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What Is Hard-Boiled Crime Fiction?

Mystery expert Otto Penzler breaks down how to know it when you read it.

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  • Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

James M. Cain, the quintessential hard-boiled writer, claimed he didn’t know what that meant, and he wasn’t alone. So what is it? Mainly hard-boiled crime fiction stories involve private investigators as the hero (though Sherlock Holmes was a private eye and the stories aren’t hard-boiled, and Cain never wrote a detective novel). They are realistic, in the sense that people who go out and get a private investigator license are hired to solve crimes, which is more than the village vicar or the head of the gardening club can say.

P.I.s need to be tough, since they are dealing with killers, so in the books about them, they act tough and talk that way, too. They are mainly American, and they are loners, much like the old gunslingers of the West. They have a code of honor and justice that may not be strictly legal, but it is moral. They may be threatened, or beaten, but they won’t give up a case or betray a client. They are individuals, often matched against a corrupt political or criminal organization, but they prevail because they are true to themselves and their code. They are smart-alecks and talk that way. (Cop says, “I don’t like your attitude.” P.I. responds, “I’ve had a lot of complaints about it. It keeps me awake at night worrying about it.”)


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  • From the cover of The Big Sleep by Raymond Chandler

The private eye novel has strictures tighter than a sailor on his first night of shore leave. In a narrative generally told in the first person form, someone, frequently a young woman, comes to the office of a shamus because she’s in trouble. The police can’t or won’t help, or the situation is so sensitive that an investigation needs to be kept secret.

The dick takes the case, which is invariably about something more than he was told. He interviews people and learns secrets, frequently about events in the distant past. He is usually betrayed by one or more people, often his client, which, being a cynic, doesn’t surprise him. By the time he concludes his investigation, there generally have been several more murders along the way as people attempt to keep secrets hidden. He turns over the culprit to the police, and continues with his lonely life, awaiting the next meager payday.

Related: 8 Crime Noir Books That Will Have You Reaching for Your Trench Coat 

How to Tell By Looking at the Cover

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  • The Archer Files and Red Harvest

A snap-brim hat, a trenchcoat, and a frosted-glass office door may well appear on a dust jacket, even though they are utterly anachronistic. If a handgun isn’t illustrated, be surprised. The flap copy may include such words as dame, P.I., dick, shamus, for hire, and “a case for.” The cover is probably dark, with a lonely street or storefront, possibly with rain.


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  • Black Mask magazines

The hard-boiled detective was created in the pages of Black Mask magazine in the early 1920s by Carroll John Daly, a largely forgotten hack. He was immediately followed by Dashiell Hammett, who brought real talent to the genre and gave it literary credentials. Daly also created the first series private eye, Race Williams, and remained more popular than Hammett for more than a decade.

The Greats

Hammett’s unnamed P.I., the Continental Op, appeared in numerous short stories and his first two novels, Red Harvest and The Dain Curse, before he created Sam Spade in The Maltese Falcon, which remains, in many ways, the ultimate private eye novel.

Raymond Chandler followed Hammett with his immortal Philip Marlowe in The Big Sleep and eight subsequent novels. As a pure writer whose use of simile and metaphor has never been equaled, Chandler remains one of the giants of 20th century literature. When Ross Macdonald decided to write P.I. novels about Lew Archer, he emulated Chandler’s style as closely as he could, eventually adding Freudian psychology to give his novels a depth rarely achieved before or since.

Related: The Thin Man: How Dashiell Hammett’s Life as a Private Eye Inspired his Crime Fiction Classics 

Mickey Spillane, whose vigilante hero Mike Hammer made him the most popular writer in America for a decade, was the toughest of them all, and perhaps the best plotter as well. Reviled by critics for his black-and-white views of justice, readers nonetheless loved his clarity of vision and he became a great favorite of the objectivist philosopher Ayn Rand.

Other outstanding hard-boiled writers include Erle Stanley Gardner (whose Perry Mason stories sold more than a hundred million books), Howard Browne (also writing as John Evans), George Harmon Coxe, Charles Williams, Jonathan Latimer, William Campbell Gault, Frederick Nebel, Paul Cain (his Fast One remains a towering achievement), James M. Cain, and Raoul Whitfield.

The Best of the Modern Writers

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  • James Ellroy (left) and Elmore Leonard (right)

    Photo Credit: Alchetron

James Crumley, (his The Last Good Kiss can be reread endlessly with pleasure); Robert B. Parker has justly been placed in the pantheon of greats for his Spenser novels; and Robert Crais is as good as it gets.

Other terrific hard-boiled writers, who may or may not feature private eyes, include James Ellroy, Michael Connelly, Elmore Leonard, George Pelecanos, Dennis Lehane, Michael Collins, Loren D. Estleman, and Ken Bruen.

Although the focus here is on the hard-boiled private investigator, hard-boiled prose has been employed by outstanding writers of suspense, such as Cornell Woolrich, who wrote the best suspense stories since Edgar Allan Poe; by writers of crime fiction, who often told stories from the criminal’s point of view, such as James M. Cain, Jim Thompson, W.R. Burnett, David Goodis, and Richard Stark (Donald E. Westlake’s pseudonym); and by those who write police novels, including Ed McBain, Joseph Wambaugh, and, in England, John Harvey.

Otto Penzler is the founder of the Mysterious Press (1975), a distinguished publisher of literary crime fiction whose imprint is now associated with Grove/Atlantic, Mysterious Press.com (2011), an electronic-book publishing company associated with Open Road Integrated Media, and New York City’s Mysterious Bookshop (1979). He has won two Edgars, for the Encyclopedia of Mystery and Detection (1977) and The Lineup (2010). He has edited more than 50 anthologies and written extensively about mystery fiction.

Featured still from "Out of the Past" via Wikimedia Commons