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The cover of seminal hardboiled magazine Black Mask, September 1929, featuring part 1 of its serialization of The Maltese Falcon, by Dashiell Hammett. Illustration of private eye Sam Spade by Henry C. Murphy, Jr

Hardboiled (or hard-boiled) fiction is a literary genre that shares some of its characters and settings with crime fiction (especially detective stories). The genre's typical protagonist is a detective who witnesses the violence of organized crime that flourished during Prohibition (1920-1933) and its aftermath, while dealing with a legal system that has become as corrupt as the organized crime itself.[1] Rendered cynical by this cycle of violence, the detectives of hardboiled fiction are often antiheroes. Notable hardboiled detectives include Philip Marlowe, Mike Hammer, Sam Spade, Lew Archer, and The Continental Op.

The genre's pioneers

The style was pioneered by Carroll John Daly in the mid-1920s,[2] popularized by Dashiell Hammett over the course of the decade, and refined by James M. Cain and by Raymond Chandler beginning in the late 1930s.[3] Its heyday was in 1930s-50s America.[4]

Pulp fiction

Photo by Paolo Monti, 1975
Femmes fatales were standard fare in hardboiled fiction.

From its earliest days, hardboiled fiction was published in and closely associated with so-called pulp magazines, most famously Black Mask under the editorship of Joseph T. Shaw.[3][5] In its earliest uses in the late 1920s, "hardboiled" did not refer to a type of crime fiction; it meant the tough (cynical) attitude towards emotions triggered by violence.

Hardboiled writing is also associated with "noir fiction". Eddie Duggan discusses the similarities and differences between the two related forms in his 1999 article on pulp writer par excellence, Cornell Woolrich.[6] In his full-length study of David Goodis, Jay Gertzman notes: "The best definition of hard boiled I know is that of critic Eddie Duggan. In noir, the primary focus is interior: psychic imbalance leading to self-hatred, aggression, sociopathy, or a compulsion to control those with whom one shares experiences. By contrast, hard boiled 'paints a backdrop of institutionalized social corruption'" [7]

Pulp historian Robert Sampson argues that Gordon Young's "Don Everhard" stories (which appeared in Adventure magazine from 1917 onwards), about an "extremely tough, unsentimental, and lethal" gun-toting urban gambler, anticipated the hardboiled detective stories.[8]

Black Mask moved exclusively to publishing detective stories in 1933,[9] and pulp's exclusive reference to crime fiction probably became fixed around that time,[] although it's impossible to pin down with precision. The hardboiled crime story became a staple of several pulp magazines in the 1930s; in addition to Black Mask, hardboiled crime fiction appeared in Dime Detective and Detective Fiction Weekly.[10][11] Later, many hardboiled novels were published by houses specializing in paperback originals, also colloquially known as "pulps".

Consequently, "pulp fiction" is often used as a synonym for hardboiled crime fiction or gangster fiction;[12] some would distinguish within it the private-eye story from the crime novel itself.[13] In the United States, the original hardboiled style has been emulated by innumerable writers, including Jim Butcher, James Ellroy, Sue Grafton, Chester Himes, Paul Levine, John D. MacDonald, Ross Macdonald, Walter Mosley, Sara Paretsky, Robert B. Parker, and Mickey Spillane.

See also


  1. ^ Porter, Dennis (2003). "Chapter 6: The Private Eye". In Priestman, Martin (ed.). The Cambridge Companion to Crime Fiction. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. pp. 96-97. ISBN 978-0-521-00871-6.
  2. ^ Ousby, I (1995). "Black Mask". The Cambridge Guide to Literature in English. p. 89.
  3. ^ a b Collins, Max Allan (1994). de Andrea, William L (ed.). "The Hard-Boiled Detective". Encyclopedia Mysteriosa. MacMillan. pp. 153-4. ISBN 978-0-02-861678-0.
  4. ^ Abbott, Megan (2002). The Street Was Mine: White Masculinity in Hardboiled Fiction and Film Noir. pp. 2-3..
  5. ^ Budrys, Algis (October 1965). "Galaxy Bookshelf". Galaxy Science Fiction. pp. 142-150.
  6. ^ Duggan, Eddie (1999). "Writing in the darkness: The world of Cornell Woolrich". CrimeTime. 2 (6): 113-126.
  7. ^ Gertzman, J. A. (2018). Pulp According to David Goodis. Lutz, FL: Down & Out Books. p. 53.
  8. ^ Sampson, Robert & Deandrea, William L. (Editor) (1994). "Pulps". Encyclopedia Mysteriosa. MacMillan. pp. 287-9. ISBN 978-0-02-861678-0.CS1 maint: uses authors parameter (link) "Extremely tough, unsentimental and lethal, Everhard foreshadowed the hard-boiled characters of the following decade".
  9. ^ Abbott, Megan. "Toward a Hardboiled Genealogy" (PDF). p. 16. Hardboiled/noir "family tree", by crime fiction author and scholar Megan Abbott.
  10. ^ Sampson, Robert & Deandrea, William L. (Editor) (1994). "Pulps". Encyclopedia Mysteriosa. MacMillan. pp. 287-9. ISBN 978-0-02-861678-0.CS1 maint: uses authors parameter (link)
  11. ^ "Mystery Time Line: Hard-Boiled Mysteries". MysteryNet. A brief survey of the genre's early days, focusing on Black Mask.
  12. ^ Hoggart, Richard (1957). The Uses of Literacy. p. 258.
  13. ^ Abbott, Megan. "Toward a Hardboiled Genealogy" (PDF). pp. 10-11. Hardboiled/noir "family tree", by crime fiction author and scholar Megan Abbott.

Further reading

External links

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