If you’re a fan of crime books, you’ve probably heard of a sub-genre called hard-boiled or pulp fiction.
There seem to be endless categories of crime listed on Amazon these days. Everything from FBI thrillers to British detective stories, classic mysteries to novels about vigilante justice. Like many readers of the genre, I enjoy pretty much all of it. Give me any of those, and I’m happy.
But I do have my favorite: hard-boiled.
It’s a genre known for gritty realism, violent action, and snappy dialogue made rich with slang. And of course, sleazy, urban settings that create a noir atmosphere.
Picture the black and white detective films of the thirties and forties. A homicide cop in a tan trench coat walking into a smoky bar full of gangsters in pinstripe suits and fedoras. They all turn and look at him. There’s voice-over on top of the action, the detective narrating in first person. It sounds like he’s talking out the side of his mouth.
What always fascinates me about hard-boiled authors is that they often create that entire image just from the sound of the writing and of the characters. Master stylists like Raymond Chandler, George Higgins, and Elmore Leonard immerse their readers in that world by making their narration sound like those old voice-overs. And their dialogue is endlessly fun. It’s full of slang, snappy lines, and such craftsmanship that the writers don’t have to describe characters in detail. You hear them speak and you know who they are.
Those of you who remember your high school English classes may be thinking, “Hey, that’s what Hemingway always did.” You’d be right. Hemingway’s realism and his reliance on dialogue to tell a story were major influences on these hard-boiled writers.
The very first author in this genre, Dashiell Hammett, combined his experiences as a detective with the writing style of Hemingway to create his own works, many of which he contributed to pulp magazines. The first of these was “Fly Paper,” which appeared in the pulp, Black Mask, in 1929.
Pulps, by the way, got their name because they were made on cheap, low-quality wood-pulp paper. By contrast, high-quality magazines were called glossies or slicks. But pulps became famous for their gritty crime, western, and romance stories. Much of modern genre fiction finds some of its roots in these inexpensive magazines.
Comic books do, as well. Are you a Batman fan? D.C. Comics’ initials come from their early series, Detective Comics, which included Batman’s debut. It’s no surprise that many Batman comics show remarkable similarities to pulp crime fiction. Gotham is the epitome of a hard-boiled setting. Characters like the Falcone family fit right into the genre. And Batman himself, often called The World’s Greatest Detective, is a protagonist one could easily see in a hard-boiled novel (but maybe without the cape).
In 1929, the year of Hammett’s groundbreaking “Fly Paper,” American Prohibition Law was still in effect. It was the age of the infamous bootleggers and mobsters. Many hard-boiled books tell stories of cops or private investigators taking on such villains.
It is a strikingly American genre because of its Prohibition-era origins. Prior to hard-boiled crime fiction, the British authors had perfected the classic mystery tale. Often these mysteries would be set in a country house, away from a city. Characters would range from butlers and cooks to the wealthy homeowners and their friends. If you’ve read Agatha Christie’s novels, you know what I’m talking about. If you haven’t, I recommend, And Then There Were None, the best-selling mystery novel of all time… and a great example of this.
Hard-boiled writers broke from that by exchanging the country home for the dirty, gritty, urban settings of big, American cities. The characters became lowlife criminals and tough cops, all of whom spoke in slang-tainted language. It’s a stark contrast to the prim and proper people of classic British mysteries. Prohibition led to a rise in famous organized crime. And this, in turn, gave birth to a hard-hitting and gritty new genre of crime fiction.
Today, you’ll hear about authors such as James Lee Burke, whose hard-boiled stories set in Louisiana continue the traditions of the genre while exploring new elements, such as human nature and settings outside the big city. Then there’s James Ellroy, a modern stylist whose fragmented, staccato writing creates a sound that pulls readers into the atmosphere and attitude of his stories.
So, if you enjoy books that prioritize snappy dialogue, gritty realism, and the sleazy feel of the criminal world, check out hard-boiled fiction.
And look forward to my debut hard-boiled novel… updates on that coming soon!
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“Hard-boiled fiction.” Britannica.net. Encyclopedia Britannica, 11 Sept. 2007. Web. <https://www.britannica.com/art/hard-boiled-fiction>.
Lewin, Matthew. “Modern hardboiled crime.” TheGuardian.com. The Guardian, 17 Jan. 2009. Web. <https://www.theguardian.com/books/2009/jan/18/1000-novels-writing-crime-modern-ellroy>.