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Unit Three: Lecture One: Hard Boiled Lecture Notes

WHAT IS HARD BOILED DETECTIVE FICTION? Hard-boiled detective fiction is often defined by what it is not. It is not British; it is not set in the little village; it is not filled with civilized and polite people; the solution is not reached by a brilliant detective who analyzes clues and is an expert as psychological deduction. Instead, hard-boiled detective fiction is American; it is usually set in a large city or urban area; it is often filled with crooks, criminals, and mafia types who are very familiar with physical violence, psychological intimidation, and as my mother would say "rough language." Corruption and disorder are common themes of this genre. As I have said before, we have labeled this genre as hard boiled. Though Americans were instrumental in establishing the genre, other nationalities certainly write it. This genre is still very popular. CHARACTERISTICS OF HARD BOILED FICTION: It is often easier to define hard-boiled detective fiction by four main elements: the language, the setting, the detective, and the method of detection. LANGUAGE: The language describes things rather than ideas; there is little psychological/emotional introspection. Adjectives are kept to a minimum -- mainly the language reports what happened/what was said -- and not how anyone felt about these things. Another characteristic that sometimes might confuse new readers of the genre is the use of slang. A woman is a dame, a moll, a babe. You might have noticed in The Maltese Falcon Spades use of slang. A personal note: My greeting to my students when I walk into class is always, Whats the haps, man? (This is a New Orleans slang greeting common in James Lee Burkes fiction.) You will read language that might not make your grandmother happy. If you are uncomfortable reading that one character calls another character a mother fucker, then this genre is not for you. An interesting thing to note is that most hard-boiled fiction writers got their start in what today we call "Pulp" magazines. The most famous of these is the Black Mask -- which I'll talk about a little later. But the writers for these magazines were paid by the word, and editors were eager to eliminate unnecessary description because that would cost them more money. SETTING: The setting for hard-boiled detective fiction is usually a large city, an urban area, or an industrial area. The cities tend to be dark, dangerous places run by corrupt politicians, gangster syndicates, and an occasional corrupt police officer/force. Often the stories themselves have more night scenes than daylight scenes, which contributes to the overall dark atmosphere of the stories. Do remember that we had just emerged from World War I and that America was becoming more and more industrialized. People were more mobile -- and our country

is geographically larger than England -- so that the people involved often seemed rootless. We never had a caste/class system in the same way that England did. In some ways hard-boiled detective fiction is a response to the rising crime and gangster activity caused by Prohibition and then the Great Depression. The Volstead Act, or the 18th amendment, made it illegal to brew and distill and sell alcohol. The illegal manufacture of these spirits was common, though, and often ignored by the police or even more often police were paid to ignore it. Think of Al Capone, violence, bloodshed, brutality this is what folks read about in their daily newspapers. Hard Boiled fiction reflected that disorder and corruption. DETECTIVE: The detective/hero of hard-boiled detective fiction is usually -- but not always -- a private detective, who makes his living from his job. He is a loner, he is a moderate to heavy drinker of alcoholic beverages, he is usually a smoker, and he is seldom a family man. He is not afraid of physical violence, and he has a capacity for enduring physical pain without complaint. He lives by his own code of ethics in a corrupt world. Some critics compare the hard-boiled detective hero to the frontier heroes of the 19th century -- I suppose one could argue that both types of heroes bring order to the lots of the people they choose to help. The difference is the frontier hero helps to establish a new settlement and new civilizations (think of a few John Wayne movies) while the hard-boiled detective patches up an old and corrupt civilization/society. Not always, but most often the private eye is at odds with the police. He might have a working relationship with one police office (as we see in the Maltese Falcon), but usually the police consider the private eye to be intruding on their territory and are thus antagonistic. METHOD OF DETECTION: The fourth characteristic of hard-boiled detective fiction is the method of detection itself. The detective is usually presented as being on a quest and it is the quest itself -- not the solution -- that forms the main source of interest for readers. Often the solution to the mystery is unsatisfying or sometimes seemingly contrived; however, we tend not to care so much about that. We want to know what's going to happen next and how the hero/detective is going to deal with the physical and moral difficulties encountered along the way. Sometimes he might not have a specific plan of action; he thinks on his feet. Sometimes he might shake the tree just to see what falls out of it. OTHER CHARACTERISTICS: Another contribution of hard-boiled detective fiction is the use of the firstperson narrator to tell a story. While this is not always the case, more often than not the private eye/detective is often the narrator, and thus this precludes much of the theoretical process and surprise deductions that we are used to with the British Golden age detective stories. Our private eye often tends to stir things up rather than think things through. The private eye is a tough guy who can give a beating and take a beating "like a man." He usually has clever comments, sharp repartee, and memorable one-liners -- with this wit, he could often diffuse a sticky situation. (How can you forget Spades final remarks : If they hang you, I will always remember you.)

