Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Hardboiled/Noir Writers Part 3

Part One here.
Part Two here.

The late ‘30’s and the ‘40’s didn’t offer much new in the hardboiled/noir world. There were plenty of solid writers, but there wasn’t much fresh on the market and it seemed that the Golden Age of creativity in the genre was over.
Not that the ‘40’s were completely devoid of anything noteworthy-- Jonathan Latimer wrote a book that really shook things up dramatically. He’s mostly remembered now for his more comic-oriented crime novels, but in 1941 he wrote what many consider to be one of the most brutal hard-boiled novels of all time, the hard-to-find Solomon’s Vineyard. This novel was censored and decried and condemned, and the unexpurgated version never saw print until the 1980’s.
--Solomon’s Vineyard (aka The Fifth Grave)

But for the most part it was rough-going for readers of hardboiled/noir. The steady decline of the pulp magazine market didn’t help things. It had been going downhill for some time. The interest in crime stories that dominated the magazine stands in the ‘20’s gave way in the ‘30’s to action heroes like Doc Savage, The Shadow, and the Spider. And by the end of the decade, even those were suffering from poor sales.
But it was the emergence of this new thing called ‘paperback books’ that really sounded the death knell of the pulp magazine. New printing technology made binding books between stiff covers affordable. At first, publishers concentrated on ‘classic lit’ or mainstream fiction, but it didn’t take long for some savvy publishers to realize the true potential of the paperback original.
It took awhile for everything to gel, but right from the start the idea of a book printed in a cheap, easy to handle format was a huge success. During World War II, paperback books were popular with soldiers—they were convenient, could fit easily in a pocket or knapsack, and were considerably more resilient than a magazine. The industry continued to grow after the war, when the idea of paperback originals first took hold.
By the early 1950’s, publishers like Gold Medal Books had staked out a considerable territory and in the process created a whole new type of publishing. It was the beginning of the second Golden Age of hardboiled/noir.

The paperback originals had to have solid plots, lots of action, some sex (though not as much as the covers suggested), and pitch-perfect pacing. No time for character introspection that lasted more than a paragraph. No time for lengthy detailed descriptions of places and things. The best writers of the paperback originals were masters at sketching images in the reader’s minds, giving them the essentials and keeping the story rolling along like a sleek roadster.

It was a time of transition for the writers trying to make a buck, and some of them adjusted to the cross-over better than others.

One of the most successful of these was Cornell Woolrich. He had a solid career in the pulps, and many of his stories were translated for the big screen. When pulps gave way to paperbacks, he shifted gears and enjoyed renewed popularity as both Woolrich and William Irish.
Woolrich didn’t write in that lean, spare style that we’ve come to associate with noir and hard-boiled; his prose was rich and full, brimming over sometimes with melodrama that, to a modern reader, can be occasionally tiresome. But for all that, not too many writers could match him for ratcheting up tension, creating almost palpable dread, and making sure the reader kept those pages turning to see what awful thing was going to happen next.
He was also one of the first writers in the genre to give us stories from a female point of view. In fact, most of his best stories are tales of women driven to murder to protect their honor or to avenge the death of a loved one. Most notably, his so-called “Black Trilogy”.
There’s been speculation that Woolrich was a closest homosexual, and that he suffered from depression and bouts of alcohol-fueled self-loathing. Reading his work, you wouldn’t find these speculations surprising. The world he writes about is a dark, untrustworthy place. Although his frantic wordiness can be rough going (a little Woolrich goes a long way), he is essential noir. Try one or two of these:
--The Bride Wore Black
--The Black Curtain
--Phantom Lady
--Black Alibi
--The Black Angel
--Black Path of Fear
--The Night Has a Thousand Eyes
--Rendezvous in Black
--I Married a Dead Man
--Savage Bride

David Goodis was the other notable writer who shifted well from pulp to paperback, although many critics think that his work suffered throughout the fifties. It’s true that, as early as 1947, Goodis seemed destined for mainstream success with his novel Retreat from Oblivion. But by the beginning of the new decade it seems that, for some reason, he opted for a sort of anonymousness by writing paperback originals and keeping a low public profile. Mainstream success didn’t elude him; he eluded it.
Some critics consider Goodis the true father of noir, usurping the role usually reserved for James M. Cain. He was certainly more consistently entertaining. To some degree, his subject matter reflected what we’ve come to believe about his own life. Goodis wrote about the losers, men who had fallen from grace due to circumstance or their own poor choices. His novels were dark and pessimistic and grim, without an ounce of humor. Bleak stuff, and highly recommended for a serious dose of noir.
--Retreat from Oblivion
--Dark Passage
--Of Missing Persons
--Cassidy’s Girl
--Street of the Lost
--The Burglar
--Moon in the Gutter
--The Wounded and the Slain
--Black Friday
--Street of No Return
--Shoot the Piano Player (aka, Down There)

So the death of the pulps didn’t always have to mean the end of careers. Several other writers of varying talent made the switch, while still writing for the handful of pulps that still existed. However, by the mid-fifties a whole new crop of amazing young writers had premiered, and the face of crime fiction altered, shifted subtly into a thing of more sophistication that the old pulp writers could ever have imagined.

