The Hard Boiled School of Detective Fiction

A Brief History

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The gulf between hard boiled and golden age crime fiction could not be greater. Whilst remaining in the same basic genre, they are fundamentally different.
The golden age tends to celebrate the plot, its setting and the ingenuity with which it is solved. The hard boiled school however relies more on brute force than ingenuity to solve the crime and an unerring ability to survive against all the apparent odds. The settings swap villages for cities with the story inevitably taking the reader on a journey through the sleazy and glamorous sides of the cities in equal measure.
If the golden age reflected the world's view of Britain at the time, then equally the hard boiled novel combined all the elements that the outside world saw as American. Given the clear divide between the two formats, it is hardly surprising that readers themselves were equally polarised in their preferences. Even though national boundaries were crossed in both fields, readers tended to prefer the crime fiction like their eggs.. hard or soft boiled !

1921, the same year as Agatha Christie published her first novel, saw the birth of the hugely important Black Mask magazine. The influence of Black Mask can hardly be exaggerated. Not only did it promote the hard boiled school to an ever increasing audience, but also nurtured the talents of many of its leading lights, most notably Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler. Black Mask also spawned a host of imitators and created a whole new market in the pulp industry. Quality, as ever, varied dramatically with many selling purely on lurid cover artwork and promises of racy action packed stories that seldom came to fruition.

The biggest innovation that the hard boiled school brought to detective fiction was the use of the 'first person narrative' to tell the story. Because the detective was so often the narrator, it precluded much of the theoretical process and surprise deductions associated with more traditional detective fiction.
So it is then that we have our hard-boiled hero who prefers to stir a situation up rather than think it out. Being tough is a crucial element of the successful hard boiled character, although interestingly, its two greatest exponents, Hammett and Chandler, tended to demonstrate their characters' toughness not by winning fights but by taking a beating 'like a man' or by staying 'cool' and avoiding a sticky situation with sharp repartee and one liners. These character traits, whilst initially innovative, soon became as cliched as those of the golden age detectives and their predecessors.

It was Hollywood that later cemented our vision in place, with some iconic films, epitomised in 1941 by John Huston in The Maltese Falcon starring Humphrey Bogart. As with golden age, the formula was set in place and whilst modernised over the years it remains fundamentally the same today and detective fiction still falls mainly into two camps - hard or soft.

Hard Boiled Dictionary

Also see
The Origins of Detective Fiction      Sherlock Holmes      The Golden Age of Detective Fiction

Text © 2004 R.D. Collins


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