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Hardboiled Crime Fiction and Writers on the Halfshell

Given enough time, a hypothetical chimpanzee typing at random would, as part of its output, almost surely produce one of today’s mass-market novels. Of course, these novels might never form a series with titles that conveniently fall into alphabetical order, and they're not likely to be about cats who do various unusual things to solve crimes, but the monkeys might not be too far off. That isn’t to say great fiction doesn’t exist within the book section of our local grocery store, but even so it could easily be argued a great deal of fluff and filler dominates those tiled aisles.

Today the intricacies of publishing and distribution are executed at speeds never before attained. With this speed comes an efficiency which keeps publishing costs down. Books are available to a previously unimaginable mass market. This speed and access to media has also shortened the average reader's attention span, so today's bestseller is often forgotten tomorrow. With this speed a pressure is placed upon publishers to meet the public's demand for new and exciting fiction. Writers must become sensations overnight and then are forgotten as quickly.

Gone are the magazines and pulp fiction houses where young writers were once nurtured; today it seems a new writer must spring forth on the scene fully developed like a literary Venus on the half shell. With the rush to create a frenzy, to write the book with the biggest buzz, writers and publishing houses seem to place quantity before quality. The author who can crank out the most books with the most plot twists, wins. The writer who can appeal to the broadest common denominator becomes a household name at a time when names can become part of a household overnight. But this Venus mentality deprives authors of places where their writing can grow.

An Incubator for Writers

The late 19th century’s vastly increased mechanization of printing, the growth of efficient rail and canal shipping, and ever-growing rates of literacy gave rise to a demand for stories which had never been paralleled in earlier times. In response to this demand, “quantity over quality” seemed to be a mantra of that era's publishing industry. But occasionally a phoenix rises from destruction, producing something which endures, and near the end of the 19th century a magazine called The Strand produced Arthur Conan Doyle’s “Sherlock Holmes”. Many well-known 20th century authors came from pulp fiction of the 1920s-1950s: Dashiell Hammett, Erle Stanley Gardner, Raymond Chandler and Carroll John Daly emerged from the pages of a magazine called Black Mask. Great detective action came from such competing publications as Dime Detective, Thrilling Detective, or Ten Detective Aces. Isaac Asimov, Frederic Pohl, L. Sprague de Camp and Robert E. Howard found outlets for their stories in Argosy, Fantastic Stories, Weird Tales and Galaxy, while Zane Grey, Luke Short and Max Brand were found in Lariat Stories, Western Stories, or Star Western.

Three Pillars of Hardboiled Crime Fiction

Joseph T. Shaw, chief editor of Black Mask, described its typical reader as a stalwart, rugged specimen of humanity – hard as nails, swift of hand and foot, clear-eyed, unprovocative, but ready to tackle anything that gets in the way. Such readers, Shaw contended, despise injustice and cowardly underhandedness and cheer for the right guy to come out on top. This profile became the model for authors who wrote for the publication. A few of this magazine’s writers developed this model to the level of art, creating a new genre in the world of serious literature, a genre called hardboiled crime fiction. Hardboiled crime fiction has proven one of the more enduring remnants of the pulp fiction era.

Throughout the Great Depression and two World Wars, pulp fiction promised an escape from the mundane. For one thin dime, readers could enter the world of gangsters and good guys, cowboys and cattlemen, spaceships and star travelers. Words from the pens of some of the era’s best writers were available at every dry goods store and newsstand. But now those wars are over, and the Great Depression is just a memory, so why do the works of so many authors from this period remain listed among the classics?

Three pillars of the early hardboiled scene are often seen in Dashiell Hammett, James M. Cain, and Raymond Chandler. Where Hammet is said to have originated the consummate hardboiled detective of the hardboiled novel, Chandler is said to have refined him. James M. Cain’s seminal contribution is thought by many to have helped distinguish the genre’s literary merit; his contribution is so earthy he is sometimes called “the twenty-minute egg of the hardboiled school.”

Ace Performer, Dashiel Mammett

For several years Dashiell Hammett cut his teeth writing for Black Mask, taking his own experiences working as a detective for the Pinkerton Agency and turning them into stories. It was at Black Mask that Hammett introduced an unnamed character referred to as "the Continental Op", the antithesis of glamorous all-knowing investigators. This detective lacked the eloquence of Sherlock Holmes, but his rough speech and matter-of-fact attitude became incredibly popular with the reading public. Hammett incorporated "Op" into a full-length novel in 1928 called Red Harvest. The voice in Red Harvest was both penetrating and off-the-cuff. The raw and unadorned style of this psychological thriller became known as "hard boiled".
"If I don't get away soon I'll be going blood simple like the natives," says the Op. "I've arranged a killing or two in my time, when they were necessary. But this is the first time I've ever got the fever".

