Lecture: The Hard-Boiled Tradition in Crime Fiction

Sunday Jan 25 2009
by Jack

THE HARD-BOILED TRADITION IN CRIME FICTION

The period between World War One and World War Two was a new era for crime fiction.  The earlier  formative years stretching back to the 1840s, beginning with Edgar Allan Poe and concluding with Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, gave way to new formats.  The earlier period had seen writing about crime separated from writing about detection, and had also seen the detective develop into the three essential guises he/she still retains today: the private operative, the police inspector, and the accidental bystander.  The postwar years brought to fruition the two subgenres that would dominate crime fiction for several generations in the British puzzle and the American hardboiled traditions.
    The British puzzle was not invented by Agatha Christie and her fellow Queens of Crime, although they brought it to full fruition.  The British style wedded Jane Austin to Edgar Allan Poe, with Conan Doyle influential in the development of detective character.  It emphasized a closed universe with a limited number of suspects all connected somehow to the initial victim; subsequent victims were murdered usually because they knew something that would give away the murderer’s identity.  This closed universe was not always the English country mansion, although it could be.  Any small community or closed world would do, and the Queens became quite ingenious at exploiting new ones -- hospitals, convents, nursing homes, colleges and universities, airplanes, dental offices, theatrical companies, family publishing firms, art galleries, libraries.  The murder was often the consequence of blackmail, the most frequent motive for the Queens, but was typically described bloodlessly and without any emphasis upon the explicit violence of the action; bodies were meant to be discovered,  not to be brutalized in front of the reader’s eyes.
    Although Christie most frequently used a private detective (Hercule Poirot) and an accidental bystander cum unofficial detective/busybody (Miss Marple) and while other Queens also employed private sleuths (Allingham’s Albert Campion, Sayers’ Lord Peter Wimsey, Mitchell’s Dame Beatrice Adela Lestrange Bradley), almost half their novels featured Scotland Yard detectives.  Even their private/unofficial ones usually worked co-operatively with a policeman, who was of course not quite as sharp as the detective himself.  Thus Poirot had his Inspector Japp and Campion his Stanislaus Oates.  While the Queens occasionally descended into the underworld, their professional criminals tended to be either evil geniuses out for world domination in the Moriarity tradition, or semi-comic characters hardly very menacing.  Most murderers were bent in one way or another -- hence their susceptibility to blackmail -- but most were not professional hardened criminals or gangsters.  They were well-respected members of the well-educated upper middle classes who killed mainly to avoid exposure as wrongdoers.  And  they invariably did their own killing.  The Queens never employed hired assassins.  Most murderers in British puzzles would have been thoroughly appalled at the thought of being associated with the criminal underworld.  The Queens did characters from various social classes, but both murderers and victims came resolutedly from the educated elite.  Sleuths could be male or female and for the most part were not very courageous or adventurous. Apart from the murders, there was little violence.  The narrative line was highly literate, echoing with BBC received English, certainly spoken by almost all the detectives, even when they were occasionally given non-English backgrounds.  For the Queens of Crime, murder intruded into a superficially placid and well-ordered universe which seethed with tension and passion beneath the surface.  The solving of the crime at the end of the book presumably returned the world to its state of order and tranquillity.
