Richard Helms, Editor
Hardboiled/noir fiction is a distinctly American literary form, having seen its birth during the years leading up to Great Depression of the 1930’s, but it owes its traditions to ideals stretching back in literature to Malory's Le Morte d'Artur.
Following the horrors of World War I, Americans were yearning for escape through cheap fiction (and, to some extent, radio), and the pulp magazines were a perfect vehicle for the development of young writers.
Black Mask, the leading action/adventure pulp of the time, was published in New York and, along with other similar magazines such as Detective Stories and Dime Detective, provided nearly 200 million words of entertainment each year. Black Mask was founded in 1920, by H.L. Mencken, as sort of a funding device to support other, less lucrative magazines such as Smart Set. Mencken reportedly detested Black Mask, but he didn’t appear to mind the great financial success it experienced.
Nevertheless, Black Mask was sold after only six months to Gene Crowe and Pop Warner, the head of Warner Publishing. Phil Cody was named editor, and he recruited writers such as Dash Hammett, Frederick Nebel, and Erle Stanley Gardner to write for it. Later on, this magazine would attract talents as diverse as Paul Cain, and its brightest star, Raymond Chandler.
Chandler was far and away the elder statesman among this crowd, though a bit of a latecomer to the hardboiled literary form. He had cut his literary teeth on the works of authors such as Saki (H.H. Munro), and was accustomed to much tamer fare than he found in Black Mask, when he picked up the pulp on a trip west with his ailing wife Cissy. After reading the magazine, and several more like it, Chandler became convinced that he could write as well as the authors he had read. He crafted a short story entitled Blackmailers Don't Shoot, and sent it to Cap Shaw, who had assumed the editor's role. When it is said that he crafted the story, it should be noted that in his attempt to make it look as 'professional' as possible, he had taken pains to justify both margins - on a portable mechanical typewriter! The editors at Black Mask, intrigued by his efforts, published the story, and a giant was born.
Hammett, of course, had been a Pinkerton’s detective, and provided realistic, life-based backgrounds for his gritty, violent stories. It was at Black Mask that Hammett honed his individual style and introduced some of his most enduring characters in serialized books such as The Maltese Falcon, and Red Harvest.
Erle Stanley Gardner is best known for writing the Perry Mason series, but the watered down television versions (with Raymond Burr and Monte Markham, respectively, as Mason) which most people know him by belie the tough themes of the earlier editions of these books. In fact, many readers, drawn to Gardner’s seminal Perry Mason works by the television show, came away disappointed when they didn’t find “their” mental picture of Mason, Della Street, and Paul Drake.
James M. Cain took a different route. Rather than writing private eye fiction, he tended to look at the psyche of desperate people, driven by unrestrained sexual urges. His The Postman Always Rings Twice is the most classic of Cain’s works, and remains an example of the genre to this day. Many have compared Lawrence Kasdan's Body Heat, the sensational noir film from 1981, to Postman, with good reason.
Chandler disagreed deeply with many of his contemporaries' approaches to the hardboiled genre, feeling that they dwelt far too much on the seamy lives of dirty little people. His vision of the private eye novel was somewhat nobler, and it may be said with some assurance that most, if not all, private eye novelists since Chandler have, in some way, based their characters on his work.
Chandler wrote a great deal about his point of view, especially his outlook on the nature of the fiction private eye himself.
"He has a sense of character,” Chandler wrote, “or he would not know his job. He will take no man's money dishonestly, and no man's insolence without due and dispassionate revenge. He is a lonely man and his pride is that you will treat him as a proud man or be sorry you ever saw him. He talks as a man of his age talks -- that is, with a rude wit, a lively sense of the grotesque, a disgust for sham, and a contempt for pettiness….The real life private eye is a sleazy little drudge from the Burns Agency, a strong-arm guy with no more personality than a blackjack. He has about as much moral stature as a stop and go sign."
He went on to state, however, that the PI of fiction "does not and could not exist. He is the personification of an attitude, the exaggeration of a possibility. The whole point is that a detective exists complete and entire and unchanged by anything that happens, that he is, as detective, outside the story and above it, and always will be. That is why he never gets the girl, never marries, never really has any private life, except insofar as he must eat and sleep and have a place to keep his clothes. His moral and intellectual force is that he gets nothing but his fee, for which he will if he can protect the innocent, guard the helpless, and destroy the wicked, and the fact that he must do this while earning a meagre living in a corrupt world is what makes him stand out."
