Tough Guys with Long Legs: The Global Popularity of the Hard-Boiled Style
J. MADISON DAVIS
Every year in July since 1987, a weeklong festival called the Semana Negra is held in Gijón, Spain. The whole event is rather like a county fair, with a Ferris wheel, acrobats, spicy chorizos on buns, and dancing until dawn under a big top. There are no prize-winning bulls or ears of corn, however, because the festivities are all in honor of the "black novel" (novela negra), or crime novel. Writers such as K. Arne Blom (Sweden), Chris Rippen (the Netherlands), Susan Moody and Michael Dibden (UK), Helga Anderle (Austria), José Latour (Cuba), Eric Wright and Peter Robinson (Canada), and Americans such as Roger Simon, Martin Cruz Smith, Wendy Hornsby, Joseph Wambaugh, and Stuart Kaminsky have been guests over the years. Writers replace the county fair's agricultural products, and, as one writer remarked, when visitors drop in on panel discussions of the current state of crime writing and publishing, the corn is of an entirely different variety.
The first time I was invited (1989), the question directed at my panel was, "¿Ha muerto Raymond Chandler?" (Is Raymond Chandler dead?). In other words, was the tradition of hard-boiled crime writing (most lucidly interpreted by Chandler in his novels and the essay "The Simple Art of Murder") about to take the big sleep?1 Fans of this subgenre of mysteries and writers had been shocked throughout the 1980s by the cancellation of contracts for books in the hard-boiled vein. Mickey Spillane, the creator of Mike Hammer, had been parodying himself in Lite beer commercials. The trench-coated, wise-cracking private eye had begun to seem like a strange, irrelevant, politically incorrect visitor from another time. Nevertheless, the panel presciently agreed that reports of his death were greatly exaggerated. The most vocal defenders of the genre, curiously, were not the Americans but the Europeans and the Latin Americans who found in the hard-boiled detective story a vehicle for their own particular intentions as writers. Often these defenses consisted largely of an attack on the "British mystery" and writers such as G. K. Chesterton, S. S. Van Dine, and others, but the most frequent target was Agatha Christie.
By way of background, I should explain that crime writing emphasizing the intellectual problem of "whodunit" is often called the "British mystery." It evolved primarily from Arthur Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes stories, through Christie's Hercule Poirot and Jane Marple, Dorothy Sayers's Lord Peter Wimsey, and many others. Sayers called the British style "intellectual" and the American style "sensational." The hard-boiled or "American mystery" developed its more urban, violent, and sexy detectives in such pulp magazines as Black Mask, with Chandler and Dashiell Hammett, despite their stylistic differences, usually considered the geniuses of the American form.2 These national distinctions are not absolute. Sherlock Holmes and the "British detective" is derived almost entirely from Auguste Dupin, the creation of Edgar Allan Poe. There is also much of the hard-boiled detective about Holmes. He's pretty tough. He's handy with a gun and even his fists. He has a network of informants in the underworld and often goes undercover. Chandler was educated at Oxford University, and his mother was English. Many Americans write what basically are British-style mysteries (Martha Grimes, Elizabeth George, and Carolyn G. Hart, for example), and many British now write in the American vein. However, the distinction between the subgenres is fairly consistent, regardless of the author's nationality.
In that humid tent in Spain in 1989, it soon became apparent to me that the British style is frequently less compatible with the non-English culture's or writer's interests, and also that what Americans value in the hard-boiled detective is not necessarily what Latin American and European authors value in it. For Americans, these novels and stories are about the hero. The rugged individual faces evil, gets thumped, and delivers righteous thumpery in return. "Down these mean streets," writes Chandler, "a man must go."3 Later it was demonstrated that the hero doesn't have to be a man. The hard-boiled subgenre was revitalized commercially in the United States by the invention of tough women detectives by such writers as Sue Grafton, Sara Paretsky, and Marcia Muller, but whether the protagonist is male or female, character is the primary issue for Americans. There is not much difference between the hero of most Westerns and the American-style detective. Some writers, such as Loren Estleman and Elmore Leonard, easily transition between the two genres.