    While both American predecessors and contemporaries of the Queens and their puzzles could be found -- Ellery Queen, Rex Stout, S. S. Van Dine, Phoebe Atwood Taylor are but a few of the American interwar puzzle writers -- the most popular and characteristic American form of the crime novel in the post-war period was the hard-boiled tradition, usually associated with literary “realism.”  Whether the hardboiled school was genuinely more realistic is a matter to which we will return.  In the interwar period, the hardboiled tradition revolved almost exclusively around the private detective, who represented both mythic and actual roots in American development.  Mythically, the private detective came from the American fictional tradition of the solitary Vigilante, the masculine private avenger, who goes back at least as far as Natty Bumppo in The Last of the Mohicans and can be seen in such later figures as the “Lone Ranger.”   He also had origins in the Pinkerton Detective Agency in the United States.  The Pinkerton Agency had originated just before the Civil War.  During that war it had served as a private intelligence service for the American government.  In the later 19th and early 20th century it had become basically a security agency for Big Business, supplying strikebreakers and infiltrating labour unions suspected of radical and anarchistic tendencies.  Pinkertons also attempted to break up many of the early western gangs such as the James boys, and it was the Pinkertons who harried Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid to South America.  Early Pinkerton influence could be seen in the “Nick Carter” series and in the Jimmie Dale novels of Canadian Frank L. Packard.  The development of the hard-boiled tradition can be best associated with three names: Dashiel Hammett, Raymond Chandler, and Black Magazine.  
    Dashiel Hammett had been born in 1894 in Baltimore, Maryland, and for a number of years (1915-1922) had worked as a Pinkerton detective in a variety of guises, ranging from security guard to hotel detective to skip chaser to bank investigator.  He was renowned as a “shadow,” skilled in following people without being spotted.  He drifted with Pinkerton’s to the west coast, ending his detective career in San Francisco.  Ill with tuberculosis, he turned from detecting to writing and began publishing in Black Mask Magazine, where he honed his skills as a writer and exploited his experiences as a Pinkerton.  Hammett’s first fictional private detective in 1923 was the nameless “Continental Op,” whom he described as “a little man going forward ... through mud and blood and death and deceit -- as callous and brutal as necessary.”   In 1929 he created the archetypical private eye in Sam Spade, and later added the amateur detectives Nick and Nora Charles (“The Thin Man”).  Nick Charles was a former private detective able to retire because of his marriage to wealthy Nora.  Hammett was generally acknowledged by his peers to have injected vitality and verismo into the hardboiled novel, and his work translated well into Hollywood movies.  The Humphrey Bogart-Mary Astor version of The Maltese Falcon in 1941 was the third time the novel had been filmed, and the “Thin Man” series starring William Powell and Myrna Loy made MGM a mint during the 1930s.
    Raymond Chandler was the son of an American father and an English mother, who separated from her husband and brought her boy back to England to be schooled at London’s Dulwich College.  He re-immigrated to Los Angeles in 1912, enlisted in the Canadian army (the Gordon Highlanders) in 1917, suffered shellshock as a platoon commander, and returned to the States, where he later recalled, he “arrived back in California in 1919 with a thick British accent and a thin wallet.”  Chandler became a successful oil executive but lost his job in 1932 and turned to writing, soon becoming discovered by Black Mask.  In 1939 he introduced Philip Marlowe, and in 1943 moved to Hollywood screen-writing, where he was responsible for a number of influential “film noir” of the era, including “Double Indemnity” and “The Blue Dahlia”.  He collaborated on several films with William Faulkner. Like Hammett he was ill most of his life, and he drank much too much.  Chandler was fascinated with Southern California and especially Los Angeles, for the paradoxical mixture of physical beauty and human tawdriness, as well as for all the other contradictions, and the region is an important menacing figure in his fiction.   
    In 1944 Chandler published an essay entitled “The Simple Art of Murder”, heavily critical of the classic detective story, which he said, “has learned nothing and forgotten nothing.,” being “fundamentally . . . the same careful grouping of suspects, the same utterly incomprehensible trick of how somebody stabbed Mrs. Pottington Postlethwaite III with the solid platinum poniard just as she flatted on the top note of the “Bell Song” from Lakme in the presence of fifteen ill-assorted guests; the same ingenue in fur-trimmed pajamas screaming in the night to make the company pop in and out of doors and ball up the timetable; the same moody silence next day as they sit around sipping Singapore slings and sneering at each other, while the flatfeet crawl to and fro under the Persian rugs, with their derby hats on.”  Chandler continued that he liked the English ones best.  “There is more sense of background, as if Cheesecake Manor really existed all around and not just in the part the camera sees; there are more long walks over the downs and the characters don’t all try to behave as if they had been tested by MGM.”  But, he added, even the English works were not honest as fiction because they were “too contrived, and too little aware of what goes on in the world.”  Chandler argued for realism in the detective story, noting “the only reality the English detection writers knew was the conversational accents of Surbiton and Bognor Regis.”  He concluded by insisting that such realistic fiction must also be redemptive: “down these mean streets a man must go who is not himself mean, who is neither tarnished nor afraid.  The detective in this kind of story must be such a man.  He is the hero; he is everything.”