Chandler’s view of the world in which the private eye travels was succinctly stated in the book title he always wanted to use, but never found the proper vehicle for, "Law is where you buy it."
The Chandler-style PI is a man of principle and ethics walking in a world of corruption and degradation. Everyone around him is cynical and conniving. Even the PI’s morals and ethics may seem a bit twisted to the casual observer, but they are rock-steady, and unshakable. He does not shape events as much as he is shaped by them, and while he can engage in deadly violence when needed, he is not a bully, or a cheap thug. There is nothing psychopathic about him.
Today, hardboiled writing is built around a set of assumptions about the world, and how people operate in it. The hardboiled detective is surrounded by corruption. The setting is almost always urban, since it is in large populations of people, densely packed into a confined space (or a “behavioral sink” as psychologists refer to it) that the most amoral acts of cruelty can flourish unchecked.
The corruption presented is often mirrored between both government agencies and crime syndicates, which are usually presented as equally above the law. Ellroy’s L.A. Confidential features corruption in the Los Angeles Police Department, a story that presages the real corruption in the Rampart Division of that department which has filled the news recently. Of course, police corruption as a central feature in hardboiled literature is not a new thing, as crooked L.A. cops featured prominently in Chandler’s Lady In The Lake, sixty years ago.
Against this backdrop of sleaze, the hardboiled detective must find his quarry, and often mete out justice, while resisting the temptation to be consumed by the world about him. For that reason, he is almost always presented as a “loner”, socially isolated and alienated, bound by a code of honor and behavior which is foreign to his enemies. In The Maltese Falcon, Sam Spade is bound by this code to find and punish the killer of his partner, Miles Archer, whom he admits he really didn’t like much. Parker’s Spenser is constantly seduced by beautiful women, but resists their temptation in order to remain faithful to Susan Silverman. My own character Pat Gallegher is forced into a life of servitude to the loan shark Leduc, but tries to balance his life by performing his dangerous “favors”.
When the psychology of the hardboiled sleuth is understood fully, his actions, which often appear incongruent with his role as protector, become clearer. It is then that one comprehends the apparent brutality of Mike Hammer at the end of I, The Jury, and why he states so casually, “It was easy…”
The trails blazed by Chandler and Hammett continue to be trod by modern detective writers. Robert B. Parker, who wrote his Ph.D dissertation on Raymond Chandler, followed it up by writing a very Chandler-esque PI in Spenser. The first Spenser novel, The Godwulf Manuscript, might well have been a Philip Marlowe novel, simply by transposing the names. While it can also be said that the Spenser of, say, Hugger Mugger, has evolved strongly over the last thirty years, he still maintains the qualities that Chandler considered central to the private eye’s character. He is true to his ethics, a protector of the helpless, and a sucker for a sob story.
As Spenser was modeled after Chandler’s Marlowe, it is apparent that an entirely new generation of detective writers has modeled their creations after Parker’s refinements on the theme. For instance, it was Parker who introduced the concept of the detective’s ultra-violent, borderline psychopathic sidekick, in the form of Hawk. More recent writers, such as Robert Crais, Dennis Lehane, and Back Alley Books’ Richard Helms, have adopted this device, in various forms. Crais’ detective, Elvis Cole, has Joe Pike. Lehane’s Kenzie and Gennaro have Bubba Rogowski. My protagonist Pat Gallegher makes frequent use of Scat Boudreaux, whom he has dubbed The Cannibal Commando.
Many hardboiled purists have complained that the addition of such characters has fundamentally changed the nature of the hardboiled hero, allowing him to engage in antisocial acts that are contrary to his nature, in a vicarious way, without becoming personally corrupted (or at least allowing himself to believe that he is not corrupted by his tacit conspiracy with the partner). Still, it appears that, at least in mainstream hardboiled detective fiction, the psychopathic pseudo-partner has become something of a fixture.