As Raymond Borde and Etienne Chaumeton point out in “Towards a Definition of Film Noir”, prior to World War II convention dictated a beautiful heroine and an honest hero; we expected a clear line between good and bad, as well as clear motives, and the action should develop logically. But similar to his other writing, Dashiell Hammett's 1930 hardboiled crime novel The Maltese Falcon delivers a flawed hero with a murderous heroine. There is no Superman with a chaste fiancée, but somehow still we care about them; we seem to have misplaced our moral compass.

Although Dashiell Hammet produced only five novels he is remembered as one of the most influential writers of his time. While the intellectualized mysteries of earlier detective novels gave us the arm-chair sleuth who solved crime at a safe distance from danger, Hammett gave us somewhat less-than-glamorous realism. Hammett's 1934 novel The Thin Man was repeatedly censored for its depiction of a couple living a liquor-soaked open. Because of Hammet's explorations in realism, the hard boiled genre represented a serious response to the urban culture of the day.

Raymond Chandler summarized Hammett's accomplishments:
"Hammett was the ace performer... He is said to have lacked heart; yet the story he himself thought the most of [The Glass Key] is the record of a man's devotion to a friend. He was spare, frugal, hard-boiled, but he did over and over again what only the best writers can ever do at all. He wrote scenes that seemed never to have been written before.”

The Twenty-Minute Egg of the Hardboiled School, James M. Cain

David Madden referred to James M. Cain as "the twenty-minute egg of the hardboiled school." Cain's writing style is hard boiled, pared down to essential phrases with terse, almost brutal simplicity.

However, Cain resented the categorization and stated he merely tried to write the way real people talk. He further explained his writing style:
I, so far as I can sense the pattern of my mind, write of the wish that comes true, for some reason a terrifying concept, at least to my imagination. I think my stories have some quality of the opening of a forbidden box.

The content of Cain's forbidden box, according to W. M. Frohock in The Novel of Violence in America: 1920-1950 "Invariably turns out to be sex, experienced with perfect animal intensity, sometimes with a little hint of the abnormal or the forbidden about it."

Although Cain kept his stance, insisting to Zinsser and other interviewers his interest was not in violence, Frohock argued "Sex, so conceived, is inseparable from violence. Violence is at once associated with the sexual act itself, and made an inevitable accompaniment of anything which tends to frustrate the sexual experience. In addition violence stimulates sexual activity, as in the scene of Nick's murder [The Postman Always Rings Twice]. For Cain, sex and violence are not so much subjects as necessary accessories of the plot."

In "It's Chinatown", Kevin Starr describes the typical Cain story:
A Cain story rushes forward with the headlong pace of a writer who has left everything save narrative on the cutting room floor. Yet we put Cain down with a conviction of social density and accomplished experience; for he triggers in us an act of imaginative cooperation. Convinced that Cain's fables of lust, murder and money are true to the epistructure of life in the urban-industrial complex, the reader amplifies and visualizes the details, like a director working from the bare bones of a story line.... Hollywood transformed Cain's cinematic narratives into great movies, and the movies in turn conferred upon the Cain canon a more ample and substantial life than it would have had on its own. Reading Cain, then, is a mixed media event . . .. (pp. 31-2)

The narrative in a James M. Cain novel almost never stops the showing to tell. He is overtly tough in diction and action. In The Postman Always Rings Twice Frank and Cora have just murdered her husband Nick. The narrative is quick, just the murder's essential actions, and ends with this scene:
I began to fool with her blouse, to bust the buttons, so she would look banged up. She was looking at me, and her eyes didn't look blue, they looked black. I could feel her breath coming fast. Then it stopped, and she leaned real close to me.

"Rip me! Rip me!"

I ripped her. I shoved my hand in her blouse and jerked. She was wide open, from her throat to her belly.

"You got that climbing out. You caught it in the door handle."

My voice sounded queer, like it was coming out of a tin phonograph.

"And this you don't know how you got."

I hauled off and hit her in the eye as hard as I could. She went down. She was right there at my feet, her eyes shining, her breasts trembling, drawn up in tight points, and pointing right up at me. She was down there, and the breath was roaring in the back of my throat like I was some kind of a animal, and my tongue was all swelled up in my mouth, and blood pounding in it.

"Yes! Yes, Frank, yes!"

Next thing I knew, I was down there with her, and we were staring in each other's eyes, and locked in each other's arms, and straining to get closer. Hell could have opened for me then, and it wouldn't have made any difference. I had to have her, if I hung for it.

I had her.

Of his generation's tough-guy writers, Hammett and Chandler included, Cain offers the most brutal, elemental, and deeply pessimistic view of human events and possibilities. His narrative has the impersonal objectivity of the camera eye. Aesthetic distance is created from his neutral and dispassionate attitude toward the basic elements of his novels. These techniques force us back to the pure experience itself.

"Cain and other hard-boiled writers," Madden explained, "wrote not only about but mainly to the masses, giving violent impetus to their forbidden dreams, dramatizing their darkest temptations and their basic physical drives."

William Rose Benet likened Cain's characters to the people you read about in the daily newspapers. "They are chiefly stupid, slightly pathetic, capable of rape, arson, or murder in a sort of dumb, driven way. They have glimmers of decency, passions that overcome them, and are chiefly selfish and morally composed of gelatin while being big, husky brutes to outward view."