    As for Black Mask Magazine, it was originally a creation of H. L. Mencken and George Jean Nathan, introduced as a frank moneymaker to subsidize their more elevated journals such as The Smart Set.  The magazine was printed on pulp paper made out of ground wood, one step below the paper used in daily newspapers, and quite different from the slick high-quality paper of the better magazines.  It first appeared in April 1920 and only gradually developed its specialty within crime fiction.  Mencken and Nathan sold up early, and in 1923 the magazine published a story featuring the first hardboiled private detective, Terry Mack, written by Carroll John Daly.  “Three Gun Terry” opened, “I have a little office which says ‘Terry Mack, Private Investigator,’ on the door; which means whatever you wish to think it.  I ain’t a crook, and I ain’t a dick; I play the game on the level, in my own way.  I’m in the center of a triangle; between the crook and the police and the victim.  The police have had an eye on me for some time, but only an eye, never a hand; they don't get my lay at all.  The crooks; well, some is on, and some ain’t; most of them don’t know what to think, until I’ve put my hooks in them.  Sometimes they gun for me, but that ain’t a one-sided affair.  When it comes to shooting, I don’t have to waste time cleaning my gun.  A little windy that; but you get my game.”  Dashiel Hammett’s first story appeared soon afterwards, and Black Mask never looked back.  It was soon imitated by other crime-genre pulp magazines, and there were between the wars nearly 200 such titles publishing millions of words   read by an estimated 25 million readers per month.  Most of the work was turned out by a small number of professional pulp writers (about 1,300), who wrote enormous quantities of material and were paid by the word.  Not surprisingly, series characters and formula flourished.
    There are four essential defining characteristics of the hard-boiled tradition.  One is its portrayal of the world as a somewhat sleazy  amoral twilight zone in which good and evil are indistinguishable.  A second is in its use of racy dialogue, contemporary slang often originating in the underworld and ghetto, mixed with the wise-crack.  Third, there is the emphasis upon the detective as a lone avenger.  Finally, there is an emphasis on macho action and  explicit -- often random -- violence in place of social description and character.  All four characteristics are in my view essential to the genre, as we can see if we examine the work of an English contemporary of Hammett and Chandler, one Leslie Charteris, creator of  a superb lone avenger in the person of “the Saint.”  The work of Charteris is not really hard-boiled, however.  His world is not sufficiently sleazy and cynical, his dialogue not sufficiently racy, his violence  not sufficiently gratuitous.  One might have assumed that the unremitting masculinity of the early tradition helped define it.  But, as we shall see, a number of recent women writers have managed to transcend this feature without breaking the tradition.  Let us turn briefly to each of these defining characteristics.
