1920-1945 ~ The Interwar Period and the Development of Hard-Boiled Crime Fiction

Extract from Lee Horsley, The Noir Thriller (Palgrave, 2001)

Sudden violence  signifies a radical disruption of normal existence.  Horace McCoy 's They Shoot Horses, Don't They? opens with the gentle and non-violent narrator recalling the moment at which he fired a bullet into Gloria's head; in Paul Cain's Fast One , Gerry Kells just wanted 'to be let alone', but has been 'mixed up in five shootings in the last thirty-two hours' (58; 67); in Dashiell Hammett 's Red Harvest , after sixteen murders in less than a week, the Continental Op says that he fears he himself is going 'blood-simple' (139).  Only half-jokingly, Raymond  Chandler  suggested that the main principle of construction in the hard-boiled  thriller was 'When in doubt, have a man come through a door with a gun in his hand.' [i]    His comments on the role of the man with a gun are a reflection on the reading public's appetite for violent action, but Chandler also argues in the same essay that the 'smell of fear' generated by such stories was evidence of their serious response to the modern condition:
Their characters lived in a world gone wrong, a world in which, long before the atom bomb, civilization had created the machinery for its own destruction and was learning to use it with all the moronic delight of a gangster  trying out his first machine-gun.  The law was something to be manipulated for profit and power.  The streets were dark with something more than night. [ii]  
            The noir thriller began to develop as a popular form in the aftermath of one devastating war  and came to maturity in the two decades that terminate in a second world war. In its most characteristic narratives, some traumatic event irretrievably alters the conditions of life and creates for its characters an absolute experiential divide between their dependence on stable, predictable patterns and the recognition that life is, in truth, morally chaotic, subject to randomness and total dislocation.  In the best-known parable of ordinary life disrupted, Dashiell Hammett 's Sam Spade tells the story of Flitcraft, who comes to realise life's arbitrariness and absurdity  when he is nearly killed by a falling beam.  The thrillers of the period repeatedly represent the sort of transformation that leaves the protagonist feeling, as Flitcraft does, that 'someone had taken the lid off life and let him look at the works' (The Maltese Falcon , 429).  In one of Benjamin Appel 's stories, 'Brothers in Hell's Kitchen ' (1935), two brothers fail to understand one another because only the elder has gone through World War One and therefore 'couldn't be the same inside'; the younger, at the end, thinks he has gained the upper hand over the brother who is 'all wiped up', but then reflects, 'ME, I'm younger, I got something ahead of me.  What, he thought, another war?'  (Hell's Kitchen, 124-5).  This sense of disillusionment in the years between the wars was heightened by political  and economic  disasters for which people were wholly unprepared.  In America there was the folly of Prohibition  and its attendant gangsterism , as well as growing evidence of illicit connections between crime, business  and politics  in American cities.  Crises afflicted both American and European economies, bringing the stock market crash of 1929 and the Great Depression , which Keynes saw as the worst catastrophe of modern times.  With the failure of parliamentary governments in Europe and the rise of totalitarian dictatorships, there was the spectre of another war. 
            In the noir fiction of this period, the anxious sense of fatality  is usually attached to a pessimistic conviction that economic  and socio-political  circumstances will deprive people of control over their lives by destroying their hopes and by creating in them the weaknesses of character that mark them out as victims .  In post-World War Two  thrillers, a protagonist's fate is most often linked to difference from others, to an isolating inability or refusal to conform to conventional  expectations.  Interwar thrillers, on the other hand, incline to economic determinism , stressing the pressures exerted by an economically unjust and fragmenting society.  Where the psychology of the characters is explored, it is predominantly in terms of ordinary human shortcomings.  For example, obsession with success, aggressive drives, self-deception and lying to others are presented as weaknesses of character that precipitate disaster under the strain of adverse socio-economic conditions.  The thrillers of this period are frequently described as 'harshly realistic', but their focus on the real conditions and problems of interwar society is repeatedly joined to the fantastic and the symbolic.  Violence  itself, though it is sometimes no more than 'thriller sensationalism', can take on symbolic force, as, for example, in Hammett 's Red Harvest  or Paul Cain 's Fast One.  There are heightened, sometimes surreal  descriptions of threatening and oppressive scenes or of destruction and viciousness.  Amongst the most memorable images of the period's thrillers are the hellishness of Daly 's Satan Hall  stories and of Hammett's Red Harvest, the terrible brutality of a corrupt society encountered in Burnett 's Little Caesar  and Armitage Trail 's Scarface , the blackly satiric  or tragic scenes of entrapment by misfortune that dominate McCoy 's novels and the work of James M. Cain.  This combination of abrasive realism  and satiric intensification is a hallmark of tough guy  writing.  As David Madden argues in Tough Guy Writers of the Thirties, these are novels that provide 'stylised exaggeration of very real traits in the American character...the nightmare version of the American Dream .' [iii]

