What, you ask, is hard-boiled crime, anyway? Well, if you've never seen the film The Maltese Falcon with Humphrey Bogart playing detective Sam Spade, you should. Once you do, you'll know the answer to that question. And, become a lifelong fan of H-B crime.
Wikipedia defines hard-boiled crime roughly as a literary genre that shares some of its characters and settings with crime fiction (especially detective and noir fiction). The genre's typical protagonist is a detective who battles the violence of organized crime that flourished during Prohibition (1920–1933) and its aftermath, while dealing with a legal system that has become as corrupt as crime itself.
Notable hard-boiled detectives include such super-sleuths as Dick Tracy, Philip Marlowe, Sam Spade, and dozens of others.
The genre of hard-boiled fiction is nothing new. It made its debut into society in the form of early detective stories appearing initially in the "pulps" or populist magazines of the mid-1920s. The most successful of these publications was Black Mask, in which writers were influenced by the preexisting conventions of the western, nineteenth-century, urban drama. Adapting those conventions to the modern city, innovative novelists such as Dashiell Hammett and Carroll John Daly used the genre to explore the angst created by Prohibition and its resultant wave of crime, particularly organized or Mob crime.
To go up against such hardened, ruthless criminals, H-B detectives had to be bone-hard, themselves, and ready to prove it. They never took no for an answer, and they didn't bother following the laws, rules, and dictates of society in pursuing whoever it was they were hired to find—or did so on their own. That attitude sprang from the Great Depression, in which real-life criminals such as John Dillinger and Baby Face Nelson surfaced to do battle with the big-business banking interests of the evil proletariat and the rise of corporate America. At the same time, the crooks (you know, the guys in the black hats) in H-B novels were equally vindictive and ruthless, setting up the ultimate conflict of good vs. evil. The only difference between hard-boiled crime and other genre fiction is that the good guys put their consciences on hold. The bad guys, of course, had no consciences, which set up yet more tension in the H-B arena.
Add to the mix lots of slang and bleached blondes with hard faces and soft bodies, plus plenty of booze and a general vulnerability toward the "weaker sex," and you have the quintessential makeup of the hardest-boiled Private Eye imaginable.
Everything considered, H-B crime makes for a fun read, a fast-paced, stripped-down story, and lots of twists and turns along the way. Throw in a "dame" or "skirt" who is rotten to the core, eventually falls for the good-guy detective she's been pressured to set up, and finally succumbs to his set of moral values at the story's end—-either that, or die in his arms—and you add the additional sub-genre of "noir" to your hard-boiled adventure.
It's all a throwback to the golden age of pulp magazines (okay, maybe more like tin) of the twenties and thirties and a damned fun trip to take, no matter your age or proclivity in reading material. Some of the more notorious detectives in hard-boiled history include Chester Gould's Dick Tracy, Raymond Chandler's Philip Marlowe, John D. MacDonald's Travis McGee, Mickey Spillane's Mike Hammer, Dashiell Hammett's Sam Spade, and Ross Macdonald's Lew Archer.
It's no surprise, then, that to read hard-boiled crime is to love hard-boiled crime. And, to love hard-boiled crime is to emulate it. Since its founding a century ago, the genre has never flagged in popularity among either readers or writers. Today, it's as vital and alluring as in the glory days of the dime detective pulps. And every bit as exciting.
In fact, its allure is so great that not even I, a confirmed literary junkie, could resist taking a spin or two around the hard-boiled block with the short stories, "Double Jeopardy" and "The Tenant," appearing in the anthology of my work entitled Chi-Town Blues. Not to mention my own sentinel hard-boiled, hard-living, hard-drinking detective, Yiddish Bulldog Hymie Stiehl, in the novel, Solid Stiehl. They were all great fun to write, and even more so to go back and read. And, yes, along with the literary novels that still fuel my fires, I'll be writing more hard-boiled crime genre in the future. No doubt about it.
Until then ...
Smoke if you've got 'em. Unflitered, of course.
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D. J. Herda is author of the new e-Book series of writing advice, About Writing Right, available at Amazon and at fine booksellers everywhere. You can also check out his column, "The Author-Ethicist," at Substack. It's free, it's entertaining, it's informative, and it runs weekly. Well, almost weekly. Occasionally weekly. Sometimes weekly. (Hey, he does his best!)