Two aspects of the hard-boiled style, however, have given it legs to stride around the globe. The first is the element of social commentary. This appears as an outgrowth of the realism that Chandler and others insist is essential in writing about crime. Chandler begins "The Simple Art of Murder" with the statement, "Fiction in any form has always intended to be realistic." He then spends much time mocking the British mystery, particularly The Red House by A. A. Milne, for its lack of realism. Sex and bloody violence are required to "tell it like it is," and a vivid portrait of social issues often accompanies the quest for unblinking realism. At the beginning of Chandler's Farewell, My Lovely (1940), for example, the police detective investigating a stabbing in an African American bar complains that he'll never get promoted if he keeps getting sent out to investigate "shine killings." This racist observation is unfortunately a pretty fair assessment of the cop's reality, and not just for the time period of the novel. Remember the recent complaints that crimes against blonde, blue-eyed children get more media coverage than those against nonwhite children? "It is not a fragrant world," as Chandler remarks, "but it is the world you live in."4
This impulse toward realism pushed the hard-boiled novel to evolve in another direction as well. Contrary to all the novels and stories inspired by the world's first consulting detective, Sherlock Holmes, the private detective in the real world rarely investigates murder and is often prohibited from doing so. In some states, a p.i. is not normally allowed to carry a gun. Most of them spend their time serving legal documents or locating missing people. Writers lived with these inconsistencies for some time--even Hammett, who had worked for the Pinkerton National Detective Agency. Other writers, such as Lawrence Treat, Ed McBain, and Joseph Wambaugh, responded by developing what has come to be called the "police procedural," in which investigators are members of the police force, restricted by normal procedures, often surrounded by corrupt police and city officials, and, like the hard-boiled private eye, frequently world-weary, lonely, and troubled.
The police procedural form of novel has been very appealing around the globe, but particularly in Britain, where the style caused a schism between the traditionalists and the young lions. Peter Robinson, a Canadian author born in Yorkshire, was interviewing Ian Rankin, a Scot and one of the leading practitioners of what might be called the "hard-boiled cop," when he mentioned that he thought the distinctions between American and British police fiction had become extremely blurred. Rankin responded that it had blurred among almost all nations.
All that's happened in Britain is that crime writers have started, in the main, to write about the world around them. This produces a more troubling body of work, in that evil is not always punished (or even defined!), good guys and bad guys have been replaced by "grey guys," the crimes themselves are no longer bloodless (no more rare poisons or blunt instruments), and so, these newer books tend to produce fewer happy endings, and make the reader think harder about the big moral questions, because few spinsters or titled gentlemen are on hand these days to solve the mysteries for us.5
There are many who think that several British writers such as Rankin, Val McDermid, and John Harvey were even edgier than their American counterparts and, because of the interchange of influence, pushed the Americans even further. Perhaps the underlying American faith in change and redemption resisted sailing as far into the darkness of contemporary life as the world-weary Brits, but, if so, authors such as Dennis Lehane, Jason Starr, Walter Mosley, and Richard Price have roared upstream in pursuit of them.
Unfortunately for non-anglophone authors, most American publishers do not believe that foreign-language crime novels are of interest to their readers. This could be, in part, because the publishers do not think that American mystery readers are really interested in confronting social issues in their entertainment. Instead, publishers tend to believe that American readers want untroubling entertainment. Translators also increase the expense of production, which can be an excuse to kill a manuscript expected to have minimal profits. Not just commercial publishers, but even university presses are hesitant to publish translated books. "It's expensive," remarked Donna Shear, the director of Northwestern University Press, "and the sales aren't there."6 For these reasons, not many foreign-language authors get the chance to leap into the American market, the largest world book market, although American popular fiction is published regularly abroad.7 Swedish author Henning Mankell, a part-year resident of Mozambique, whose style is often compared with Ian Rankin's, was one of the lucky ones. He managed to garner much attention and a Los Angeles Times Book Award nomination in 2003 with his novel One Step Behind (1997), a dark novel featuring Inspector Kurt Wallander. American George Pelecanos won the award, evening the score for Mankell's Sidetracked, having bested him a year earlier in the Gold Macallan Dagger award granted by the Crime Writers Association in Great Britain. Mankell has been translated into nineteen languages, but he is still not a household name in the United States. Danish author Peter Høeg managed a huge best-seller with Smilla's Sense of Snow (1993), which featured one of the toughest female characters ever featured in a crime novel. Wife and husband team Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö were widely translated from their native Swedish in a series of police procedurals, whose intention was (said Sjöwall) "to use the crime novel as a scalpel cutting open the belly of the ideological pauperized and morally debatable so-called welfare state of the bourgeois type."8 Umberto Eco's Il nome della rosa (1980; Eng. The Name of the Rose, 1983) was, of course, a huge seller for Harcourt, Brace in 1983. Akashic Books, a small press in New York run by rock musician Johnny Temple, recently scored two unusual successes by publishing José Latour's The Outcast (1999, written in English) and classics professor Daniel Chavarría's Adiós Muchachos (2001), both of which defied the odds by being nominated for the Edgar Allan Poe Award given by the Mystery Writers of America. Adiós Muchachos won an Edgar for best original paperback, despite being a translation. Both writers are residents of Cuba, although Chavarría was born in Uruguay. According to an international legend he will neither verify nor deny, Chavarría flew to Cuba as a young man by hijacking a plane.9
Japanese fiction in the twentieth century (particularly that of Junichiro Tanizaki) was heavily influenced by Poe, but crime fiction as a genre there begins in 1923 with Hirai Taro, who wrote under the name Edogawa Rampo in order to honor the American author. Noir is a style the Japanese enthusiastically adopted after being introduced to it in 1953 by Hayakawa Publishers' translation of Mickey Spillane's The Big Kill. Several Japanese women writers have made a mark with police procedurals, including Yoshiki Shibata and Kaoru Takamura. Natsuo Kirino in Hoho ni kakuru ame (1993; Rain dropping on cheeks) created a woman private eye, which is a little unusual, as the profession is not common for either sex in Japan. Other notable hard-boiled writers in Japan include Jiro Ikushima, Yoshinaga Fujita, Kenzo Kitakata, and Mangetsu Hanamura, who incorporates homosexuality and graphic violence.