The preoccupation with characters goaded or defeated by adversity was often interpreted, by interwar critics of both the tough thriller and film noir , as an acceptance or even encouragement of moral bankruptcy.  It was seen as a form of collusion in the neurosis and violence  of the world depicted.  George Orwell , for example, in 'Raffles and Miss Blandish' (1944), attacked James Hadley Chase  (Rene Raymond ) and his 'half-understood import from America' as a debased expression of the 'moral atmosphere' of the age that witnessed the rise of fascism :  'In his imagined world of gangsters  Chase  is presenting, as it were, a distilled version of the modern political  scene, in which such things as mass bombings of civilians, the use of hostages, torture to obtain confessions, secret prisons, execution without trial, floggings with rubber truncheons, drownings in cesspools, systematic falsification of records and statistics, treachery, bribery and quislingism are normal and morally neutral, even admirable when they are done in a large and bold way.'  The essay complains that 'lowbrow fiction' has followed modernist  literature and the 'serious novel' (Lawrence , for example) in abandoning all sense of 'a sharp distinction between right and wrong and between legality and illegality'.  It is one thing for the intelligentsia to think in this way, but quite another for the mass of the population: now that 'Freud  and Machiavelli have reached the outer suburbs', the 'common people' will lose completely their moral bearings. [iv]   

            Orwell 's criticism is echoed in John Houseman's  often-quoted disparagement (in 1947) of film noir  as lacking in moral energy, giving in to 'fatalistic despair' and representing people 'groping their way through a twilight of insecurity and corruption.' [v]   Like Chandler 's assertion of the 'authentic power' of such thrillers,  the comments of Orwell and Houseman focus on social and political  content - on the fact that these films  and novels refer to a world in crisis, destabilised by one war  and moving into another.  Orwell's protest  is a backhanded acknowledgement of the relevance of the newer kind of crime novel to events in Europe (a relevance made clear, for example, in Brecht 's or Graham Greene's  use of mythologised gangsters  as emblems of fascist  violence ).  What Orwell in effect denies is that such fiction can to do more than 'express' the disintegrating moral atmosphere of the time.  To take his own example, the truth of the matter is that, beneath the surface of the American tough-guy pastiche, Chase  is exploring the pressing question (one raised by many British thrillers of the thirties), that is, the extent to which passivity  should be judged culpable in the face of psychopathic  violence.  For most writers of the time, such themes are much more to the fore than they are in No Orchids for Miss Blandish .   In taking as their subject what Ezra Pound  called 'disillusions never told in the old days', 'serious' thriller writers of the interwar period judge the society portrayed.  In breaking with the existing conventions of the detective  novel, they provide, from the early twenties on, a form of popular fiction that deals critically with the 'wrongness' of 'a world gone wrong' and that confronts the catastrophes brought about by the intrusion of violence, the betrayal of trust and the corrupt exercise of power.
            Although the noir thriller had its forerunners (Conrad , Dickens, Dostoevsky, among others) the 1920s was the period in which it became firmly established as popular fiction.  The label 'hard-boiled ' began to be applied, distinguishing this departure in crime-writing from the classic detective  story.  The most important publication of the twenties in encouraging and marketing the new kind of crime story was Black Mask .  The magazine was founded in 1920 by H. L. Mencken  and George Jean Nathan , who sold it after half a year, and from then on it was given over to crime, adventure  and Western stories.  In the early 1920s, Dashiell Hammett  and Carroll John Daly  began writing for Black Mask, and the identity  of the magazine became more sharply defined when the editorship was taken over in 1926 by Captain Joseph T. Shaw.  Shaw encouraged a high standard of colloquial, racy writing, favouring 'economy of expression' and 'authenticity in character and action', [vi] all of which are important features of the hard-boiled style.  Shaw greatly increased the circulation of Black Mask, and other pulp magazines (for example, Dime Detective , Detective Fiction Weekly , Black Aces) were soon competing in some numbers.  Several of the writers discussed in this section were amongst the regular contributors to Black Mask:  in addition to Daly and Hammet, Frederick Nebel, Raoul Whitfield, Paul Cain  (George Sims), Raymond  Chandler, Horace McCoy .  
            Although much 'hard-boiled ' fiction is in essential respects closer to the traditional adventure  story than to 'noir', there is considerable common ground.  In examining the development of literary noir, I will begin with a discussion of the American hard-boiled investigator  - a tough, independent, often solitary figure, a descendant of the frontier hero and cowboy but, as re-imagined in the 1920s, a cynical city -dweller:  'He finds no way out.  And so he is slugged, shot at, choked, doped, yet he survives because it is in his nature to survive.' [vii]   He can achieve a degree of control, but, unlike the classic Holmesian  detective , he cannot restore order and set all to rights.  The basic narrative pattern pits this lone investigator against brutal criminals, often in league with a corrupt power structure.  His function is in some respects analogous to that of the satirist [viii] :  he exposes and punishes, though by no means always claiming the moral high ground.  One of the main contrasts I will look at in the hard-boiled stories and novels of this period is that between two types of investigators:  on the one hand, those who possess some form of moral superiority (Chandler 's Marlowe  comes first to mind); on the other, those who are more implicated in the world of corruption, depicted as entering into a scene of disorder and acknowledging their own anarchic tendencies and capacity for violence  (as in the novels of Hammett , Paul Cain  and Raoul Whitfield ).  These 'compromised' investigators are key figures in the evolution of literary noir, which, as it develops in the late 1920s and the 1930s, turns to the portrayal of deeply flawed, transgressive , often criminal  protagonists.
            In the thrillers of this time it is the character of the male protagonist that has the clearest relationship to the novel's theme and structure.  In contrast to the interwar period, the roles of female characters tend not to be of determining importance.  The women represented are often defined primarily as the helpers of the men, either as, say, the gangster 's moll or as the basically tough, good girl who helps the downtrodden gangster or endangered victim  (for example, Marie in Burnett 's High Sierra , Keechie in Anderson 's Thieves Like Us, the character of Midnight in Woolrich 's Black Path of Fear, the Communist  heroine in No Pockets in a Shroud  and Grandquist in Fast One ).  There are some notable examples of the femme fatale  in Chandler 's novels and occasionally in the work of Hammett  and James M. Cain , but it is only really with the post-World War Two  boom in paperback  thrillers that this iconic figure comes into her own.  My main subject in this section, then, will be the shifting representations of the male protagonists.  The second and third chapters will deal, respectively, with  the criminal  and the victim.  In Chapter 2, I look at the novels of Paul Cain, James M. Cain, W. R. Burnett, Armitage Trail  (Maurice Coons), Benjamin Appel , Edward Anderson  and Ernest Hemingway , and consider the various ways in which crime-centred narratives use the rebellious figure of the criminal and the hierarchical structure of the criminal organisation both to challenge and to ironise  capitalism  and the business  ethic.  Having made a career of illegality, the gangster functions as the dark double of 'respectable' society, undermining its claims to legitimacy and parodying the American drive to succeed.  Chapter Three focuses on the ordinary man as victim, wrongly persecuted or finding himself doomed to failure in the commission of a crime.  A weak and ineffectual character, the victim-protagonist lacks the survival skills of the investigator  or gangster; he can serve a purpose within the novel comparable to that of the satiric  naif  who acts as foil to those who are corruptly competent.  In the American novels included here (by, for example, Horace McCoy , James M. Cain, Richard Hallas  [Eric Knight] and Cornell Woolrich) economic  determinism  is often very pronounced, as it is, of course, in other naturalistic fiction of the time.  Characters have little scope for effective action, and the narratives tend towards bleak,  suicidal pessimism . 
            The second and third chapters also include British thrillers of the interwar period.  At a time when the main threat of violence  seemed to come from the rise of aggressive continental political  ideologies, writers of serious British thrillers - Eric Ambler , for example, and Graham Greene  - tended to cast the armed gangster  in the role of fascist  thug and to represent the victim -protagonist as a man who hesitates to act against fascist  violence for fear of losing his own humanity.  In novels such as these, narratives are often constructed in a way that foregrounds Orwell 's equation of criminal  brutality with the atrocities of the 'modern political scene'.  They aim, however, not simply to shock but to explore the dangerous dilemmas faced by those accustomed to what Orwell, in another essay of the time ('Wells, Hitler  and the World State'), called 'the sheltered conditions of English life.' [ix]

