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What is hardboiled fiction?

By BBC Maestro

Last updated: 29 June 2022

Any fan of crime or mystery stories will have encountered a smart detective ready to solve the case. In most stories, we’re led to believe they remain on the good side of the good cop vs. bad cop divide. But in some instances, we find them flirting with the wrong company to get answers. 

This is a common thread in hardboiled fiction. But there’s more to it than that. So what is hardboiled fiction? Read on to explore this iconic literary style and learn what separates it from other crime writing.

What is hardboiled fiction?

Hardboiled fiction is a style of American crime writing, founded in the 1920s, which brought a new tone of realism to conventional crime fiction at the time. It peaked in the 1930s-1950s when lots of writers began diving into this new noir-esque genre. The classic protagonist found in hardboiled fiction is a private detective who clashes with violence and organised crime in his quest to solve the case at hand.

The writing of this genre mirrors life back then – when crime and corruption were particularly high during Prohibition (1920-1933) and in its aftermath. Popular themes of the genre are crime, violence, racism, and classism. It’s believed that the world’s bleak state inspired hardboiled fiction writers, and their vividly accurate nods to reality sparked its success. 

One of the guiding principles [of writing] is to invent as little as possible.
- Jed Mercurio

But it was Dashiell Hammett who popularised the genre throughout the 1920s. The characters of his hardboiled novels and short stories are still recognised as some of the genre’s greatest – private detectives such as Sam Spade in The Maltese Falcon, Nick and Nora Charles in The Thin Man, and narrator The Continental Op in Red Harvest and The Dain Curse. He’s widely recognised today as one of the best mystery writers of all time. 

Hardboiled fiction stories are often based in urban environments, where the harsh realities of city living seep into the case as the plot unfolds. Corruption grounds the writing of the genre. Even if the case is solved, the protagonist and fellow characters still can’t escape the corrupt world in which the crime happened. It illustrates a dark, uneasy and relentless time. But for fans of crime and mystery, it makes for thrilling reading.

Detective in a corridor

A brief history of hardboiled fiction

The typical detectives and private investigators of literature in the 19th and early 20th centuries were different to our hardboiled detectives. 

The former showed astute observational skills paired with a sharp analytical ability to deduce the information at hand promptly and intuitively. They rarely engaged in violence or physical altercations and were trusted by readers because they would always get to the truth. Think of Sherlock Holmes - one of crime and mystery’s most beloved detectives.

But then in the 1920s, a new type of detective entered the literary scene. These new detectives were intelligent and switched on, but they were also physically tough and emotionally resilient. If challenges confronted them, they wouldn’t shy away from violence. They also remained somewhat detached from reality to keep some distance between themselves and their work. As a result, they’re thought of as cynical characters. This is where the term ‘hardboiled’ was coined to describe the genre. ‘Hardboiled’ in this case, refers to a tough attitude towards the emotions that were triggered by violence.

It’s believed that American crime writer Carroll John Daly pioneered the genre in the mid-1920s. His stories - The False Burton Combs (1922), It's All in the Game (1923) and Three Gun Terry (1923) - all became instant hits with readers. Alongside hardboiled fiction, Daly also bled into the pulp fiction space too. His pulp detective writing boosted his success and saw him write regularly for a variety of pulp magazines.

Hardboiled fiction was then said to have been refined by James M.Cain and Raymond Chandler in the 1930s. They both achieved critical acclaim for their contributions to the genre. Today you can find traces of hardboiled fiction in the works of renowned crime writers such as Lee Child, Jeffery Archer and many others.

A man wearing a hat

How is hardboiled fiction different to classic detective fiction?

There are some clear differences between classic detective fiction and hardboiled fiction. 

In good classic detective stories, most readers will know that despite how the story may unfold, the detective is capable of solving what’s ahead. This could be down to their razor-sharp observational skills, sound logical reasoning or forensic knowledge. Or it could be down to their legendary status as a crime-solver (think of Sherlock Holmes again here). 

Readers trust that the detective has the right skills and experiences to put the clues and pieces together to find the truth. Even if a new piece of evidence arrives that throws their original theory out of the window, or readers discover that the detective has an odd quirk – the detective will still be in control of the crime at hand. These are great illusions writers use to make the reader question the reliability of our protagonist. But they have good intentions to solve the crime at hand using trusted and lawful methods.

Hardboiled detectives are less reliable when it comes to their approach. They are usually deeply flawed characters and are less of a controlled investigator – working to their own agenda and following the gut instincts that a classic detective perhaps wouldn’t. 

Although they maintain a detached position from the crime and those involved, in many cases they become emotionally embroiled in the crime they’re investigating, which makes it more difficult for them to remain calm and in control. This is usually where the violence arrives. In many ways, our hardboiled detectives share some traits with sympathetic villains.

A lamp on a desk

In hardboiled detective stories, writers will often examine the detective’s character, morals and flaws, as much as they uncover the crime itself. To be able to do this, many writers will study their characters closely and come up with a range of ways they could respond to events in the story. In Alan Moore’s BBC Maestro storytelling course, he says, “in creating characters you need to feel compassionate towards them, even if they are the most hateful villain possible… If you’re going to put words in their mouth, you need to understand them as a human being. The key to that, is compassion - being able to think yourself into someone else’s shoes”. Becoming a more empathetic writer can make a huge difference in your writing.

In classic detective fiction, the plot will follow a similar path to mystery fiction. A crime is committed and a detective swoops in, they start discovering clues, they find suspects and gradually they whittle it down to find the true criminal. Many writers “withhold the information about a thing, until there is time to make a proper dramatic revelation,” says Alan Moore. “This is something many crime writers will choose to do on the final pages,” he goes on to say. It will be a satisfying ending where the crime is solved, and it will be revealed to the reader just how the detective came to their conclusion. 

But hardboiled fiction won’t necessarily be as plain-sailing. It’s a little less predictable. New twists and turns can throw readers off, and because they understand that their detective isn’t necessarily reliable, this can derail their own theories as the story evolves. By the end of the story, there are usually a lot of loose ends too. It can strike a frustration in readers that leaves them contemplating each unresolved conflict, and the story lives on in their heads.

Of course, every story is different, but these are some of the common examples of differences to look out for in your reading. If you’re ready to get stuck in, take a look at some of these hardboiled fiction classics:  

  • The Maltese Falcon by Dashiell Hammett
  • Farewell, My Lovely by Raymond Chandler
  • The Thin Man by Dashiell Hammett
  • Devil in a Blue Dress by Walter Mosley
  • The Moving Target by Ross Macdonald
  • The Postman Always Rings Twice by James M Cain
  • The Jury by Mickey Spillane
  • In a Lonely Place by Dorothy B. Hughes
  • The Killer Inside Me by Jim Thompson

If you’re thinking of writing a crime novel, consider which type of detective fiction you’d like to write. Do you want your story to follow a formulaic plot that ends with justice and clarity, or a knotty and twisted but exciting one that is hardboiled fiction? If you’re open to exploring other types of writing, take a look at our online writing courses to help kickstart your writing journey. 

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