EGGS! Think of the British Golden age detective novel as a soft boiled egg and the American detective fiction as a hard-boiled egg. The detective lives on the main city streets where fighting, swearing, deception, poverty, and death were all part of life. And so the detective has to balance the day-to-day needs of survival and what one has to do to survive with trying to uphold the law and strive for justice. Sometimes the detective becomes the arbiter of justice, and he may have to cross the line and break the law in order to see justice served. Sometimes there are different levels of evil, and good can sometimes be the lesser of two evils. Sometimes his survival depends upon shooting first and asking questions later -- so the ability to logically reason out a murder is less important than the ability to fight one's way out of the jam. Unlike the British detective story in which the murder happens offstage, in the hard-boiled detective story a murder or murders happen all around the detective on a fairly frequent basis. WRITERS: Hard-boiled detective fiction writers of that and today include Dashiell Hammet, Raymond Chandler, James Cain, Carrol John Daly, Ross Macdonald, John MacDonald, Mickey Spillane, Elmore Leonard, Robert Parker, V.I. Warshawski (whose detective is female), Sue Grafton (also a female l detective), Sara Paretsky, James Lee Burke, and Walter Mosley. Television cop/private eye shows owe MUCH to the writers of Hard Boiled fiction. You may or may not be familiar with some of these: Kojak, Mannix, Magnum P.I., Hunter, Miami Vice, Knight Rider, Rockford Files, Baretta, Remington Steele, The Equalizer, Quincy MD. These are mainly TV shows from the 1970s/80s. Can you think of current TV shows that share these characteristics?

The Black Mask


The Black Mask was a pulp magazine began by H.L. Mencken and George Jean Nathan in 1920 as a moneymaking venture -- they started the magazine with $500. At first the Black Mask was not exclusively a publication of crime fiction; instead it included adventure, mystery, detective, romance, and occult stories. After eight issues Mencken and Nathan sold the magazine to his publishers for $12,500. A man named Joseph Shaw became editor. Shortly thereafter, the magazine began to publish almost exclusively crime fiction. It is called a pulp magazine because it was printed on a fairly cheap paper (as in wood pulp) and was slightly smaller than the Readers Digest is today. Later, mass-produced magazines such as this were called "pulp fiction." As a matter of fact, the Black Mask inspired the 1994 Quentin Tarantino film Pulp Fiction; the film was originally called Black Mask before being changed. One cannot overestimate the importance of this magazine in nurturing the careers of many hard-boiled detective fiction writers. Most notably, the career of Dashiell Hammett -- I'll talk more about him later. Sales were very high throughout the 20s and early 30s. Sales and interest began to decline in the mid30s because of competition from comic books, cheap paperback books, radio, and the movies. Editor Shaw resigned in 1936 because he refused to cut the writers already low pay. Sales began to decline and the magazine eventually stop publication in 1951.

Even today though there is a cult following of Black Mask readers and copies of the magazine can fetch a nice price on eBay and other places.