Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Hardboiled/Noir Writers Part 2

Part 1, here.

The first hardboiled detective story is usually credited to a guy named Carroll John Daly, which is unfortunate because Daly was kind of a lousy writer. But he more or less invented the hardboiled detective with his character Terry Mack, in the May 1923 issue of Black Mask.

The story was called “Three Gun Terry”, and it wasn’t too much different than the old Nick Carter stories except that the hero was every bit the nasty equal of his nemesis. He wasn’t afraid to get his hands dirty; he knew the streets, he knew the lingo, he was a wise-ass and a bad-ass, and the readers of Black Mask fell immediately in love with him.

Daly also created the character Race Williams just a couple of months later in the story “Knights of the Open Palm”; Race was pretty much the same thing as Terry Mack but soared to even greater heights of fame amongst Black Mask readers.

The stories that Daly wrote were invariably cookie-cutter stuff, predictable, violent, low-brow. If you stalk the used bookstores or E-bay, you might be able to find paperback editions of the stuff he wrote for Black Mask, like The Hidden Hand or The Tag Murders. They don’t stand up well now, and even then more sophisticated readers rightfully dismissed him and this new unpleasant style of detective story that seemed to cater to the lowest common denominator.

And yet, in a 1930 poll, Black Mask readers voted Daly their favorite. Dashiell Hammett was a distant second. Fortunately, time has rectified that misjudgment.

Dashiell Hammett’s first story of the Continental Op appeared in Black Mask in the October 1923 issue, only months after Daly’s first Race Williams story, and signified a serious change in the demeanor of hardboiled. The most significant difference between Hammett and his hardboiled predecessor was a simple one: Hammett could write. He could really write. He used short, declarative sentences, designed for maximum effect; he didn’t spend much time inside the head of his protagonist; he concentrated on keeping the story moving, and practically invented the idea of “real time” action. Hammett was a revelation.

Every hardboiled detective since the Op owes its existence to Hammett. He transformed what might have turned out to be a literary fad into a genuine movement that’s still going strong today, and redefined what we think of as the “American voice” in fiction.

Hammett brought to the table his experiences as a private detective for the Pinkerton agency, and that experience colored all his work, but especially the stories of the Op. Later, he would create the memorable Sam Spade in a series of stories and the novel The Maltese Falcon, but for me it’s all about the Continental Op—short, mulish, fat, and totally dedicated to the job. The Op is a relentless, unstoppable force that has no existence outside his job. He’s incorruptible not because it would be immoral to break his own rules but because it would be unprofessional.

Hammett’s work has never been out of print in the States, and if you’re new to the genre there’s no excuse not to start with the source. He wasn’t amazingly prolific. He wrote all of his great work in a short ten year period, and in the last twenty years of his life didn’t write a single word that saw publication.

All of his books with the exception of The Thin Man were first serialized in Black Mask. They are:

The Dain Curse
Red Harvest
The Maltese Falcon
The Glass Key
The Thin Man
…and his short stories are collected in these editions from Black Lizard/Vintage Crime:
The Big Knockover
The Continental Op
Nightmare Town

The 1920’s and early ‘30’s were the Golden Age of the Hardboiled novel. Following in the wake of Hammett, hardboiled dicks started springing up all over the place. Most of them were pale imitations, adding nothing significant to the genre, but occasionally someone would come along with a fresh game and slap things around a little.

Fans of the detective story will often refer to the Holy Trinity of Hammett-Chandler-Cain, as if these three writers had anything in common. You’ve seen the reviews of every new detective novel, referring to this or that new writer as being “in the best tradition of Hammett, Chandler and Cain”. In reality, they couldn’t have been more different from one another, not only in style but in subject matter. It’s like saying, “In the best tradition of Shakespeare, James Fenimore Cooper, and Stephen King”.

Raymond Chandler certainly utilized the raw materials that Hammett made, but he represented the next phase of the hardboiled story and took the genre in a new direction, one of rich, evocative language and something a little closer to a genuine literary agenda. Reading about Chandler, you almost get the idea that he was insecure in his chosen field, that he feared more than anything not being taken seriously as a writer. He shouldn’t have worried; his reputation as a literary giant is intact, despite the hundreds of pastiches of his work that have surfaced over the decades.

“He was about as inconspicuous as a tarantula on a slice of angel food cake.” All those brilliant and fun metaphors that we’ve come to associate with his novels about Philip Marlowe were only the bells and whistles. On a deeper level, Chandler was struggling with bigger themes of decency, humanity, and how to maintain a moral stake in a world where morality has no place. That was something his imitators never understood.

What can you say about Chandler that hasn’t already been said? While not as tight a plotter as Hammett, Chandler’s voice as a writer was sharp and observant, and his style was hugely influential. Like Hammett, Chandler wasn’t prolific; he wrote only seven novels in his lifetime, and only the first four or five of those were notable.

The Big Sleep
Farewell, My Lovely
The High Window
Lady in the Lake
The Little Sister
The Long Goodbye
The Simple Art of Murder

Mentioning James M. Cain in direct reference to the other Gods of the Trinity is especially inaccurate; Cain didn’t write about detectives, and he certainly didn’t write about characters of high moral standing. In that regard, he was one of the first writers that we can actually call noir.

