Hard-Boiled and Noir Writers Featured in the 2011 Milne Archive Preview Exhibition
The 2011 Milne Archive Preview Exhibition showcased the work of some of the writers who were most important in establishing the traditions of American hard-boiled and noir crime fiction between the 1920s and the 1950s: Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler, David Goodis, Steve Fisher, Cornell Woolrich, Jim Thompson, Patricia Highsmith.
Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler: defining an American tradition of crime writing
Dashiell Hammett wrote stories for Black Mask from 1922 until 1930. His greatest novels – Red Harvest, The Dain Curse, Maltese Falcon and The Glass Key – were all published first as Black Mask serials. In his short career, he did more than anyone other than Chandler to transform American crime fiction, writing in clean, colloquial prose that was unsparing in its representation of contemporary American life. Chandler emphasized Hammett’s importance in defining the hard-boiled style in “The Simple Art of Murder” (1944), arguing that what he had created was an identifiably American variety of crime fiction, very unlike traditional detective fiction in being written “for people with a sharp, aggressive attitude to life [who] were not afraid of the seamy side of things; they lived there. Violence did not dismay them; it was right down their street.”
Raymond Chandler started writing for Black Mask in December 1933, just as Hammett’s writing career was ending. Within six years, Chandler had written twenty more stories, most of them for Black Mask. In 1938 he started work on The Big Sleep, in part based on earlier Black Mask pieces. He wrote six more Marlowe adventures, including what are arguably his two finest: Farewell, My Lovely (1940) and The Long Goodbye (1953). The work of Chandler is much lighter in tone than that of Hammett. His detective, Marlowe, is characterised by his witty, ironic aloofness and his chivalric qualities, his moral make-up as a man of honour “good enough for any world” (Chandler’s phrase in “The Simple Art of Murder”). As Chandler’s editor Frank McShane says, “Chandler created a character who has become a part of American folk mythology, and in writing about Los Angeles, he depicted a world of great beauty and seamy corruption – the American reality.”
When the novels of Hammett and Chandler first appeared in novel form, they were published by Knopf as hardbacks. Once the paperback revolution gained momentum, however, their novels were also frequently reissued in paperback form, both in the US and the UK.
David Goodis: “a poet of the losers”
In 1946 David Goodis published the first of his crime novels, Dark Passage, and Delmar Daves began filming it with Lauren Bacall and Humphrey Bogart (pictured above with Goodis). He signed a six‑year contract with Warners, but before the end of the ‘40s became disenchanted with the movie industry and retreated back to Philadelphia. Throughout the 1950s, he produced a dozen or so paperback originals for Gold Medal and Lion – now recognized as classics of noir fiction.
The archetypal Goodis hero is a man trapped by a haunted past and a sordid present. More than any other writer in the genre, Goodis is obsessed with the lives of losers, victims, has-beens, outcasts and derelicts. His protagonists try to cheat fate, but are doomed to failure, and his narratives recurrently represent the destruction of their hopes and dreams. As Geoffrey O’Brien writes, “David Goodis is the mystery man of hardboiled fiction. … He wrote of winos and barroom piano players and small‑time thieves in a vein of tortured lyricism all his own. … He was a poet of the losers. If Jack Kerouac had written crime novels, they might have sounded a bit like this.”
Steve Fisher and Cornell Woolrich: the turn towards psychological noir
Both Steve Fisher and Cornell Woolrich started writing for pulp magazines in the 1930s and published paperback novels from the 1940s on.
Fisher and Woolrich had begun to sell stories to Black Mask in 1936, after the magazine’s only woman editor, Fanny Ellsworth, had taken over. Ellsworth is credited by Keith Deutsch with deliberately and perceptively changing the course of Black Mask fiction: “Unlike the unemotional, hard-boiled and ‘objective’ stories her predecessor as editor, Joseph Shaw (1926 to 1936), demanded and made famous, Fanny Ellsworth called for stories with heightened emotion that explored the interior life of the characters.” Ellsworth encouraged Fisher and Woolrich, who shared a talent for presenting aberrant mental states and for creating tense and suspenseful plots.
This dark new style and the focus on the psychology of crime enormously influenced both pulp originals and the screenplays that, from the 1940s on, led to the emergence of film noir: Deutsch writes, “The obsessive, dreamlike narration favored by Fisher and Woolrich in their tense crime tales was a perfect match for the dark shadows, and frightening, expressive camera angles of film noir.” Steve Fisher’s I Wake Up Screaming (1940) was the basis for one of the earliest films noirs, and more film noir screenplays were adapted from works by Woolrich than any other crime novelist.
Jim Thompson and Patricia Highsmith: the killers inside us
Patricia Highsmith published over twenty novels and several collections of short stories between 1950 and her death in 1995. Her first novel, Strangers on a Train, was adapted for the screen by Hitchcock in 1951, and her psychological thrillers formed the basis for more than two dozen other film adaptations. Jim Thompson wrote more than thirty novels from the late-1940s through the early 1970s, the majority of which were paperback originals. At the time of his death, all of his novels were out of print in the US, and it is only since his death that his literary stature has been recognized. The French proclaimed Thompson to be “le plus noir”, the most American and the most pessimistic of the noir thriller writers. Highsmith, who lived for most of her adult life in France, was also better known and more highly respected in Europe than America.
Thompson and Highsmith created some of the most compelling and disturbing of all the transgressor-centred crime novels – Thompson in such first-person narratives as The Killer Inside Me (1952) and Pop. 1280 (1964); and Highsmith in her Ripley novels, starting in 1955 with The Talented Mr Ripley. Thompson is in many respects a very different writer from Highsmith, who would, for a start, never be grouped with the hard-boiled school. But in their representations of psychopathic personalities there are some striking similarities. The “abnormally normal”, “everyone’s next-door neighbour” identity of the killer is used as a means of implying that psychosis is in some ways a representative condition. Their killers’ minds are split between conformity and violation. They are divergent enough to provide a cynically detached commentary on the milieu through which they move, but nevertheless simulate normality in an utterly plausible way. The effect is that, in looking at them, we both feel complicity and see, reflected in their states of mind, the suppressed violence of a whole society.