Giving murder back to the people who commit it
Some mystery readers like their crimes to be civilized. They like a gentle detective story set, almost always, in a small town or village. The detective is an amateur sleuth, usually a woman.
Others like their mysteries cerebral: "locked room" or "whodunnit" mysteries that are primarily puzzles where character takes a back seat to the discovery and interpretation of clues. Think of Sherlock Holmes or Nero Wolfe.
But in the 1920s, a new kind of mystery emerged: the hard-boiled mystery, which grew out of the era between the world wars, where machine guns flashed from low-slung black limousines, when the corner speakeasy served rotgut gin, and when police and politicians were as corrupt as the criminals they protected. These mysteries were spawned in Black Mask magazine, and they captured the cynicism, bitterness, disillusionment and anger of a country fighting to survive the evils of Prohibition and the hardships of the Depression.
Elegant, deductive sleuths gave way to a new breed – the wary, wisecracking knight with a .45, an often violent, always unpredictable urban vigilante fashioned in the rugged frontier tradition of the western gunfighter.The leading proponent of this kind of fiction was Dashiell Hammett, of whom another hard-boiled writer, Raymond Chandler, said, “Hammett gave murder back to the kind of people that commit it for reasons, not just to provide a corpse; and with the means at hand, not hand-wrought dueling pistols, curare and tropical fish.”
Along with Hammett and Chandler were others who created the hard-boiled school: Erle Stanley Gardner, Carroll John Daly, Horace McCoy, Paul Cain, Frederick Nebel and Raoul Whitefield. While Hammett and Chandler are probably the best remembered, the first of the hard-boiled private investigators was Carroll John Daly’s Race Williams. Williams had all the qualities readers came to expect: tough, terse, wise, violent and sometimes sentimental. Others said that the hard-boiled story’s main ingredients were savagery, sophistication, sleuthing, and sex. Whatever the recipe, the hard-boiled story was quintessentially American, and the reading public loved it.
The writers of these stories had a way with words, and their similes and metaphors were as fun as a puppy in your face:
“Even on Central Avenue, not the quietest dressed street in the world, he looked about as inconspicuous as a tarantula on a slice of angel food.” --Raymond Chandler
“A few locks of dry, white hair clung to his scalp, like wild flowers fighting for life on a bare rock.” -- Chandler
“He looked rather pleasantly like a blond Satan.” -- Dashiell Hammett
“A face like a collapsed lung.” -- Chandler
Not surprisingly, these authors’ books command high prices. When the Duke Collier collection of mystery fiction was offered for sale a few years ago, Chandler’s “The Big Sleep” was going for $12,500, an early Erle Stanley Gardner title was $37,500, and an issue of Black Mask featuring a Hammett story was $750. Attractive prices, but not as attractive as a blonde in “Farewell, My Lovely.” She was attractive enough “to make a bishop kick a hole in a stained-glass window.”