-boiled fiction branches like kudzu after Macdonald. Some authors availed themselves of techniques made familiar through Modernist texts; works such as Higgins’ 1974 novel Cogan’s Trade consisted of fragments of conversation overheard and assembled by the reader. This novel paved the way for The Sopranos television series. Other writers
followed the contemporary lines of development represented by ethnic literature and renascent regionalism. After the African-American detective came the woman, the Jewish, the Native American, the Creole, and the Asian-American detective. In the 1980s there were detectives whose beats were Detroit or Boston, Cincinnati or Chicago, New Orleans, or Indianapolis. In the 1990s there were art-dealing, cab-driving, and handicapped detectives. “A detective for everyone” reflects the fact that the genre has adapted to another change: the fragmentation of mass media markets, begun by cable television in the 1980s. Niche marketing may seem like a diminution, but it’s well to remember that hard-boiled fiction began as niche fiction, and it’s still quite strong.
1 Eric Mottram, “Ross Macdonald and the Past of a Formula,” Art in Crime Writing:Essays on Detective Fiction, Ed.Bernard Benstock (New York: St. Martin’s, 1983), 98.