You don’t see the term “hardboiled” much any more. “Noir” has supplanted it, co-opted from the French film critics who intended it for the American crime films made during and shortly after World War II. Those critics had co-opted the term from Serie Noire, the black-covered paperbacks from publisher Gallimard that reprinted the likes of Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler, James M. Cain, and Mickey Spillane.
Hardboiled, as early as twenty years ago, became a dirty word in publishing. Cozy mysteries were outselling hardboiled, and likely still are. So the appropriation of “noir” was a hipper, more elegant-sounding way to rebrand the tough stuff.
The term “hardboiled” has been around since World War I, during which it was an adjective applied to the tough drill sergeants who made men out of boys, and soldiers out of civilians. When the Great War ended, those soldiers again became civilians, popularizing the term “hardboiled” as something referring to any person, or action, that reflected a tough, unsentimental point of view.
The term was soon applied to the tough strain of American mystery fiction that emerged between the two world wars. First rearing its head in the famous pulp magazine, Black Mask, the hardboiled crime story seemed immediately as American as a wild west shoot-out.
Which is precisely what the earliest practitioner of the art, Carroll John Daly, was writing about: his heroes, notably Mike Hammer’s precursor Race Williams, were two-gun kids riding an urban range, delivering death and justice via the same hot lead route as dime-novel gunfighters.
The defining writer of hardboiled was Dashiell Hammett, that former Pinkerton op whose bad health led him into popular literature. In Black Mask, Hammett wrote private-eye procedurals, bringing a greater surface reality to bear. Hammett’s diamond-hard prose, and his deadpan understatement, added to his own real-life P.I. background, lent a credibility Daly lacked.
Under Hammett’s realistic surface lurked romance—the cynicism represented by the failed quest for the Maltese falcon does not diminish the jeweled bird’s larger-than-life allure. According to Hammett himself, Sam Spade was the romantic notion of what a real-life op would like to be.
In The Maltese Falcon (1930), Hammett defines, perfects, and abandons the perfect private eye novel. The accoutrements of the tough P.I. are in place: the unrequited loving secretary, the one-man agency, the private eye’s cop pal, the private eye’s cop adversary, the untrustworthy female client, Mr. Big, “gunsels” (in both senses of the word), and all the rest. A fantasy so real on its surface that countless writers would ape it, and in so doing wrongly assume their work was more “realistic” than that of writers of traditional mysteries.
Hammett’s heroes, from the Continental Op (who in The Dain Curse loves the young woman he forces off drugs) to Sam Spade (whose code won’t let him “play the sap” for the woman he loves), are romantics all. Failed romantics, perhaps. But the streak of sentiment in these heroes who are supposedly by definition “unsentimental” is undeniable.
Enter Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe, the compassionate urban knight whose wry wisecracks are intermingled with evocative language. Marlowe’s creator lacked the real-life private-eye background of Hammett, and his Marlowe is a creature grown not from reality, but from the fantasy that preceded it. Spade was reality once removed; Marlowe is Spade once removed.
Chandler’s world of big-shot gangsters, troubled socialites, and wacko doctors is a wonderful place, but not a real one. If it seems real, that’s because his descriptions of the real setting, Los Angeles, are so effective—a city with the personality of “a paper cup.” For all of Chandler’s flair as a literary stylist, his Marlowe remains at heart a further romanticized version of the original Hammett model.
This is not a bad thing. The major hardboiled private eyes of American fiction—from Spade to Marlowe, Hammer to Spenser—are all at least as tender as they are tough. That contrast—caring in a brutal man, passion from a cold hardcase, kisses from a killer—compels readers to this day.
Mike Hammer was a self-defined villain who slew villains. But, of course, even more overtly than Marlowe, Hammer was a knight. Never as randy as his detractors have claimed, Hammer’s romantic encounters are usually with a woman he loves (though the love of his life, secretary Velda, must remain chaste). The critics were correct: Mike Hammer’s—and Spillane’s—vast and enduring popularity really does relate to his volatile mix of sex and violence—that is, love and hate.
Robert B. Parker’s hardboiled Yuppie P.I. Spenser has his Velda in Susan Silverman. And, using a technique that would be much imitated, Parker sublimates his hero’s most overt nastiness through Spenser’s black id, Hawk. I find this a cop-out—my protagonists do their own psychotic dirty work—but it nonetheless indicates that continuing thread of emotion and violence.
Outside the detective novel proper, in the crime novel where the notion of hardboiled was further explored and defined, a similar combination of toughness and tenderness emerged. For all their surface grit, W.R. Burnett’s High Sierra and The Asphalt Jungle presented felons as romanticized as Spade and company were romanticized dicks. That terse opera master James M. Cain specialized in murder and love. Even the various psychopaths of Jim Thompson have their tender sides, making them more human, and more frightening.
Is there any difference between the 21st-century writers whose works have been deemed noir and the hardboiled crowd that preceded them?
Many noir writers, in a trend beginning in the ’80s and ’90s, do depart from what I would view as hardboiled. An emotional aspect dismissed as sentimental has been banished for a more paranoid, harsher world view. James Ellroy comes to mind, and some of my fellow authors in the Hard Case Crime line.
But such enormously popular writers as Michael Connelly and Dennis Lehane remain firmly in the hardboiled tradition.
As do I.
Max Allan Collins is the bestselling author of crime fiction including Road to Perdition and the Perdition Saga, and the award-winning novel based on the film American Gangster. He has won two Shamus Awards for Nathan Heller novels. He also wrote the Dick Tracy comic strip for fifteen years, and is an independent filmmaker. He lives in Eastern Iowa.