Private Dicks

By far, the most popular writer in the genre in the 1950’s was Mickey Spillane.
Spillane was-- and still is-- a polarizing personality in crime fiction. Some have dismissed him as jingoistic, xenophobic, hateful. Entirely possible, but his ability to pull a reader in and keep him involved shouldn't be overlooked. Spillane was a master at giving the readers what they wanted, and was hugely important in the history of hardboiled. His novels about Mike Hammer were ultra-violent, misanthropic, and unapologetically nasty. As a protagonist, Hammer was a raging, hateful creature of vengeance, driven by some peculiar code of honor that only he seemed capable of abiding.
I, the Jury
My Gun is Quick
Vengeance is Mine
One Lonely Night
The Big Kill
The Long Wait
Kiss Me, Deadly

A whole slew of private detective heroes emerged in the wake of the Mickey Spillane phenomenon of the 1950’s, and even the ones who’d been around earlier enjoyed renewed success.

Brett Halliday’s series about Mike Shayne is noteworthy— first of all, there were tons of them. Halliday has been writing Shayne’s adventures all through the 1940’s, but the surge of interest in P.I. novels that came on the wake of Spillane’s success lent the series new life. While the plots were often interchangeable, they were all solid and remarkably well-written. As a character, Mike Shayne wasn’t given to too much introspection, and Halliday wasn’t big on social commentary—Shayne has been called the “generic private dick”. But for all that, the Mike Shayne novels were never boring. The movie Kiss Kiss Bang Bang was based loosely on Halliday’s novel “Bodies are Where You Find Them”.
Here’s a sampling:
Dividend on Death
Bodies are Where You Find Them
The Corpse Came Calling
Murder is My Business
She Woke to Darkness
Death Has Three Lives
Stranger in Town
Shoot the Works

In the part of town where the sun still shone, there were the light-hearted novels of Shell Scott, by Richard S. Prather. Scott was, in many ways, the ‘anti-Hammer’—funny, good-natured, and with an appreciative eye for the ladies. As a character, Shell Scott was a likeable rogue with an easy grin and a solid sense of humor, and his books are diverting and fun.
Case of the Vanishing Beauty
Everybody Had a Gun
Always Leave ‘em Dying
The Wailing Frail
Three’s a Shroud

Another writer who benefited in the wake of Spillane's success was Frank Kane. His series character Johnny Liddell first appeared in '47, and throughout the '50's remained steadfastly popular. As Bill Crider noted, if it's a Frank Kane novel, it's likely to be a "competent, straight-forward P.I. story". Kane wrote almost 30 novels about Liddell; here's just a sampling:
About Face
Bullet Proof
Poisons Unknown
Grave Danger
The Living End

However, the most significant writer of P.I. novels to emerge in the ‘50’s (sales notwithstanding) was Ross MacDonald. His books about Lew Archer came closer than anyone before him to perfecting the sub-genre and honing it to a razor-sharp edge. He’s regarded these days as the true heir to Chandler, keeping the torch lit for the lyrical hardboiled style. As the series progressed, Archer mellowed, and so did the books. But the early adventures were tough-minded and violent, all the while maintaining a curious sense of melancholy and insightfulness. I think he was actually better than Chandler. He was a more consistent writer, and the scope of his literary concerns was just as all-encompassing.
The Dark Tunnel
Trouble Follows Me
Blue City
The Three Roads
The Moving Target
The Drowning Pool
The Way Some People Die
The Ivory Grin
Meet Me at the Morgue
Find a Victim
The Name is Archer
The Barbarous Coast
The Doomsters
So the private eye novel was riding high; that didn’t mean there weren’t readers interested in the other side of the fence. The publishers of paperback originals were ready to give ‘em what they wanted, with a whole slew of immensely talented writers who were expert at mining the materials of crime, deceit, and avarice to bring out the leanest, meanest novels imaginable.

go to Part Four


  1. Worth noting that many of the Brett Halliday novels were the work of other writers.

  2. Absolutely worth noting; another thing to add to the inevitable revised version... thank you for stopping in, Mr. Block!

  3. SOLOMON'S VINEYARD isn't that difficult to get hold of if you have an e-reader. Last I knew, it was available over at Munsey's:

  4. Ray, yeah. I actually got mine on Kindle for something like a buck. But I've never seen an actual paper copy before.