    First of all, there is the hardboiled world.  As Raymond Chandler put it in one of the longer sentences of 20th century literature: “The realist in murder writes of a world in which gangsters can rule nations and almost rule cities, in which hotels and apartment houses and celebrated restaurants are owned by men who made their money out of brothers, in which a screen star can be the finger man for a job, and the nice man down the hall is a boss of the numbers racket; a world where a judge with a cellar full of bootleg liquor can send a man to jail for having a pint in his pocket, where the mayor of your town may have condoned murder as an instrument of money-making, where no man can walk down a dark street in safety because law and order are things we talk about but refrain from practicing; a world where you may witness a holdup in broad daylight and see who did it, but you will fade quickly back into the crowd rather than tell anyone, because the holdup men may have friends with long guns, or the police may not like your testimony, and in any case the shyster for the defense will be allowed to abuse and vilify you in open court, before a jury of selected morons, without any but the most perfunctory interference from a political judge.”  In this world there existed only wickedness.  The “mean streets” of Los Angeles were populated by criminals and gangsters, pimps, prostitutes and molls.  Everybody was on the take.  Governments and police departments were corrupt and vicious, the mob’s writ ran everywhere.  In such a world, violence was endemic, and the detective as the “man of honour” represented  the one element of honesty and probity.  “I do not much care about his private life,” wrote Chandler; ‘he is neither a eunuch nor a satyr; I think he  might seduce a duchess and I am quite sure he would not spoil a virgin; if he is a man of honor in one thing, he is that in all things.”  But the detective was a loner and he was cynical about both human nature and the world he lived in.  
    Secondly, there is the language, typically expressed in the form of crackling dialogue.  Not all hard-boiled fiction was written in the first person, although “Three Gun Terry” blazed the way in that direction, and first person narrative became the standard.  First-person writing encouraged the narrator to speak in the wise-cracking style so common in the theatre of the 1920s and early 1930s; Ben Hecht’s and Charles MacArthur’s “Front Page” is a perfect example of this tendency.  Chander insisted that  Hammett’s style crept up unaware upon his audience, “because it was in a language not supposed to be capable of such refinements. . . . All language begins with speech, and the speech of common men at that.”  For Chandler, Hammett’s style  simply reflected the successful use of the American language.  To some extent that was the case, but the speech of common men in the United States was heavily laced with slang, which often originated in the underworld, the ghetto,  or at the intersection of polite and impolite society.  Much American slang came from the substantial black community.  Every hard-boiled writer tried to write racy dialogue which reproduced the speech patterns of the streets, although some were more successful than others.  Earl Stanley Gardner, the creator of Perry Mason, whose work originated in the pulps, was famous in his day for writing almost exclusively in dialogue with an absolute minimum of description.  The urban accents of the ordinary denizens of the American city, often operating at the margins of the underworld, were what were most commonly attempted.  As Chandler said of Hammett, “He put these people down on paper as they were, and he made them talk and think in the language they customarily used for these purposes.”
    The hard-boiled school in its early heyday dealt almost exclusively with the solitary private detective.  Even when he was not the narrator, the story was usually told entirely from his vantage point.  Unlike the British puzzle, which often shifted narrative perspective, the hard-boiled style tended to be single-minded, seeing everything through the eyes of the hero private eye.  The American private detective operates as a loner.  Unlike his British contemporary in the puzzle tradition, he does not co-operate much with the police, who are typically corrupt and often on the other side.  He even makes a virtue of loneliness.  “Well, if I send you over I’ll be sorry as hell,” Sam Spade says to Brigid O’Shaughnessy, who invokes love as a reason for not giving her up to the police.  “I’ll have some rotten nights,” Spade adds, “but that’ll pass.”  The early private dick is utterly macho and masculine, as are the stories.  Women are “frails,” “dolls,” “chicks”, “dames”.  They are often evil  and equally often manipulative, as is Brigid O’Shaughnessy.    But they are seldom strong and never autonomous.
