The crime fiction genre was nothing new when hard-boiled detective fiction emerged in the United States during the early 20th century. This subgenre has its roots in the pulp magazines of the 1920s and 1930s. From there, it evolved into a popular-and now respectable-literary genre.
But before going into more detail about the evolution of the genre, what are the hard-boiled detective stories about?
The simplest way to answer is that the genre is characterized by its tough, cynical, and often violent protagonists who operate outside of the law to bring justice to the criminal underworld. Most of the time, it’s about private detectives who evolve in a gritty, urban landscape that is rife with corruption, vice, and violence. They are lone wolves motivated by a personal code of honor rather than a desire for justice or even a sense of duty to the law.
Beyond the main characters, the Hard-boiled detective stories are known for their complex plots full of twists, surprises, and revelations. They introduce us to morally ambiguous characters from both sides of the law that push the main protagonist to sometimes cross the line into criminal behavior-let’s not forget about the femme fatale, the seductress who led the protagonist down a dangerous path.
Those stories are (not exclusively, but more than anything else) about revenge, betrayal, corruption, and redemption, written with a focus on action and dialogue rather than descriptive prose. To be complete, we need to add an important component, a touch of gritty realism that is often combined with the rest to offer a reflection of the social and cultural tensions of the time in which those stories were written.
A brief history of hard-boiled detective fiction, including its origins in pulp magazines and its evolution into a popular literary genre.
First of all, what were the pulp magazines? Popular in the United States from the late 19th century through the mid-20th century, they were a type of inexpensive, mass-produced fiction magazines. In fact, they were called “pulps” because of the low-quality paper made from wood pulp on which they were printed.
Launched in 1882, the first pulp magazine was The Argosy. It began as a children’s weekly story but started to shift toward adult fiction in 1988, switching from weekly to monthly in April 1894 and, along the way, establishing what became the pulp-magazine format by offering a wide range of genres such as romance, westerns, horror, and-of course-detective fiction.
Known for their eye-catching covers featuring illustrations of action-packed scenes or beautiful damsels in distress, the pulp magazines were found at newsstands and drugstores for a dime or less. It was entertainment for the masses, especially during the Great Depression, but the format’s popularity started to decline after World War II.
Many of the earliest hard-boiled detective stories were published in magazines such as Black Mask and Dime Detective. “The False Burton Combs” was published in Black Mask magazine in December 1922, it is the story written by Carroll John Daly that is credited for being the first hard-boiled story. Daly quickly published more stories of that type like “It’s All in the Game,” “Three Gun Terry,” or even “Knights of the Open Palm” that introduced the private detective Race Williams. Three months later, also in Black Mask magazine, the first story by Dashiell Hammett featuring The Continental Op was published.
As the genre gained in popularity, publishers started to release hardcover editions of popular detective stories, Hammet and Raymond Chandler as well as James M. Cain, George Harmon Coxe, Mickey Spillane, Jim Thompson, and W.R. Burnett became household names and their detectives turned into iconic figures in American popular culture as their adventures were adapted into films and radio programs.
Beyond Sam Spade: The Best Hard-Boiled Detectives You Need to Know
Created by Dashiell Hammett in his novel “The Maltese Falcon,” Sam Spade is a tough and no-nonsense private detective who is willing to take risks to get to the bottom of a case.
Naturally, all those detectives were tough guys, each with his own style. Philip Marlowe, the famous creation of Raymond Chandler who first appeared in the novel “The Big Sleep,” is a private detective known for his moral code and his attitude-both were played by Humphrey Bogart in now classic Hollywood movies.
There were others through the years. Some added to the genre, some subverts the trappings of the Hard-Boiled stories. Here is a list of popular detectives.
- Mike Hammer first appeared in the novel “I, the Jury” written by Mickey Spillane. He is a private detective who operates with a brutal, take-no-prisoners approach to solving crimes.
- Lew Archer, introduced in “The Moving Target” by Ross Macdonald, is a private detective known for his psychological depth and social commentary.
- Nero Wolfe, created by Rex Stout, is a private detective known for his love of gourmet food, orchids, and his reclusive nature who solves crimes from his New York City brownstone with the help of his assistant, Archie Goodwin.
- Travis McGee, invented by John D. MacDonald, is a private investigator who works from a houseboat in Florida.
- Easy Rawlins, who first appeared in the novel “Devil in a Blue Dress” by Walter Mosley, is an African-American private investigator in post-World War II Los Angeles.
- Kinsey Millhone, created by Sue Grafton, is a private investigator who lives in the fictional town of Santa Teresa, California.
- V.I. Warshawski, invented by Sara Paretsky, is a private investigator who works against the wealthier and powerful of Chicago.
- Burke, by Andrew Vachss, is a private investigator who explores the criminal underworld of New York City.
- John Shaft, introduced in the 1970 novel of the same name by Ernest Tidyman, is a private detective from Harlem who is “Hotter than Bond, cooler than Bullitt.”
- Parker, created by Richard Stark (pseudonym of Donald E. Westlake), is not a PI, but a career criminal who operates outside the law.
- Matthew Scudder, by Lawrence Block, is a former police detective who becomes a private investigator after leaving the force traumatized.
- Nick Stefanos, the character created by George Pelecanos, Nick Stefanos is a private investigator who works in Washington, D.C.
- Nathan Heller, invented by Max Allan Collins, is a Chicago private investigator (also known as the private eye to the stars) from the 1930s to the 1950s.
- Elvis Cole and Joe Pike, by Robert Crais, formed a pair of Hollywood unorthodox private eyes who focus mainly on cases of abused and battered women and children-with some exceptions.