Heroes and Heroines: The first protagonists in the genre were usually detectives. As the genre evolved, he or she became a policeman, an insurance salesman, a politician, a reporter, a crook, unemployed, or a bystander sucked into events. However, as the genre branched and crossed with other forms of popular fiction, most hard-boiled heroes and heroines have retained identifiable characteristics.
The protagonist embarks on a journey of discovery, like the heroes of classic Western mythology, such as Odysseus, Percival, and Lancelot, in order to attain a goal or to recover something lost. These figures faced dangers, challenges, and temptations that were physical, moral, material, and sexual. Success depended on the acquisition of special knowledge, or on an all-powerful sponsor (a god, patron, muse), fidelity to whom permitted success. There is a personal cost to the protagonist. Classic detectives, from Poe’s Dupin to Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes and Chesterton’s Father Brown (below), clearly fit this definition. They answer to a higher authority, whether God or Reason; they have special powers; and they undertake journeys that put right wrongs and restore the wholeness of persons, families, or communities. In Adventure, Mystery, Romance scholar John Cawelti has shown how these characteristics develop in detective fiction. Robert Skinner has developed this topos specially for the hard-boiled hero/heroine. 1
It is significant for the hard-boiled protagonist that the genre began during the urbanization of Europe and North America, against a background of still-fresh frontier mythology in the latter. This made for heroes and heroines who were urban and urbane, familiar with the intricacies and elites of the city, but still possessed of practical “know-how” and an aggressive attitude toward “unknown geography” and its inhabitants. This breadth of knowledge and abilities, deployed on behalf of a private person, is a transformation of the divine sponsorship in myth that became a key feature of the American detective tale with Allen Pinkerton and his stories of the “private eye.” The “eye” is by implication all-seeing, just as it appeared on Pinkerton’s business card. Privately hired omniscience represents a secularization of supernatural power, and Old Cap Collier and the pulp heroes mentioned earlier appeared just as the first commercial security forces were supplementing inefficient, small public police forces.
These detectives were obviously different from Sherlock Holmes or other English detectives of the same period; they were also different from Poe’s Dupin. They saw the world from the perspective of the average citizen, the “man on the street,” rather than from an educated, aristocratic one. Most scholars feel that a specific historic development accounts for this tone — the settling of the American West, with the resulting populist traditions. William Ruehlmann and Marcus Klein have described how this modified the classic archetype and narrative. 2 Briefly, by the era of Pinkerton, the U.S. had become a populist country. Hawthorne, Melville, and James may have characterized American “high culture,” but traditions of popular music, popular art, and popular literature took hold among the masses. As Richard Slotkin has shown, elements of Native American myth combined with frontier tall tales to make heroes of Daniel Boone, Davy Crockett, and Annie Oakley (below). These hero/ines spoke the vernacular (the language of the people) or even a regional patois, a verbal distinction that hard-boiled fiction recaptures. They also shared physical toughness. They could withstand heat and cold, arduous journeys, or sleeplessness. If they were not superior in size, power, or speed, they acquitted themselves well in one-on-one competitions, such as shooting, fistfights, card-playing, horse or auto-racing, and the verbal joust. Usually it required a gang to defeat the popular hero in a fight, and no number were a verbal match. “Wit and grit” was the phrase associated with these heroes between 1865 and 1900.
These characteristics in sum outline the hard-boiled hero/ine in the classic period of 1920 through 1950. The protagonist was usually a detective of the “private eye” variety, or functionally similar. He or she used special expertise to restore a loss, which could mean finding a missing object or bringing a murderer to justice. They did so for little or no money, often simply for justice. They met challenges, trials, obstacles, and temporary defeats — were kidnapped, beaten, shot, knifed, snubbed, humiliated, and dismissed as inferiors. It became a ritual that the protagonist had to pass out, either from a beating or drugs. The symbolic meaning of this — the hero’s passage into the underworld — is clear from the classics. Often, in the narratives of Hammett and sometimes Chandler and Macdonald, the hero has significant dreams that relate to the theme. Hard-boiled protagonists who lose consciousness regain it with greater strength or clarity or ability, and thereby solve the case. The hard-boiled hero or heroine also carries on the tradition of verbal prowess: he or she can use language against opponents and is conscious of words and their effects.
More recently Kathleen Klein, in The Woman Detective: Gender and Genre (University of Illinois Press, 1995) has surveyed nearly 300 female detectives and taken up the question of whether or not the genre can actually be progressive. Taking a feminist viewpoint, she documents the parallels in social history and the women’s rights movement. A very useful and provocative study.
1 Skinner, The New Hard-Boiled Dicks (San Bernardino, CA: Brownstone Books, 1995), 7-20; Cawelti, Adventure, Mystery, Romance Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1976), 65-72, 142-54. 2 William Ruehlmann, Saint With a Gun: The Unlawful American Private Eye, 21-59; Klein, Easterns, Westerns and Private Eyes, 133-77. 3 Richard Slotkin, Regeneration Through Violence. (Middletown, Conn.: Wesleyan University Press, 1973), 132.