Hard Boiled Detectives

What comes to mind when I say the word hard-boiled. Yup, for me too –I think of hardboiled eggs. What? You say you think of one of the mystery genres. Of course you are absolutely correct, but let’s talk about eggs for a moment. A hard-boiled egg is one that has been thoroughly cooked with a tough exterior and no gooey center. Sounds like a hard-boiled detective to me.

The start of the hard-boiled detective is credited to Carroll John Daly who first introduced this type of detective in the mid 20’s. Then Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler are acknowledged as polishing the genre over the next decade. The heyday for hardboiled detective fiction was the 1930’s through the 1950’s.

Pulp Fiction

Initially, hardboiled detective stories were published in pulp magazines like Black Mask, Dime Detective and Detective Fiction Weekly. These magazines were printed on cheap (pulp) paper with ragged, untrimmed edges. Later as the genre developed into novels they were referred to as “Pulp” fiction because of their early history in these magazines.

Hard-Boiled Mysteries

Even with their Pulp Fiction moniker hard-boiled stories do resemble other mysteries. We meet the detective. Then a crime is committed and the detective starts an investigation. We follow the investigation through to a solution where the criminal is revealed, caught and punished. But make no mistake hard-boiled stories are different.

Other Mysteries vs. Hard-boiled Mysteries

In amateur sleuth mysteries we find ourselves in the better part of suburbia or the lovely country side.  People are hard working, ordinary white collar, middle or upper class residents of the community.

In comparison the hard-boiled detective’s office is often in a run-down, half empty building in the seedier side of town. The detective moves from these outskirts and confronts people from the higher levels of society. The detective comes across as blue collar versus the white collar clients he is helping. He represents the ordinary man who is confronted with decisions often beyond the realm of normal everyday life.

Let’s use The Maltese Falcon as our example of a hard-boiled detective story.

While the detective operates on the edge of society some of the characters in the story also appear to be on the fringe of what is normal. For example, Joel Cairo uses a lavender scent on his handkerchiefs and business cards and Kasper Gutman is so large he is known as the “Fat Man.”

Another difference between hard-boiled detectives and other sleuths is that this detective in addition to solving the crime is also faced with some sort of personal choice.  Sam Spade has to decide whether to turn over the murderer of his partner to the police or save them from serving a jail sentence.

Failure or Rebel

The detective’s way of life may seem a failure but in fact it may be more of a rebellion. Although the rich and powerful try to draw him into their world he refuses to join them. Their world is filled with corruption and violence and only by remaining on the outside is the detective able to stay true to his beliefs.  Spade will interface with the characters but refuses to join them in their criminal activities and in their search for the elusive black bird.


There is much more violence in a hard-boiled story than the original murder and this violence is often directed at the detective. He might be beaten, drugged, or even shot. In one scene Spade is drugged so Gutman can steal back his money.

His client might try to bribe him to end his investigation. He might also be threatened with the loss of his license as he interacts with law enforcement and the members of society.

The detective has a relationship with law enforcement on a dual level. On the one hand he is respected and even admired because he gets results, but on the other hand law enforcement knows he often gets those results through practices outside of the law. And as part of this relationship with the law the hard-boiled detective often finds himself a suspect in the crime. Sam Spade is suspected of his partner’s murder because of the affair he was having with Miles wife.

The Case is Always Changing

There are constant changes to the case. The detective is often hired to do something unrelated to what ultimately becomes the crime in the case. For instance Spade’s detective agency is hired initially to find Wonderly’s sister. The case starts with looking for the sister, but quickly becomes the solving his partner’s murder and of course the search for the falcon. The bird clouds the picture even more.

The Story Gets Personal

The hard boiled story has a personal element. The victim is often a friend of or known by the detective. For Spade it’s his partner Miles who is killed. And there is almost always the fem fatale, like Bridgette O’Shaughnessy, who challenges the detective to make the right decision.

The Hard-Boiled Conclusion

As with all mysteries the story ends with a confrontation between the detective and the criminal. For the hard-boiled detective the satisfaction is not with catching the criminal but making the right personal and moral choice in the end.  Keeping this in mind the hard-boiled detective is often both the judge and the executioner making sure his brand of justice and morality is satisfied.

Don’t ignore this genre of mystery. It may be tough, violent and hard-boiled but it offers a  great story.

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