Representing a completely different branch of hardboiled detectives is the group headed by such prototypes as Carroll John Daly's 'Three Gun' Terry and Race Williams. These were trigger-happy, borderline psychopathic, violent heroes, who spawned a legion of post-war offspring such as Mike Hammer, Nick Carter (the later version), and others. Unlike the educated, somewhat wordly, Chandleresque PIs (Lew Archer, Spenser, etc), these detectives seem to live by the code of shoot first and ask questions later. Or, as Scat Boudreaux tells Pat Gallegher in Wet Debt, perhaps not originally, but certainly in the vein of Williams and Hammer, "Shoot 'em all. Let God sort it out."
Modern society and technological innovation have presented new challenges to the hardboiled author. How is it possible to maintain the hardboiled PI’s almost feudal chivalry in an era of cell phones, supersonic transport, and the Internet? While traditionalists such as Parker have been hesitant to tackle this problem, other more recent authors, perhaps those who have never lived in a non-technological world, have taken these advancements in stride and have incorporated them easily into their plots.
For example, Sara Paretsky’s V.I. Warshawski makes frequent use of not only cell phones and computers, but numerous online resources such as Nexis, Lexis, and other online information services.
Michael Connelly, in Angels Flight, has his L.A.P.D. detective Harry Bosch resort to genuine Internet sleuthing in an attempt to identify a child rapist. He enlists the aid of a department computer expert to find hidden accesses in Internet web pages, in a sequence that covers almost ten pages, and ultimately plays a dramatic role in the solution of the mystery.
John Sandford’s cross-genre detective Lucas Davenport uses a cell-phone, and not only uses a computer for work but writes computer strategy games as a side business.
Elvis Cole, Robert Crais’ L.A. private eye, is a frequent cell-phone user, though he hasn’t incorporated a great deal of computer technology into his work.
Dennis Lehane’s detecting partners Patrick Kenzie and Angie Gennaro use both cell phones and computers, and since neither one can cook the microwave oven plays a central role in their lives.
Finally, in my own Shamus Award-nominated Cordite Wine, I dove headfirst into high-tech detection, allowing my sleuth, Eamon Gold, to employ mobile GPS tracking, online data-mining, and 2.4 gigahertz wireless television cameras to solve his case.
In his book The Complete Idiot's Guide to Private Investigation, Steven Kerry Brown devotes a great deal of space to the modern use of technological tools by private investigators. According to Brown, one of the deadliest sins a modern private eye can commit is to allow his cell phone battery to go dead.
When asked how he was able to adapt so readily to the hardboiled genre, when he had spent virtually all his writing life producing “literary” fiction in the vein of Saki (H.H. Munro), Raymond Chandler stated that he had seen a central thread running through the hardboiled fiction of the era. His advice, he said, was to “…analyze, and imitate…”. Parker certainly followed this advice when he introduced his initially Marlowesque Spenser. As Spenser developed as a character, however, Parker broadened and innovated the genre to fit his own personality - and, many believe, even the ongoing conflicts and issues in his personal life. Latter day imitators, whose fictional sleuths often closely resembled Spenser at their introductions, have also diverged from Parker’s path, and it is reasonable to expect that a whole new generation of hardboiled detectives will emerge a quarter century from now, who look as different from Spenser as Spenser now looks from Marlowe.
Chandler might have advised writers to “…analyze and imitate….” , but he might well have added that they should “innovate”. Innovations should reflect the times in which this new breed of hardboiled detectives operate, which means including the conventions of those times. If hardboiled detectives operate in the twenty-first century, those conventions include satellite telephones, computers, high-tech transportation, and the Internet. As “…down these mean streets must walk a man who is not himself mean…” it is imperative to write hardboiled detectives who exist among the modern technological marvels of our new century, who are comfortable with these miracle machines and know how to exploit them, but who are not in turn corrupted by them.
It can be said that hardboiled private eye fiction is a formulaic literary form, and this would be a fair assessment. However, it was Chandler who established that the hardboiled plot is entirely secondary to the characterization of the people who populate it. A relatively simple plot, with few or no genuine puzzles, can ring brightly when brought to life with crisply written characters that say witty, sardonic things. Character development is the cornerstone of hardboiled detective fiction. Backstory should be avoided if possible, as it is more important for the reader to learn the character of the reader through what he does and says, rather than from his roots.
