Hard-Boiled Fiction


“I needed a drink, I needed a lot of life insurance, I needed a vacation, I needed a home in the country. What I had was a coat, a hat and a gun. I put them on and went out of the room.” (Raymond Chandler 1940)

These words I had scrawled, albeit haphazardly on a stained pink post-it sometime in 2006, and unsurprisingly so, deeply affected my literary technique from then on. I had just finished watching The Thin Man, a black-and-white whodunnit featuring a liquor swilling private detective named Nick Charles, his wife Nora and their dog Asta. Based on Dashiell Hammett’s eponymous prohibition-era novel, its adaptation into a 1934 film (and subsequent sequels) directed by W.S. Van Dyke numbed my senses  (in the good way) with its montages of Martinis, murderers and general whimsy in poking fun of gangster-era America. Characters would spout off incomprehensible colloquialisms as fast as bullets fired from a machine gun: “I’d like to get this gal out of the woman’s tank…that’s lousy… kiddo.” If you’re a fan of HBO’s Boardwalk Empire, you’ll relate to my love for the asinine demonstration of male aggression, the subtle nods to phallic imagery, Freud, Ego, and the Super Ego.

There is much debate as to the difference between Noir and Hard-Boiled fiction but the general consensus is to how each portrays its heroes and villains within a social hierarchy, specifically through dialogue. Whereas Noir has a tendency to amalgamate the two into a complete and very ordered civilisation, the HB hero oscillates between two worlds; he can communicate with his bourgeois client but liaisons too with his bulldog-faced lead. This ensures Pulp’s epistemological appeal. A 1937 issue of Harper’s magazine denounced (the now mainstream) hard-boiled fiction as the stuff of immature minds [that] feed on such stuff…staple fodder”. But for ten cents you could buy your own suspenseful one-hundred page “fodder” in serials, and surely, with its flashy newsprint packed with illustrations of barely-dressed dames and Lucky Strike advertisements it appealed, in all its vainglory, as Fifty Shades does for us (not me, you) now.  Interestingly, even with the arguably detrimental blank canvas-like nature of the characteisation, success of hard-boiled fiction was on the rise. The popularisation of the HB hero was because of the consumer’s desire for it. To identify, as we all know, is a key element to a book’s success in the marketplace, so did readers really see themselves in these stiff stark misogynist men? The way these novels dealt with postwar anxiety certainly played a big part in this. For Frank Krutnik, noir males were internally divided and alienated from the culturally permissible (or ideal) parameters of masculine identity, desire and achievement”. Thus, readers could see, identify and project themselves both in and apart from their rapidly shifting (even frightening) modern society.

Aside from The Thin Man film’s unaccomodating attitude towards Hammett’s original narrative, it manages to distill the hard-boiled genre into a straightforward story for a middle class audience to follow: an audience raised on screwball Astaire/Ginger musical comedies who would not otherwise be able to relate to characters such as Raymond Chandler’s hard-drinking concrete philosophy-reading detective Philip Marlowe as seen in The Big Sleep, Farewell, My Lovely and The Long Goodbye. By contrast with the more familiar (amateur/savant) detective inspectors penned by Agatha Christie or Charles Dickens, the traditional tough HB Detective, according to Erin Smith, unravelled the narratives of others in order to spin an alternate narrative of their own without any claim of ontological priority”. They were the  “every man” who appeared to have materialised out of thin air, preferred to lurk in alleyways, parked Cadillacs and speakeasies, only to leap out at the last second to rescue the Femme Fatale or to nab the blackmailer. They rarely had side-kicks and even then, you assumed they wouldn’t live for very long.

As of late it has been announced that a Man Booker-Prize winning author is to pen a new noir adventure for Detective Marlowe. One can imagine this effort, combined, with the current milieu of modern literature and its immovable tendency to politicise and hyperbolise everything and everyone, will not be quite hard-boiled, just soft, runny in the middle and washed down with a Whisky.