Hard-Boiled Fiction

American Hard-Boiled Crime Writing, 1920s-1940s

Lee Horsley, Lancaster University

Early twentieth-century American crime fiction wasn’t entirely ‘hard-boiled’. America also produced its share of classic Golden Age whodunits, written in the 20s, for example, by S. S. Van Dine, and in the 30s by Ellery Queen and John Dickson Carr. But the distinctively American contribution of the 1920s and 1930s was the tough guy crime fiction of the hard-boiled tradition that started with the stories of ‘the Black Mask boys’. These ‘noir thrillers’ are stories that can be seen as very directly related to the socio-economic circumstances of the time. Raymond Chandler wrote 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.’

This type of crime fiction, then, 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 (Maltese Flacon) tells the story of Flitcraft, who comes to realise life’s arbitrariness and absurdity when he is nearly killed by a falling beam. The American 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 sense of disillusionment in the years between the wars was heightened by political and economic disasters for which people were wholly unprepared: 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. In the ‘hard-boiled’ and ‘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 turn them into transgressors or mark them out as victims.

The Black Mask Boys

The most important publication of the 20s in encouraging and marketing the new kind of hard-boiled crime story was Black Mask. The magazine was founded in 1920 by H. L. Mencken and George Jean Nathan; 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’, 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 DetectiveDetective Fiction WeeklyBlack Aces) were soon competing in some numbers. Amongst the regular contributors to Black Mask, in addition to Daly and Hammett, were Paul Cain (George Sims), Raymond Chandler and Horace McCoy.

Hard-boiled protagonists

The most immediately recognisable iconic figure to emerge in the crime stories of this period is the 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’ (Herbert Ruhm, The Hard-Boiled Detective). 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.

One finds, in the hard-boiled stories and novels of this period, two main types of investigators: on the one hand, those who possess some form of moral superiority (like Chandler’s Marlowe); 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). 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.

The unsettling manipulation of point of view and the unstable position of the protagonist are key characteristics of the darker (more ‘noir’) types of hard-boiled crime story. We are often brought close to the mind of a protagonist whose position vis a vis other characters is not fixed; we see treacherous confusions of his role and the movement of the protagonist from one role to another. The victim might, for example, become the aggressor; the hunter might turn into the hunted or vice versa; the investigator might double as either the victim or the perpetrator. Whereas the traditional mystery story, with its stable triangle of detective, victim and murderer, is reasonably certain to have the detective as the protagonist, much of the crime fiction of this period deliberately violates this convention. Victim, criminal and investigator can all act as protagonists. An exploration of guilt is fundamental, and there can be no clear distinction between guilt and innocence.

Hammett and Chandler

Hammett’s output was surprisingly small: he wrote all of his novels between 1929 and 1934. His influence, however, has been enormous. He introduced characters who often quite closely conform to the description of the private eye as ‘half gangster’ – a man whose innocence has become so tarnished as to be no longer visible. Hammett’s impact was due in part to his ability in creating a distinctive voice, a true ‘hard-boiled’ style that is in itself an implicit rejection of bourgeois hypocrisy and conventional values. His spare, unembellished prose is appropriate to his no-nonsense protagonists. Hammett’s flawed, vulnerable narrators and his hard, direct representation of contemporary material give him an ability to lay bare the ‘heart, soul, skin and guts’ of a corrupt town (Red Harvest).

Hammett’s most famous successor, Raymond Chandler, started writing for Black Maskin December 1933. Chandler’s work is characterised by a much more consistent lightness of tone, combining witty detachment with an underlying sentimentality and romanticism. When Marlowe develops beyond the sketchily realised narrator of early stories like ‘Finger Man’, the fictional world created is always reliably mediated by the voice of a protagonist who unfailingly combines honourable conduct with penetrating judgement and self-mocking humour. Though Marlowe is caught up in plots of notorious complexity (and is significantly less in control than, say, the figure of the classic detective) he continues to provide the reassurance of a stable and trustworthy perspective. His detachment places him much closer to the masculine competence and ‘rightness’ of traditional detective fiction, and so moves him away from a noir sense of uncertainty.

