If any unfortunate soul should ever ask me which books I read, I’d tell them I have broad taste, everything from Austen to Zola. I’d list my favourite books; Little Dorrit, Catch 22, The Heart Of Darkness. After all that, I’d finally admit that, these days, I mostly read crime novels. I would then describe, in great detail, the differences between crime and mystery fiction, between sub-genres, styles, authors.
If by this point my audience hasn’t run away screaming, I’d say that I particularly love the Hardboiled school of crime fiction. Then I’d offer an example. Something like this:
“When the woman screamed, Parker awoke and rolled off the bed.”
Great, isn’t it?
That’s the first line from Donald E. Westlake’s The Outfit, one of a series of novels about an utterly ruthless, coldly professional heister called Parker.
Westlake thrusts us into the action. He hurls active questions at us (Who is the woman? Why has she screamed? Where are they?) which immediately engage us. He gives us pace and tone and atmosphere. And, above all, he tells us a hell of a lot about Parker.
All in the first eleven words. That’s hardboiled; no messing about.
Westlake didn’t use his own name when he wrote the Parker novels. He wrote them as Richard Stark. And, right there, is an apt description of his style, the hardboiled style; spare, blunt, brutal.
And why wouldn’t it be? Hardboiled novels deal with crime and urban decay and tough lives lived on the margins of society. The characters have been pushed to the edges by bad luck, by evil, by obsessions, by greed, by lust, by fury, by hatred.
There is no sentiment here. There’s no room for it.
The hardboiled style was largely a reaction to the 'English' school of crime and mystery thrillers; all those comfortable stories about prim ladies poisoning their dusty husbands and dusty husbands embezzling the bank funds, created, mostly, by upper-middle-class writers who, if they weren’t inventing alibis and puzzling puzzles, would probably be pruning their roses.
Okay, I’m being flippant and more than a little unfair. They can be entertaining stories, well written even. In fact, I quite like some of that old stuff. I watch Poirot on the TV. I like looking at people in country mansions or art deco flats or open-topped Bentleys cruising along English country roads. It’s nice escapism. And, I suppose, that’s the point. Why would people want to read the awful truth? We get enough of it on TV.
And that’s a good reason to avoid tough, hardboiled novels. But, really, isn’t there something wrong with depicting murder as a kind of parlour game for the dilettante detective or the dandy aristo? Isn’t the dainty meddling aunt, surrounded by her sea of crumpets, too remote to understand, truly, what drives people to kill?
I guess what I’m really talking about is emotional honesty. I’ve never spent the weekend in a country mansion, but I’m pretty sure that, after half a dozen guests have been offed, the survivors aren’t going to sit in the drawing room and listen compliantly while the detective explains the plot. Maybe I’m wrong. Maybe that’s what they do in country mansions. But, for me, it’s not real. It’s not honest.
What crime and mystery fiction needed was, as Chandler put it, someone who could take murder out of the Venetian vase and drop it into the alley where it belonged. The man who did that was Dashiell Hammett, one of the founders of the Hardboiled School and, probably, its virtuoso.
Hammett created The Thin Man and The Maltese Falcon; both great books, both famous and successful. But my favourite is also his most cynical. It’s called Red Harvest and features his nameless Continental Op on a mission to rid a mid-sized industrial town of corruption. He succeeds, leaving the town “nice and clean and ready to go to the dogs again”. But, the poison of the town starts to poison even the unpoisonable Op. He becomes immersed in the red harvest until he’s in danger of becoming as blood-simple as the locals.
This is crime fiction as social commentary, and Hammett’s language is a reflection of the characters’ lives; urban, slangy, criminal, hard. They’re tough, savage, broken, wasted. They’re anti-heroes in an anti-society. There are no dead bodies in libraries. Dead bodies, yes. Libraries, no. There’s no flowery language. There are no flowers at all, except in wreaths.
Which isn’t to say that hardboiled writing can’t be perfectly expressive.
Look at this:
The rain rained.
It hadn’t stopped since Euston. Inside the train it was close, the kind of closeness that makes your fingernails dirty even when all you’re doing is sitting there looking out of the blurring windows. Watching the dirty backs of houses scudding along under the half-light clouds. Just sitting and looking and not even fidgeting.
Those are more opening lines, this time from Jack’s Return Home aka Get Carter by Ted Lewis. It’s one of the best crime novels written in Britain in the last half century. What’s more, it means something to me. I know the kinds of scenes Lewis writes about, the landscapes, the people. Well, some of the people. They’re ordinary. They’re like me. And they live in real worlds where people do real things for real reasons, and suffer real consequences. It’s one of my favourite books and, to my mind, it’s as evocative, as meaningful, as poetic as Austen. Or Zola.
Phillip Hunter is the author of TO DIE FOR, available in both digital and print.
If you’re interested in finding out more about Hardboiled crime, why not check out a unique work by Dashiell Hammett, THE RETURN OF THE THIN MAN?