An eternally inebriated detective still wearing his clothes from the day before. A messy office full of cheap furniture and loose files. A mysterious client with a suspiciously easy case. These are the typical images of a hardboiled detective story.
Hardboiled detective fiction is a tough, unsentimental, and cynical kind of detective story. It zeroes in on the violence and corruption that exists in society, and presents it against unsavory urban backgrounds.
The genre was created as a response to traditional detective fiction. While classic detectives were confident, quirky, and almost supernaturally skilled at investigation, hardboiled detectives were doubtful, deeply flawed, and often luckless individuals.
A Brief Background of Hardboiled Fiction
In its earliest use, the term hardboiled didn’t describe a type of crime fiction, but the cynical attitude characters had in response to violence and society.
Crime writer Carroll John Daly is credited with creating the first hardboiled story. It was titled “The False Burton Combs”, which was published in Black Mask magazine in December 1922.
The genre was later popularized by Dashiell Hammett, a former Pinkerton Agency detective and frequent contributor to pulp fiction magazines. His detectives, the Continental Op and Sam Spade, are considered two of the most influential hardboiled characters in crime fiction.
These stories differed from the usual formula of cozy mysteries, which were set in isolated manors inhabited by meek servants, mysterious aristocrats, and warring relatives. Instead, hardboiled fiction presented raw narratives that highlighted character and societal flaws. This kind of storytelling was later refined by writers such as James M. Cain, Raymond Chandler, and George Carroll Sims.
Hardboiled started and became a staple in pulp magazines, so much that “pulp fiction” became an interchangeable term for the genre. This is most prominent in the Black Mask magazine, where editor Joseph T. Shaw vigorously encouraged writers of the genre.
It’s also closely associated with noir fiction due to their many similarities, especially with their emotional outlooks on society. However, while hardboiled ends with characters having a clean ethical slate, noir is murkier.
Characteristics of Hardboiled Fiction
To best understand what hardboiled fiction is, you should first understand what it’s not. As the counterpoint to classic detective fiction, it displays many of the elements that are usually not found in the latter. Here are a few characteristics unique to this literary genre.
1. The Language
Hardboiled prose is characterized by its economy. Descriptions are restricted to concrete objects, rather than ideas. Adjectives are kept to a minimum. The prose talks about what is done and what is said, rather than what is felt.
In this, it emulates much of Ernest Hemingway’s writing style, but it was also influenced by financial concerns during the genre’s heyday. Back then, writers were paid by the word and editors were keen to keep costs low by removing unnecessary words.
This paired-down writing style evolved sometime in the 1980s. Rather than focusing on only one narrative voice, writers such as James Ellroy began adding epistolary elements into their prose. The inclusion of newspaper and radio reports heightened their story’s sense of realism.
2. The Detective
The hardboiled investigator is presented as a tough, independent, and solitary figure that originates from the frontier heroes of the 19th century. Think of cowboys reimagined in an urban setting. Most are professional detectives, but the genre doesn’t require them to be.
These investigators almost always get emotionally involved with the cases they handle. They lose their cool and find it hard to remain in control when faced with higher and higher stakes. As such, they make mistakes or commit injustices that can prove fatal in the future.
A lot of them are also depicted as highly flawed individuals. They are gamblers, chain-smokers, alcoholics, and often estranged from their families. The problems that stem from these flaws are often explored alongside the cases they handle.
All of these are in direct contrast to detectives of classic detective fiction, who are always portrayed as competent and without fault. They’re always confident and in control, even in the face of unexpected developments. Readers are always assured that they’ll piece together the clues, solve the crime, and catch the culprit.
3. The Setting
A hardboiled story is usually set in a city. The setting itself becomes a character in the story, where the harshness of city life becomes a focal point in the narrative.
The city tends to be a dark and dangerous place. Gangsters have a strong presence and the legal system has become as corrupt as organized crime itself. As such, violence and crime have become normal aspects of life, making many people cynical about society.
Good things rarely happen in the city. Even when they do, the situation is always bittersweet. The crime may be solved, but the characters are still unable to escape the systemic corruption that allowed the crime to happen in the first place.
This is in contrast to classic detective fiction, whose settings are often closed-off to the larger world. These are country homes, trains stuck in isolated locales, and out-of-the-way manors. If they are in the city, it’s usually in a locked room or building. The isolation allows for a cleaner ending, as the investigation focuses only on the crime and the immediate setting.