The protective presence that Marlowe establishes is above all stylistic. The witty, ironic aloofness of his narrative acts to evaluate and to contain the moral disorder of the society he investigates. Marlowe’s self-ironising manner simultaneously acknowledges his limitations and draws attention to his separateness: ‘”Don’t make me get tough,” I whined. “Don’t make me lose my beautiful manners and my flawless English”‘ (Farewell, My Lovely). Marlowe’s superiority to his environment is not, though he is resilient, a matter of physical prowess but of a subtle intellect that can manage a self-deprecating joke even when he’s been sapped and imprisoned and ‘shot full of dope and locked in a barred room’. Unlike Hammett’s Op, Marlowe would never ‘go blood-simple’. As critics have often observed, when Marlowe does enter into conflict with the depraved society around him, his preferred role is that of the questing knight.

James M. Cain and Horace McCoy

In the early thirties, James M. Cain and Horace McCoy arrived in California – ‘the nightmare at the terminus of American history’ (Mike Davis, City of Quartz). The first novels of Cain and McCoy, The Postman Always Rings Twice (1934) and They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? (1935), can be seen as the real starting place of the Los Angeles novel, the fictional undermining of a frontier myth in which California figures as the fabled land of opportunity. In place of this myth, a new image emerges, with California as the site of disappointment and failure, of disastrous endings for rootless characters who arrive at a dead-end of hopelessness. It is a mood captured, for example, in Edgar G. Ulmer’s 1945 film, Detour, in which the journey of Al Roberts (Tom Neal) across America to Los Angeles leads only to murder, entrapment and despair.

Cain and McCoy were yoked together in Edmund Wilson’s essay on the ‘boys in the back room’, which classed both of them as ‘hard-boiled’. Neither liked to be labelled as hard-boiled, but there are good reasons for seeing grounds for comparison between the two. Dismissed as pulp novel hacks by many American critics of the time, both Cain and McCoy were treated by European critics as the equals of Hemingway and Faulkner. This European acclaim is in fact one of the most important links between the two writers, both of whom were cited as influences by French existentialists and seemed to European audiences to have anticipated absurdist themes. They represented isolation, alienation, loneliness and dread. They chose ‘insignificant’ protagonists under sentence of death, struggling to make sense of a random and unstable world, epitomised in Los Angeles, with its population of strangers and drifters. The earliest screen adaptations of Cain’s novels were in fact French, Camus citedPostman as an inspiration for L’Etranger and McCoy’s They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? was hailed by the French as an American masterpiece.

McCoy, who started writing stories for Black Mask in 1927, was a contributor contemporary with Hammett, Paul Cain and Chandler. He depicted decent, gullible, ineffectual protagonists, ill-equipped to cope with the world. Firmly embedding his wider absurdist themes in American life of the thirties, he was one of the crime writers to capture most starkly the deprivation experienced in the years of the Great Depression. Although Cain does not offer sustained social criticism, the Depression years are mentioned in passing or taken as given, a constant determinant in characters’ actions and movements. He presents his characters as victims of a society traumatised by national economic disaster but nevertheless driven by myths of limitless opportunity, success and unhampered self-determination. They follow the ignus fatuus of the American dream, and when they have (opportunistically) attained their wishes they find that all they have really secured is defeat and entrapment.

W.R Burnett

If the novels of W. R. Burnett were to be judged on the basis of their influence, he would counted as one of the most important writers of his time. He saw himself as the writer most responsible for the shift towards depicting crime from the point of view of the criminal himself. Little Caesar was, he said, ‘the world seen through the eyes of the gangster. It’s commonplace now, but it had never been done before then…The criminal was just some son-of-a-bitch who’d killed somebody and then you go get ’em.’ Little Caesar stands at the start of a period of fascination with the criminal’s own perspective, not only in gangster narratives but in the other central noir roles of investigator (as in the work of Whitfield and Paul Cain) and victim (the destitute young outlaws of Anderson’s Thieves Like Us or the love triangle murderers of James M. Cain’s novels). Written in 1929 and filmed in 1930, Little Caesar was the most influential of the gangster sagas. It was imitated in dozens of early thirties films and novels, amongst themScarface by Armitage Trail.

Paul Cain

Paul Cain’s Fast One, one of the most brutal and compelling of gangster novels, was originally written, starting in March 1932, for Black Mask. Cain’s first piece of fiction and his only novel, Fast One is the ultimate expression of Chandler’s half-jesting suggestion that hard-boiled writers use the simple expedient of having a man come through the door with a gun whenever the action threatens to flag. Followed faithfully, the method produces an image of a savage and random universe.

Copyright © 2002 Lee Horsley

For further discussion of the above writers, see:
Lee Horsley, The Noir Thriller  (Palgrave, 2009).

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