[i] Introduction to Fingerman ([1950], London: Ace, 1960), 6.
[ii] Fingerman, 5.
[iii] David Madden (ed), Tough Guy Writers of the Thirties (Carbondale, Ill., 1968), xxv-xxvi.
[iv] George Orwell , 'Raffles and Miss Blandish', in Collected Essays (London: Secker & Warburg, 1961; 1975), 249-63.
[v] John Houseman, 'Today's Hero: A Review', Hollywood  Quarterly, 2, No. 2 (1947), 163; and John Houseman, Vogue, 15 January 1947, quoted by Richard Maltby, 'The Politics of the Maladjusted Text', in Ian Cameron  (ed), The Movie Book of Film Noir (London: Studio Vista, 1992), 41.
[vi] Joseph T. Shaw, quoted by Bill Pronzini and Jack Adrian (eds), Hard-Boiled: An Anthology of American Crime Stories (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995), 9.
[vii] Herbert Ruhm (ed), The Hard-Boiled Detective: Stories from "Black Mask " Magazine, 1920-1951 (New York: Random House, 1977),  xiv.
[viii] Rick A. Eden, 'Detective Fiction as Satire', Genre, 16 (Fall 1983), 279-95, argues that the hard-boiled  detective  is akin to the Juvenalian satirist , in contrast to the Horatian tone of formal detective fiction.
[ix] George Orwell , 'Wells, Hitler  and the World State' (1941), in Collected Essays, 161.  For a fuller discussion of these pre-World War Two  English dilemmas, see Lee Horsley, Fictions of Power in English Literature:  1900-1950 (London: Longman, 1995), 155-61.