Although sometimes maligned for its pulp-magazine origins, Hard Boiled Detective fiction has become a fixture in romantic literature. The genre delights in emphasizing emotions of apprehension, terror, awe, and even horror while filtering the emotions through the cynicism of the protagonist. The cynicism results as a reaction to the violence that the protagonist faces.
The typical Hard Boiled Hero faces senseless violence on a daily basis, and the hero’s cynicism is a defense to help prevent him from going mad. In some cases, it may be a manifestation of madness. In any case, it is this very cynicism that we enjoy in the Hard Boiled stories.
With this in mind, it is interesting to take a look at some of our favorite Hard Boiled authors. These are the minds that have given life to many of the stories which have delighted radio listeners, movie goers, and readers for decades. Were these minds as troubled as the characters they created suggest? Perhaps so, in some cases. In others, the writer seems to be having as much fun as we are.
James M Cain (1892-1977) personally hated labeling, but came to personify the Hard-Boiled novelist and screenwriter. Cain’s most famous novels, Double Indemnity and The Postman Always Rings Twice are tales of infidelity and murder. Both novels have been retold several times on the screen. The stories were apparently inspired by the true-life case of Ruth Synder, the New York housewife who plotted with her lover to murder her husband for the insurance money. Both were executed in Sing Sing’s electric chair.
John Dickson Carr (1906-1977) was a master of the plot driven “closed door mystery”. An American who spent time in Great Britain, Carr is often grouped with English Mystery authors. In addition to his novels, Carr penned a number of scripts for Suspense, and his radio play Cabin B-13 was expanded to an entire CBS series. During WWII, he wrote mystery and propaganda scripts for the BBC.
Frederic Brown (1906-1972) is best remembered as a Sci Fi author and a master of the “Short-short” form of storytelling (many of his best works are less than 1000, some less than 500 words long). Many of his stories have been adapted for popular Sci Fi television, including the Star Trek episode “Arena”. Brown’s crime novels are noteworthy for their tight plotting and riveting suspense, reminding us of the noir influences of Cornell Woolrich.
Patricia Highsmith (1921-1995) wrote crime fiction almost exclusively, but her work is considered to be artistic and thoughtful enough to rival mainstream fiction. European critics consider her to be an important psychological novelist, pretty good for someone whose writing career began by writing for comic books. Her novel, Strangers On A Train was first adapted for the screen by Alfred Hitchcock.
John Micheal Hayes (1919-2005) is remembered for his screenwriting collaboration with Alfred Hitchcock. He had missed much of his primaries schooling due to recurring ear infections, but while bed ridden he developed a passion for reading. Hayes began writing for radio while in college after winning a contest sponsored by the Crosley Corporation. After serving in WWII, he moved to California and continued his radio career, contributing scripts to The Adventures of Sam Spade, Inner Sanctum Mysteries, My Favorite Husband, Your’s Truly, Johnny Dollar, and others. Radio success led to a call from Universal, and eventually to collaboration with Hitchcock on four films, including Rear Window.
Dashiell Hammett (1894-1961) has been called “the dean of the ‘hard-boiled’ school of detective fiction”. Hammett was an agent for the Pinkerton Detective Agency before he began writing (he found the agency’s role in union busting distasteful, however). His best known stories include The Maltese Falcon, which introduced Sam Spade, The Thin Man with Nick and Nora Charles. Hammett’s nameless character, the Continental Op is considered the prototype for the most popular Hard Boiled characters, including Hammett’s own Sam Spade, Chandler’s Philip Marlowe, Spillane’s Mike Hammer, and several others.
Cornell Woolrich (1903-1968) has had more of his stories adapted to film noir scripts than any other author in the Hard Boiled Genre. He began writing Jazz Age romance novels, but turned to detective fiction, often writing under pseudonyms. Many of his stories were adapted for Suspense.
Raymond Chandler (1888-1959) turned to writing pulp fiction at the age or 44 after losing his job as an oil company executive. Chandler and his character Philip Marlowe had an enormous influence on the style of hard-boiled fiction. Indeed, Marlowe as portrayed by Humphrey Bogart, is considered the model for movie Hard Boiled Detectives.