    Finally, the hard-boiled school emphasized action and violence.  According to Raymond Chandler, Dashiel Hammett (and by implication himself) wrote “for people with a sharp, agressive attitude to life.  They were not afraid of the seamy side of things; they lived there.  Violence did not dismay them; it was right down their street.  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 duelling pistols, curare and tropical fish.:”  Given the world in which the characters of hard-boiled fiction typically lived, violence was natural rather than contrived.  It was perhaps in this sense that Chandler would have seen his writing as most “realistic.” Certainly the way in which his detective behaved was hardly surrounded with versimiltude.  In one typical Chandler Black Mask story, example, in the space of a single evening in a strange town, private eye Mallory knocks out with his fists one gangster who threatens him with a gun, is blackjacked by a crooked policeman, is punched in the face by another policeman, kills a punk with his .45 in a gun duel, and is wounded in another gun duel while shooting  yet another gangster.  Almost incidentally,  a bent cop is murdered by a dope dealer.  Ultimately the police let Mallory go, saying, “Hell, we don’t like for you to do all that shooting, you being a stranger and all that, but a man ought to have a right to protect himself against illegal weapons.”  The early hard-boiled tradition allowed its sex to be implicit. Philip Marlowe constantly flirts with the women he meets in the course of his investigations, but does not actually bed them, and Sam Spade extended nothing more than his lips.   Immediately after the war Mickey Spillane’s Mike Hammer series introduced explicit sex, adding it to the violence to produce a particularly nasty package.  After Spillane, the detective routinely added sexual activity to the remainder of his daily routine of chasing down witnesses, of beating up and being beaten up, of being shot at and shooting back.
    With Spillane’s addition of sex to violence, the hard-boiled tradition seemed to reach some kind of plateau from  which the genre for years seemed incapable of  new directions.  The pulp magazines began to die out after World War II, replaced by radio and then utterly destroyed by the introduction of television.  Both radio and television helped  Hollywood stereotype and caricature the hard-boiled private eye.  One of the few innovations of the immediately post-Spillane period was the introduction of new locales for the detective, whose earlier exploits had been set mainly in New York, San Francisco, and Los Angeles.  John D. MacDonald’s Travis McGee operated out of Florida, while Robert Parker’s Spencer worked mainly in Boston.  Locales remained somewhere within the urban United States, however.  Eventually an occasional tongue-in-cheek self-mocking tone was employed, and locales began to move even further afield.  One of the best examples of both these tendencies has been provided by Canadian Howard Engel, whose fictional detective is the Jewish Benny Cooperman, based in St. Catherine’s, Ontario.  Benny Cooperman also suggests another tendency of the post-1970 period, which was to humanize the detective by giving him a family and/or some personal problems, often an identity crisis.  The marital status and personal life of Sam Spade or Philip Marlowe is never described -- indeed they deliberately lack such ties -- but many  of the modern private eyes are in the midst of traumatic divorces,  consumed with the agonies of giving of smoking, and affected with the angst of growing older.  Some have other problems. Benny Cooperman is distinguished by his self-conscious Jewishness.  Joseph Hansen’s Dave Branstetter is homosexual.
     Only in the 1980s, however, did the hardboiled school  begin to branch out significantly from its origins.  Four directions strike me as being important.   All  at least superficially run counter to the characteristics of the genre, and in the ever-expanding universe of crime fiction, some of these directions have led to reclassification in different genres rather than under the hard-boiled school.  These four directions are: (1) the feminization of the private investigator; (2) the shift of the detective’s status from private operative to policeman; (3) the movement of the locale outside of North America; and finally (4) the elimination of the detective entirely or almost entirely, in favour of an emphasis upon the criminal world.   To my mind, the best hard-boiled stuff being written today is being produced by women; by British (often Scottish) writers ostensibly writing police procedurals set in Britain and more exotic locations, including Italy; and American writers working chiefly the other side of the underworld.   These developments demonstrate that the hard-boiled tradition, like other genres of crime fiction, is quite capable of substantial adaptation. Let me conclude by examining each of these recent trends in a bit of detail.