For writers in Germany, one of the world's top three book markets, the development of crime fiction was complicated by the long separation of East and West.10 In East Germany, commenting on corruption in society might attract investigation by the Stasi, if not imprisonment. The individualism required by the private detective was an impossibility, since everyone was an employee of the state. All investigations were conducted by the Volkspolizei (the "people's police"). According to official doctrine, most crimes were eliminated by state socialism, so there was little about which to write. Espionage writing was cartoonish--the Kundschafter für den Frieden ("agent of peace") battled conniving capitalist spies. In West Germany, the development of crime fiction was influenced by postwar translations of English-language novels, and the initial German novels tended to be puzzle-oriented. In the mid-1960s, however, NDK (Neuer Deutscher Krimi, "New German Crime Fiction") grew out of the protest movements sweeping the world. The leading NDK writers were Michael Molsner, Hans-Jörg Martin, Friedrich Werremeier, Stefan Murr, and Irene Rodrian. These writers insisted on a hard-boiled realism. After this breakthrough, the so-called Sozio-Krimi movement focusing on social commentary was born. It is usually credited to prolific Berlin professor Horst Bosetzky, who incorporated more American-style action into his stories and used the pseudonyms John Taylor and John Drake at first but became legendary as "-Ky." By moving toward "hard-boiled" crime writing, Germany developed its own style for the reunited nation. Nevertheless, many serious German critics still refuse to respect the genre, and only about one quarter of the crime fiction published in German is of native authorship.11 Das Syndikat, a writer's group, voted The Long Goodbye by Chandler, The Maltese Falcon by Hammett, The Name of the Rose by Eco, and The Talented Mr. Ripley by Patricia Highsmith as the best of all crime novels, which is an indication of current taste.12 Friedrich Ani, Horst Eckert, Doris Gercke, Pieke Bierman, Jakob Arjouni (whose investigator is a Turkish German), and many more authors demonstrate the prevalence of the hard-boiled style there today.
Clearly, much of the European interest in the hard-boiled form is related to the interest in film noir. What is film noir, other than a cinematic form of the hard-boiled novel? The film industry of Europe was moribund during World War II, but when the battles ended, American films, many of them noir, flooded in and influenced Jean-Luc Godard, Federico Fellini, and other directors. In 1945 the French editor at Gallimard, Marcel Duhamel, introduced the Série noire (black series), featuring American crime novels in translation.13 Novelists Jim Thompson and James Ellroy, for example, were more generally respected in France before they were appreciated here. By the 1980s, the hard-boiled style was suffering commercially, as was the case in the United States, but editor Patrick Raynal revitalized Gallimard's line and asserted in an interview that not only was the "black novel" the future of fiction, but that it had moved from being distinctly American to a more universal expression of a certain attitude and style.14 Initially, French writers in the Série noire used American-sounding pseudonyms; now there are many distinctly French "black novelists," with such authors of romans policiers as Maurice Dantec, Andréa H. Japp, Jean Amila, Tonino Benacquista, and Thierry Jonquet. Of course, the most famous practitioner of the hard-boiled novel in French was the prolific Georges Simenon (see WLT, October-December 2003, 59-61). Born in Belgium, he developed a worldwide following for his Inspector Maigret novels. "Typecasting" is less common in French publishing, and Simenon, like most of his crime-writing colleagues, felt free to move from genre to genre, publishing literary and psychological novels as well.
The second aspect of the hard-boiled novel that has given it legs is the fact that it is a very recognizable style and thereby provides a framework for metafiction. Authors from around the world have found the hard-boiled form an amiable one to emulate and re-vision. Manuel Puig's The Buenos Aires Affair (1973) and Mario Vargas Llosa's Who Killed Palomino Molero? (1986) and Death in the Andes (1993) are good examples. Jerome Charyn's explorations of the detective form, Thomas Berger's Who is Teddy Villanova? (1977), and Richard Brautigan's Dreaming of Babylon (1977) also come to mind. One of the most interesting recent metafictional uses of the subgenre is in Hardboiled Wonderland and the End of the World (1993), by Haruki Murakami, who writes in Japanese but teaches at Princeton. Murakami surreally combines science fiction and a dream world--in which the main character reads skulls--with the traditional tough detective.