Chandler hated him. He thought Cain was a filthy pervert, celebrating everything indecent about humanity. To some extent he was right. But what Chandler failed to see was that Cain understood the darkness in our souls, the lengths humans are willing to go to in order to avoid their own doom, and the knowledge that it was futile anyway; we are all doomed, and every step we take to change that brings us that much closer to the end.

Cain was a poet of entropy, and from his novels came noir, fully formed. The hapless protagonist, lured by sex, the manipulative femme fatale, the raw sexuality, the violence, and the wicked plan that’s doomed from the start. Reading his novels—especially the first two—gives the reader a crash course in noir that covers all the basics.

Double Indemnity
The Postman Always Rings Twice
Root of His Evil
The Embezzler
Mildred Pierce
Love’s Lonely Counterfeit

Albert Camus is quoted as saying his novel The Stranger was inspired in part by Cain’s The Postman Always Rings Twice. So what’s the difference between noir and existential? You tell me. I believe The Stranger more than qualifies as noir.

A contemporary of Hammett, Chandler and Cain’s was the remarkable W.R. Burnett. He too brought something new to the hardboiled table, something midway between Chandler and Cain—instead of focusing on the detective-hero or the hapless sucker, his central characters were usually straight-up bad guys: gangsters, thieves, etcetera. He was hugely popular for awhile, especially in the ‘30’s when Americans began to glamorize the crooks of Prohibition and the roaming bank robbers like John Dillinger. Burnett’s timing couldn’t have been better. Of course, the bad guy heroes of his stories always paid the piper at the end. Noir hadn’t developed so much that the bad guy could get away with his crimes—that development was a couple of decades away.

Little Caesar
Iron Man
Dark Hazard
High Sierra
The Asphalt Jungle
Nobody Lives Forever

There were other writers who don’t get referenced as often as Hammett, Chandler, Cain or even Burnett who still made important contributions and added their own particular ingredients to the ever more diversified genre of hardboiled/noir.

One of the greatest and most underappreciated was Horace McCoy, who wrote what is perhaps the most grueling noir of the ‘30’s, They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? There are no private dicks here, or gangsters or even hapless sex-slaves. It takes place during a brutal dance marathon—a popular past-time of the era—and uses the marathon as a perfect metaphor for the unrelenting cruelty of existence. It’s a harsh, uncompromising book. His others were almost as good.

They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?
No Pockets on a Shroud
Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye
I Should’ve Stayed Home

Eric Knight, writing under the name Richard Hallas, gave us one notable book that has taken on a sort of Holy Grail-like quality. It’s highly-regarded by fans of noir but is rarely read these days—in fact, since the decades since its first appearance it’s been out of print most of the time. Black Lizard was the last to reprint it, back in the ‘80’s. But its well-worth searching out.

You Play the Black and the Red Comes Up

Paul Cain is another lost master of noir. He wrote a handful of short stories, collected later into one volume, and one novel that Raymond Chandler called “some kind of high-water mark in hardboiled”. Fortunately, his meager output is still available in an omnibus edition.

Fast One
Seven Slayers

And Raoul Whitfield deserves to be mentioned for a number of reasons: he was one of Black Mask’s most prolific contributors for awhile, he created the first Filipino detective hero (Jo Gar), and his stories about ex-convict Mel Ourney became the highly-regarded novel…

Green Ice

There were hundreds of other writers who plied their trade in the pulp magazines throughout the ‘20’s and early ‘30’s, obviously—names that are mostly lost to us now, stories that no one will ever read again. Some of them deserved a bigger audience; most of them didn’t. Fortunately, the decades since the pulp magazine explosion have mostly seen the cream rise to the top. It was an amazing time, though. With the profusion of magazines on the stands—there were literally hundreds of them—a professional writer with a little talent and a lot of dedication could eke out a living for himself, and if he was lucky, leave behind some sort of small legacy.

Part 3 here.


  1. Nice to see McCoy on here. As far as I'm concerned Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye is THE hardboiled crime novel. Great post, Heath

  2. Quote: "But what Chandler failed to see was that Cain understood the darkness in our souls, the lengths humans are willing to go to in order to avoid their own doom, and the knowledge that it was futile anyway; we are all doomed, and every step we take to change that brings us that much closer to the end."

    Boy, there's a terrific definition of noir.

    And Heath, I too am glad you included Horace McCoy. KISS TOMORROW GOODBYE is without question the seminal first person noir novel originating deep inside the criminal mind. I actually wrote a review of it for my website. You can check it out here.

  3. Thanks, gentlemen.
    Mike, that was a terrific review of Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye, spot on. Also, just ordered your new book on Kindle.

  4. I like how you brought Cain in there. Very informative again Heath...

  5. Thanks for the support, Heath. I've already read THE BASTARD HAND and it was sensational. I don't know if you know this, but I ordered it on Amazon solely on the strength of your extremely original "How I came to write this novel" piece on Patti Abbott's website. I'll get the next one, too, sight unseen.