    Curiously enough, most of the good hard-boiled private detectives currently operating are women.  Given the extent to which the earlier hard-boiled tradition was not only masculine, but macho-male, this point is really quite surprising.  There had been earlier female private detectives, of which the leading example is probably Mitchell’s Dame Beatrice Adela Lestrange Bradley, who was rather more a Home Office “consultant” than a private operative,however.  The feminism of the post-1960s period has made it possible to conceive of women doing a variety of jobs previously assumed to be the monopoly of males, and the best of these private eyes are as tough as Sam Spade without surrendering all vestiges of their femininity.  One of the pioneers in the field, it has to be said, was P.D. James, although her female private detective  -- unveiled in An Unsuitable Job for a Woman -- is not up to Adam Dalgleish, much less tough enough to compete with Sam Spade. The best of these female operatives, in my judgment, are Sara Paretsky’s V.I. (Vic) Warshawski (operating out of Chicago), Sue Grafton’s Kinsey Millhone (based in Santa Theresa, California, somewhere on the southern California coast), Lisa Cody’s Anna Lee (working in London), and Leslie Grant-Adamson’s Laura Flynn (also in London).  Film and television seem to have more trouble with these gutsy streetwise female p.i.’s with the strong sense of justice than do their  creators.  The recent TV series based on the Cody novels completely missed the point of them, softening both Anna Lee and her surroundings almost to the point of turning her into a typical “frail,” and the recent Warshawski movie also seemed wrong-headed in this respect.  The successful female authors have preserved intact virtually all other characteristics of the tradition except the gender of the investigator.  All write in the first person with colloquial dialogue appropriate to their characters, all set their stories on the streets and at the fringes of the underworld, and all include plenty of action and violence in which the protagonist fully participates, usually giving as good as she gets.  “He finally moved toward me.  Anton bellowed a warning and reached for his gun.  I fired the Smith & Wesson at him and humped back. . . . He shot again, wildly, then clutched his groin.”  None of the authors pretend that their women are unusually strong or physically invulnerable, but guns don’t require a lot of strength; in any case, these women are not “frails.”
    The traditional hard-boiled detective was the solitary private eye, often working against corrupt police forces.  There were police detectives in crime fiction, ranging from the plodding work of Inspector French to the inspired insouciance of Roderick Allyn, but the usual complaint about writing about policemen was that it was not very realistic, both in the sense of procedures and in the sense of the siting of the policeman within the society.  The Scotland Yard inspector of the British puzzle was a mobile specialist in murder, parachuted into a case from outside, and seemingly without local responsibilities.  The American police procedurals of writers like Dell Shannon and Ed McBain concentrated on achieving greater realism through a portrayal of the teamwork of the police precinct.  But there was no inherent reason why the hard-boiled detective could not become a cop, providing he took on the essential characteristics of the classic private investigator.  A number of recent authors on both sides of the Atlantic have produced Lone Ranger policemen, usually carefully situated within a police team but sufficiently set apart from it, and placed them within a hard-boiled world.  The best of these authors are George V. Higgins, John Harvey, and William McIlvanney.  Higgins is an American lawyer who has considerable experience with the criminal justice system, particularly at the level of public defender.  He is one of the best writers of authentic dialogue around, particularly good at evoking the speech patterns of working class cum criminal class of New England.  This is the country in which I was brought up, and the accents ring true.  His police detectives are usually Massachusetts state policemen -- Deke Hunter perhaps the best example -- who attempt to bring some of the leading criminals of organized crime to justice, in the process operating with some singlemindedness and ultimate integrity against the marginal world of informers, scams, cutting of legal deals, and general political corruption.  Higgins’ view of New England (indeed, American) society  is an extremely cynical one, his larger themes often question the usual distinctions between the good guys and the bad guys and wonder whether anyone is truly  honourable in this world.  John Harvey is a British writer.  His detective, Charlie Resnick, is a divorced cop of Polish extraction who loves jazz and  works out of Nottingham, in the middle of one of England’s leading industrial slums.  Harvey has a good ear for the speech patterns of the Midlands working  and criminal classes, and communicates a profound sense of the injustice of life at the margins.  I have not seen the Resnick series made for British television -- there are many such series not available in North America -- although it was well received in Britain.  William McIlvanney is a Scottish writer.  His detective, Laidlaw, in a book of the same name, is explicitly and consciously a loner, a specialist in murder.  He checks into a sleazy Glasgow hotel apart from his family to pursue singlemindedly his murderer, the rapist of a female teenager, and has no objection to working with the criminal elements to achieve his goals.  McIlvanney suggests more than implicitly that many professional criminals draw the line at murder, particularly if it involves the young and sex.  Again, a good ear for the speech patterns of the Glasgow working classes pervades his books.  