Cain's novels were populated with, if not realistic, at least life-like characters. Like other novelists of the 1930s, Cain moved to Hollywood to write for the movies. But once there, he looked around and noted what he saw. Although he had tried to write fiction for more than a decade prior, this reflection on his surroundings produced his breakthrough with the 1934 publication of The Postman Always Rings Twice, arguably one of the finest moments of depression-era literature.

The Gentleman of Hardboiled Detective Fiction, Raymond Chandler

Raymond Chandler has been labeled American literature's finest writer of hard-boiled detective fiction. His first novel The Big Sleep contained language foreign to the pulp fiction which gave it birth. It’s a tough, cynical language, but with a touch of poetry. Marlowe’s consideration of death (the “big sleep” of the title) echoes Hamlet: “To sleep, perchance to dream- ay, there’s the rub."
You were dead, you were sleeping the big sleep, you were not bothered by things like that, oil and water were the same as wind and air to you. You just slept the big sleep, not caring about the nastiness of how you died or where you fell. Me, I was part of the nastiness now. Far more a part of it than Rusty Regan was.

Ross Macdonald, Chandler's admirer and literary heir declared in his introduction to Matthew J. Bruccoli's Kenneth Millar/Ross Macdonald: A Checklist, Chandler was a "slumming angel" who transformed the detective story into a critique of American culture's more base aspects. Chandler’s signature style featured bare, sparse, ironic sentences. His narrative conveyed a feeling many subsequent authors have tried to forge.
She wore brownish speckled tweeds, a mannish shirt and tie, hand-carved walking shoes. Her stockings were just as sheer as the day before, but she wasn't showing as much of her legs. Her black hair was glossy under a brown Robin Hood hat that might have cost fifty dollars and looked as if you could have made it with one hand out of a desk blotter.

Often, plot and characterization are rocketed forward in the span of a few sentences. Chandler’s descriptions paint vivid characters using a minimum of words:
Vivian is spoiled, exacting, smart and quite ruthless. Carmen is a child who likes to pull wings off flies. Neither of them has anymore moral sense than a cat. Neither have I. No Sternwood ever had.

Even though Chandler's heroes changed little, remaining the same grizzled romantics holding to an ideal of gallantry, his storytelling developed through important changes. In the 1930s Chandler's stories centered more and more on the protagonists' struggle toward moral equilibrium. In the 1935 novel Killer in the Rain Chandler increased the hero's alienation and ethical predicament through first-person narration, a technique often borrowed by later authors.

But Chandler himself reworked devices from his predecessor Dashiell Hammett. While more verbally adventurous than Hammett, Chandler borrowed his hero-as-narrator device while producing an original narrative pattern which blended underworld vernacular with poetry. As Peter Wolfe wrote in Something More than Night: The Case of Raymond Chandler, Chandler created a darkly lyrical prose that turned his stories into "metaphors of the urban nightmare."

Chandler worked to move detective fiction away from the "whodunit" mentality. In his essay "The Simple Art of Murder," Chandler lambasted the fashionable whodunits as "middling-dull, pooped-out piece[s] of utterly unreal and mechanical fiction," and he advocated the study of crimes rooted in "the seamy side of things"--of murders perpetrated by "the kind of people that commit it for reasons, not just to provide a corpse."

Chandler left a legacy of evocative power and metaphoric energy to the regional literature of southern California, making it stand as an emblem of the latent pathologies of American life. He created enduring images of the dark forces of contemporary experience.

Biographer Frank MacShane summarized Chandler's achievement by calling him "a prophet of modern America," one whose vision "has become increasingly fulfilled."

Where Can Today's Writer Mature?

Magazines like Black Mask, which developed writers like Hammett and Chandler, have fallen along the wayside. The pulp fiction publications which nurtured James M. Cain have disappeared and there does not seem to be a large-scale replacement in sight. Because stories can now be so easily published in books, magazines have turned to other mass-appeal topics. Small publishing houses cannot compete with the mega mass market publishers, and have turned to other material. But while today’s Venus novelists might appear on the scene, and in the book racks, fully grown, are they fully mature as well? Is it possible for them to mature without the requisite time for development?

A new novel can appear in homes across the country in a matter of days. So if an author achieves overnight success on such a large scale, will that author often have the motivation necessary to deepen his craft? It doesn't seem likely. There isn’t time, since the first book will soon be forgotten and another must be written to take its place. What once seemed a blessing, the ability to mass produce and distribute large works of fiction, may have become the literary world's ultimate curse. Not only that, but with the new-found popularity of electronic books and readers, the curse seems destined to intensify.

Hardboiled crime fiction of the depression era was born of unique circumstances in the publishing world, nourished by the unique and imaginative responses of its writers. But without a similar place to grow, today's writers may not be afforded the opportunity to match the innovation of Hammett, Cain, and Chandler.

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