The Hardboiled Roots of Modern Mysteries

I’ve always liked mysteries. Maybe it’s genetic. My parents and I pass around the latest volumes of various mystery series and devour them like candy. One of the longest-standing series that my dad has been following is the Spenser series by Robert Parker, and there are a lot of them around the house, just waiting to be picked up. In my post-graduate school period of unemployment, I read quite a few, and it’s clear that Spenser is one of the few remaining hardboiled detectives.

As the Wikipedia article defines them, hardboiled detectives have the following characteristics:

  • He is a private investigator working alone. He is between 35 and 45 years or so, and both a loner and a tough guy.
  • Displaying numerous macho attributes, he is certainly no family man and he does not associate with lots of friends either. Alone at home, his usual diet consists of fried eggs, black coffee and cigarettes.
  • He meets his casual acquaintances at his favourite haunts, which are shady all-night bars where he turns out to be a heavy drinker without ever getting too drunk to be unaware of his surroundings or unable to defend himself when attacked.
  • He always “wears” a gun and does not mind shooting criminals if the necessity arises, or being beaten up if it helps him solve a case. He certainly has a penchant for attractive “dames”, especially the gorgeous blonde clients, many a femme fatale among them, who come to his shabby little office on one of the upper floors of a downtown highrise to have their unfaithful husbands shadowed by a private eye.
  • He is always short of cash and invariably asks for a down payment. Cases that at first seem easy and straightforward, often turn out to be quite complicated, forcing him to embark on an odyssey through the urban landscape which often involves having to deal with organized crime (“rackets”) and low life of all sorts crowding the “mean streets” of urban America, preferably Los Angeles, New York, or Chicago. This is how he acquires his reputation as a troublemaker.
  • A hard-boiled private eye has an ambivalent attitude towards the police. On the one hand, he realizes that both the “cops” and he himself are fighting on the same side. On the other hand, especially where police corruption and foul play are involved, it is his ambition to save America and rid it of its mean elements all by himself.

Though mystery stories and fictional detectives have certainly developed and branched out since the heyday of pulp fiction in the 1920s and 30s, the influence it had on the popular mystery is still clear. That’s why I found it so interesting to listen to this story on NPR the other day, Pulp Fiction Murdered Long Sentences, which features an interview with a guy who has put together a big anthology of pulp mysteries. He’s clearly both extremely knowledgeable about the history of his subject matter, as well as extremely enthusiastic, which in my opinion makes for the best kind of person to listen to.

They’ve also posted the entirety of one of the stories that he refers to as an excellent exemplar of the time and style, Stag Party by Charles G. Booth. I’ve been having a great time reading it, because I can definitely see the bones of many of the more modern series I read now, but definitely in a different place and time.

-posted by Dana


2 Responses to The Hardboiled Roots of Modern Mysteries

  1. kidsilkhaze says:

    There was an Morning Edition story about hard boiled detectives earlier this week! I missed the actual story, but they referenced it this morning!

  2. Dana says:

    Indeed there was; it is in fact the story I linked to in the post. People were writing letters of complaint because the guy interviewed said that this one particular author was the “first” to write serialized stories about a private detective. I assumed he meant in the hardboiled, short sentences style, since that’s what they’d been talking about the whole time, but a lot of people felt the need to say, “Nuh-uh! Sherlock Holmes was way before that guy!” Which is true, but Holmes very rarely, if ever, got into a fist fight, and he very much endeavored to avoid the dames.

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