High Noon is not much more than a hardboiled detective (sheriff) novel set in a western town. Does that make it a western? Would that mean that Bad Day At Black Rock is a western, because of its setting (ignoring period)? Is it reasonable to say that the hardboiled ethos grew out of the saga of the Wild West hero? Probably so, and it is also probably no coincidence that hardboiled literature arose as the era of the penny dreadful was dying.
The penny dreadful gave way to the pulp magazine, and eventually provided us with Sam Spade, Philip Marlowe, et al. The hardboiled detective, whether on the force or not, supplanted the western sheriff, but the internal integrity and motivation to overcome the corruption surrounding him/her was still the central feature of his/her character.
I strongly believe that it is necessary to separate hardboiled and noir, in order to preserve the heroic nature of the hardboiled protagonist. Both hardboiled and noir are character-driven, not driven by plot or setting.
The noir style is slightly harder to define. The noir novel is much more dependent on the weaknesses of the characters rather than their moral and ethical strengths. The seminal classic in this genre would almost have to be the already mentioned The Postman Always Rings Twice, by Cain, along with his Double Indemnity. However, other works also should be mentioned.The Asphalt Jungle is a terrific noir caper story, powered by the greed of the characters and the futility of their crime. The influence of Cain’s Postman, and Double Indemnity, on Lawrence Kasdan’s screenplay for Body Heat is unmistakable. The essence of the noir form is people doing evil for personal gain, almost always with a high, perhaps unacceptable price, and the effect their evil has on the dupe, or relatively innocent victim of the crime. The central characters of noir fiction are tragic anti-heroes, people with few moral scruples, poor judgment, and the ability to turn off their concern for others when the need arises.
More recently, Elmore Leonard has established himself as the premier writer of modern noir fiction, at least in his grittier, less commercial works (such as Cat Chaser). Even the more commercial works, such as Get Shorty and Be Cool, contain many of the classic noir elements.
Noir, to me, is a story that explores just how deeply the characters can give in to their basest, most selfish impulses, almost to the extent that they are willing to ignore or even deny others their own humanity if those others stand in their way. Noir is about people doing things they'd never have thought they would do, only because their lives have taken a turn or series of turns that have left them with the opportunity to indulge their most corrupt desires, without any particular reason not to. Noir is gritty, sweaty, desperate, and even possibly hopeless, and someone in a noir story must necessarily be a condemned person.
Unlike hardboiled, which should feature a heroic, or perhaps anti-heroic, character with a clearly defined set of ethics and standards to which he adheres in the face of nearly overwhelming corruption around him, the noir protagonist gives in to the corruption. Rather than rising above the corruption, as the hardboiled hero does, the noir protagonist is destroyed by his acts, and ultimately loses everything.
In a sense, noir is a modern interpretation of the Greek tragedies, in which a single moment of weakness costs the tragic hero all he had previously accomplished. Dix Handley has to die at the end of The Asphalt Jungle, just as Walter Huff does in Double Indemnity, because if they were allowed to live, it would imply that they could give in to their animal natures and profit by them. Oedipus has to lose his kingdom, and his eyesight, because his own foolishness and -- to some extent -- bad fortune put him in a position to kill his father and marry his mother, Jocasta. Ned Racine in Kasdan's Body Heat, still one of the best modern noir protagonists, has to go to prison, even though he was clearly duped by Maddie Walker the spider-woman, because in allowing himself to give in to his own weakness he committed the ultimate crime. Even Maddie pays, in the end, by leading a pointless, unproductive, boring life. She's acquired all her desires, but they prove to be bitter fruit.
In the end, noir is a morality play, in which Everyman is tempted by the Serpent, and gives in, to his eternal regret. Noir is a recapitulation of the Genesis story of the Fall From Grace, and as such is an archetypal story structure pitting good against evil.
Noir stories make us examine our own beliefs and question just how large a potential payoff it would take for us to abandon those ethical and moral standards we pretend to hold sacred. There's a little bit of Dix Handley, Walter Huff, and Ned Racine in all of us. Noir allows us to measure ourselves against others who may be as weak as we are, and for that reason it should be disturbing.