    The work of Harvey and McIlvanney demonstrates the third recent direction for the hard-boiled tradition, a transplantation outside the urban America which gave it birth and with which it has typically been associated.  But other parts of the world have urban  twilight zones in which criminals and ordinary folk mix indiscriminately, and these zones have their distinctive speech patterns just as does the American city.  Scotland has been a particularly rich location to exploit.  As well as McIlvanney, Peter Turnbull writes about Glasgow and Ian Rankin about Edinburgh.  Turnbull’s work tends to the police procedural, but except for the absence of a dominant detective, fits well into the hard-boiled school.  Rankin’s Inspector John Rebus is certainly a lone avenger operating within a police teamwork tradition.  It is possible to find the hard-boiled tradition even farther afield than Great Britain, however.  The work of Michael Dibdin and Timothy Williams, set in contemporary Italy, is a case in point.  Williams’s Commissario Trotti and Dibdin’s Inspector Aurelio Zen are both solitary avengers, men of honour attempting to maintain some integrity in a really sleazy world of vice and corruption.  The Italian settings are, if anything, more cynically portrayed than is the New England of George V. Higgins.  There is, of course, a problem about the authenticity of the dialogue, which is rendered in English.  Both because of this factor and because I am not familiar with Italian speech patterns, it is impossible for me to comment on whether these authors have good ears.  It sounds appropriate, but may not be.
    George V. Higgins takes us to the final direction of recent hard-boiled fiction, which is basically to cross over to the other side of the marginal zone and write from the perspective of the criminal.  On one level it can be argued that books written without any detective at all cannot really be considered part of the hard-boiled tradition developed by Hammett, Chandler, and Black Mask.   I am sympathetic to that argument, although it must be added that Hammett did not always write about private eyes.  The Glass Key features a main character who operates on the fringes of crime and political corruption, and the book deals less with detection than with the problem of maintaining some personal integrity and honour in such an environment.  In any event, both Higgins and Elmore Leonard  often write about criminals, usually small fry caught in a web of circumstances well beyond their control, whose stories explore the moral and ethical dilemmas of  a modern  society which Raymond Chandler would well recognize.  The most frequent questions asked are whether survival at any cost is justifiable, and whether there are any differences -- moral or ethical -- between professional criminals and people in other occupations and professions.  Most of the “honest” folk in the novels of Higgins and Leonard are continually compromised by the extent of criminal activity in their lives, and perhaps most interesting of all, professional criminals in these books are shown living the lives of ordinary citizens apart from the peculiar nature of their work.  These crooks have families, go to church, have mortgages in the suburbs, worry about the future for their kids, just like everybody else.     Both Higgins and Leonard have wonderful ears for the speech patterns of the social world of the petty criminal, and the streets are certainly mean enough.
    I hope I have said enough to demonstrate that the hard-boiled tradition is an important one that lives on in contemporary crime fiction, and perhaps in modern literature as well.  The tradition has always prided itself on its realism, although as I have already noted, fictional realism and total versimilitude are not necessarily the same thing.  Most professional crime-fighters would probably be horrified at the rendering of police procedure in most of these works, and one wonders what the criminals would say about the presentation of their operations.  The incidence of violence, especially murder,  is certainly extremely high.  Nevertheless, the best of these works do challenge the reader to re-examine his or her judgments on modern society in a way that most crime fiction does not.

J. M. Bumsted



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