Paco Ignacio Taibo II of Mexico has his cake and eats it, too. An activist, he combines a serious social purpose with magic realism and uses fractured narratives to reshape the familiar form of the hard-boiled story, reminding one of García Márquez's remark that what is ordinary in Latin America often seems like fantasy or magic in the north. In Taibo's No Happy Ending (1981) and Return to the Same City (1989), Héctor Belascourán Shayne is a Chandlerian detective working the mean streets of Mexico City. He is killed in the earlier book but comes back in the second. The name is clearly an homage to detective Michael Shayne, created in 1938 by author Brett Halliday (the pen name of Davis Dresser) and several times depicted in movies and television. The North American crime novel, Taibo has said, is impossible in Mexico because one can never assume, as in many Anglo mysteries, that the police are honest. Taibo's vision of Mexican authority is one of a complex structure of corruption. It is easy to see, therefore, how Chandler's view of corrupt Los Angeles and crooked cops would inspire him. He, too, finds the only redemption in the relatively small victories of an honest man.
Many examples from Brazil, Australia, and other nations could also be cited as examples of the basic premise. As old-fashioned as the hard-boiled novel may seem at times, it retains its vitality around the world both because of its ability to carry serious social commentary and its malleability within its familiar form and style. It is able to speak to the paranoia and perversity of the urbanized world and is friendly to creative reinvention by idiosyncratic writers of many cultural backgrounds, yet it has the comfort (or nostalgia) of tradition. Perhaps the "black novel" is the future of fiction, as Patrick Raynal asserted. If not, at the very least it is a dynamic and evolving force in world literature today.
University of Oklahoma
1 Raymond Chandler, "The Simple Art of Murder," Atlantic Monthly, November 1945; reprinted in The Simple Art of Murder (New York: Vintage, 1988), 1-19.
2 Launched in 1920 by H. L. Mencken and George Jean Nathan, Black Mask did not break new ground in the mystery genre until it was sold to Joseph Shaw, who published the first tough detective story in 1923, "Three Gun Terry," by Carroll John Daly. But it had gone entirely to these types of crime stories by 1933 (Keith Alan Deutsch, www.blackmaskmagazine.com/history.html, 2002).
3 Chandler, "The Simple Art of Murder," 19.
4 Chandler, "The Simple Art of Murder," 19.
5 "At Home Online," Mystery Readers International, www.mysteryreaders.org/athomeian.html.
6 Quoted in Stephen Kinzer, "America Yawns at Foreign Fiction," New York Times, July 26, 2003, sec. B, col. 1, p. 7.
7 This is not entirely imperialistic. It should be remembered that Random House and Knopf, for example, are owned by Bertelsmann, a German conglomerate; Viking and Dutton belong to the Penguin Group, which is British. American crime novels, like Hollywood action films, don't require force-feeding to foreign publics. The books sell well.
8 "Maj Sjöwall" (www.kirjasto.sci.fi/sjowall.htm).
9 Daniel González, "A Wry Cuban Writer as Mysterious as His Plots," New York Times, July 4, 2002, sec. E, col. 3, p. 1.
10 Much of the following information comes from discussions with Thomas Pryzbilka, critic and bookseller in Bonn. See also the overview by George J. Demko, "The Mystery auf Deutsch," www.dartmouth.edu/~gjdemko/deutsch.html.
11 Tobias Gohlis, "Murder and Manslaughter in Germany," Goethe Institut Inter Naciones, www.goethe.de/kug/kue/lit/thm/en26884.htm.
12 Das Syndikat (Autorengruppe deutschsprachige Kriminalliteratur), "Das Syndikat empfiehlt: Die besten Krimis," www.das-syndikat.com/list-01.htm. Agatha Christie is fourth on the list of "best authors," indicating an appreciation for the puzzle mystery.
13 The literary novels at Gallimard had plain cream-colored covers. To distinguish the entertainment novels (mysteries, westerns, thrillers), the covers were designed in black. Interestingly, Italian crime novels are called giallo, from the yellow covers used by the publisher Mondadori.
14 Temps modernes 595 (Aug./Sept. 1997), 88-99.
J. Madison Davis is the author of several crime novels, several nonfiction books, and former president of the North American branch of the International Association of Crime Writers. He teaches novel and filmscript writing in the Professional Writing Program of the Gaylord College of Journalism and Mass Communication at the University of Oklahoma.
“From the January-April 2004 issue of World Literature Today (78:1), pages 36-40. Copyright 2004 World Literature Today.”