4. The Plot
Hardboiled plots rarely focus on the solution of a crime. The detection doesn’t focus on making sense of clues and putting order to the chaos the crime has brought; rather, the crime ends in a violent climax that usually makes things messier than they already were.
The detective is on a quest, but the journey is far more interesting than its destination. They struggle with moral and physical dilemmas that develop throughout the investigation. These dilemmas, along with the detective’s flaws and subsequent decisions, are the focus of the narrative.
There is some resolution to the crime and chaos, but it’s rarely complete or satisfying. A villain might be put away, but it’s not the villain that needs to be arrested. In the end, the detective walks away from the aftermath and waits for the next case to come, all the while wondering if they did the right thing.
Plots from classic detective fiction are more predictable, with most following the same rough outline. A crime is committed and the detective comes in sniffing for clues. It culminates with them retracing the crime, accusing a culprit, and laying out how they came to their hypothesis.
Examples of Hardboiled Fiction
Here are a few examples of hardboiled fiction. Some of these are classics, while others are a modern version of the genre.
Double Indemnity by James M. Cain
Walter Huff is an insurance agent with a talent for sniffing out troublesome clients. But when he meets the seductive Phyllis Nirdlinger, he can’t help but fall in love despite his instincts blaring red.
It doesn’t take long for him to deduce that she wants to get rid of her husband, and not much longer to decide to help. Knowing that insurance pays double on accidents, they plot to kill him, make it look like a railroad accident, and avoid arousing suspicions from everyone else.
The Big Sleep by Raymond Chandler
A crippled millionaire hires private investigator Philip Marlowe to work on a blackmail case involving one of his daughters. But it proves far more complicated when he finds evidence of kidnapping, extortion, and pornography scattered all around the case.
Closing in on the trail, he is shot at, knocked out, and finding dead bodies everywhere. The perpetrators are closer than anyone suspects, and they’re willing to add anyone who needs shutting up to their body count.
Fast One by Paul Cain
Gerry Kells is currently living a comfortable life. But chaos is about to ensue as Prohibition ends and the first days of the Depression come in.
Various crime bosses are looking to control Los Angeles, and they need his particular talents as a former enforcer to win. But he has no intentions of going back—even when they frame him for murder, or threaten him with death.
I, The Jury by Mickey Spillane
Private detective Mike Hammer arrives at his friend and fellow investigator Jack Williams’ apartment to find him dead. The death is cruel, with Williams shot in the stomach to make it slow and painful.
Hammer is consumed by vengeance, vowing to kill the murderer in the same excrutiating way. But his investigations take him into a vast conspiracy involving narcotics, violence, and heartbreak.
The Glass Key by Dashiell Hammett
A gang war is in danger of flooding the streets, sparked by the murder of a local senator’s son. Crime boss Paul Madvig hopes to use the crime to further his political ambitions. He sends his friend Ned Beaumont, an amateur detective, to investigate the case.
But when evidence points to Madvig as the culprit, Beaumont is left doubting who to trust. And falling in love with Madvig’s love interest isn’t helping his situation one bit.
Hard Stories and Harder Characters
Hardboiled fiction is a genre that offers no illusions. Rather, it focuses on the darker elements that other crime fiction skips over or ignores. When you read hardboiled stories, you get into the nitty-gritty aspects of humanity.
The characters here are like people you know about in real life. The crimes being tackled are the type that you can possibly read about in newspapers. The settings explored are similar to their real-world counterparts. As Raymond Chandler said in his The Simple Art of Murder, the world “is not a very fragrant world, but it is the world you live in.”
This doesn’t mean it’s always dark, though. There are occasional wins: justice is served, hapless victims survive, and bad guys go down in a cathartically violent way. The genre simply prefers to go with endings that are realistic, so completely happy endings are rare.
The protagonists become focal points for moral, ethical, and physical dilemmas. How they react to these dilemmas mirrors what you might possibly feel when faced with similar situations. The right decisions they make in the face of an overwhelmingly corrupt world inspire people to always choose the right path.
Because the protagonists are everyday people with flaws, anyone can relate. They’re a reminder to everyone that heroism isn’t rare, but something anyone can tap into no matter how unremarkable they believe themselves to be.
Cole is a blog writer and aspiring novelist. He has a degree in Communications and is an advocate of media and information literacy and responsible media practices. Aside from his interest in technology, crafts, and food, he’s also your typical science fiction and fantasy junkie, spending most of his free time reading through an ever-growing to-be-read list. It’s either that or procrastinating over actually writing his book. Wish him luck!