2.12.09

The Hard-Boiled Mystery Novel


In my last post, I discussed the characteristics of the soft-boiled mystery, pointing out that authors such as Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler began writing hard-boiled stories in the 1930s as a reaction to the lack of realism in the cozy. The hard-boiled school of writing is synonymous with the American crime novel (see McCann 2010). So what distinguishes the hard-boiled mystery?

Characteristics of the Hard-Boiled Mystery Novel:

• Characters are often from the working class.

• The detective is usually a private eye, rarely has aristocratic connections, does not make much money, and is not concerned to do so. As Panek suggests, “Hard-boiled detectives tend to be proletariat heroes for whom wealth and luxury mean corruption” (2000, 93).

• The detective is a loner with few close connections to others, someone “at odds with the outside world” (Charles, Morrison, and Clark 2002, 57). S/he has no patience with the system and usually works outside it.

• The detective is often independent, rebellious, cynical, hard-drinking, and above all tough. S/he continually faces “assault, capture, drugging, blackjacking, and attempted assassination as a regular feature of his[/her] investigations” (Cawelti 1976, 143).

• The detective is witty, fast-thinking, and always ready with a rejoinder or wise-crack.

• The detective encounters intimidation and temptation, and is forced to define his/her own concept of morality and justice. Since the detective’s moral code is often in conflict with that of the police, s/he is sometimes forced to break rules (Cawelti 1976, 143).

• The detective, as Cawelti points out, is a “defender of the innocent, an avenger of the wronged, the one loyal, honest, truly moral man in a corrupt and ambiguous world” (1976, 151).

• Criminals often have connections with organized crime.

• The setting is usually the big city, a place of corruption and violence. The mean streets rather than the country manor provide the backdrop for the action.

• The California setting of many novels is a “direct extension of the frontier stories of the Western genre, and underlies the identification of the private eye as a quick-fisted urban cowboy” (Scaggs 2005, 57).

• The world lacks moral and social certainties; ambiguities abound. The power of reason is diminished in this world.

• The hard-boiled world is gritty, brutal, and corrupt, one “in which no one is trusted and all must be tested” (Rzepka 2005, 180). The moral point of reference is the detective.

• Graphic descriptions of violence abound.

• The language reflects the world of the streets; it is typically gritty, colloquial, and graphic. “Spurning the drawing-room diction of polite society,” writes Rzepka, “the tough-guy writers cultivated a brusque, clipped, vernacular style” (2005, 179).

• The detective tells the story in a detached, objective manner, usually as a first-person narrator. S/he uses short, pointed sentences and makes terse, witty comments.

McCann summarizes the essential features of the hard-boiled novel:
“Hard-boiled” is the style most people think of when they refer to the American crime story: tough-talking, streetwise men; beautiful, treacherous women; a mysterious city, dark, in Raymond Chandler’s famous phrase, “with something more than night”; a disenchanted hero who strives, usually without resounding success, to bring a small measure of justice to his (or, more recently, her) world. (2010, 42)
Some of the most popular hard-boiled mystery writers are: Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler, Mickey Spillane, Ross Macdonald, Walter Mosley, Robert B. Parker, Sara Paretsky, Sue Grafton, James Lee Burke, Michael Connelly, and Carl Hiaasen.

Virtually no books include all the characteristics of the hard-boiled or cozy novel. In reality, most mystery novels exhibit elements of both, falling somewhere on the hard-boiled/soft-boiled continuum.

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

Charles, John, Joanna Morrison, and Candace Clark. The Mystery Readers’ Advisory: The Librarian’s Clues to Murder and Mayhem. Chicago: American Library Association, 2002.

McCann, Sean. “The Hard-Boiled Novel.” In The Cambridge Companion to American Crime Fiction, edited by Catherine Ross Nickerson, 42-57. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010.

Panek, LeRoy Lad. New Hard-Boiled Writers 1970s-1990s. Bowling Green, OH: Bowling Green State University Popular Press, 2000.

Rzepka, Charles J. Detective Fiction. Cambridge, UK: Polity Press, 2005.

Scaggs, John. “The Hard-Boiled Mode.” In Crime Fiction. London: Routledge, 2005, 55-84.