A Short History of American Crime Fiction

In the beginning….

The earliest known example of a crime story was The Three Apples“, one of the tales narrated by Scheherazade in the One Thousand and One Nights.  Thou One NightsOne Thousand and One Nights is a collection of Middle Eastern and South Asian stories and folk tales compiled in Arabic during the Islamic Golden Age. It is often known in English as the Arabian Nights, from the first English language edition from 1706.  I won’t bore you with a detailed ‘review’ or analysis of the tale (follow the link above if you are interested), but it is the earliest known murder mystery and suspense thriller with multiple plot twists and detective fiction elements although I don’t think they had detectives then, or for that matter had assigned ‘genre names’ to fiction.

Rector of veilbye

It would take the invention of the publishing house and the marketing expert and the ‘literary critic’ to ruin that give us that tag. This must have happened around 1900 since that is when the “crime novel” was first recognized as a somewhat serious genre. In this case, somewhat serious means “they could sell it.” And ‘scholars’ and ‘critics’ could get paid for talking and writing about it. Before then, a few talented individuals had snuck some works in that actually were crime novels, but they didn’t have agents to point this out to the publishers and marketing people. Probably the very first crime novel is “The Rector of Veilbye” by the Danish author Steen Steensen Blicher, published in 1829. I have no idea if that is a photo of the book, above, but neither do you unless you can read Danish or Russian or whatever that language is on the cover. After he went through a 12 Step Program, in 1841, Edgar Allan Poe jumped on the band wagon with old Steen and wrote “The Murders in the Rue Morgue ” , ” The Mystery of Marie Roget ” , and “The Purloined Letter”  all in three years on the same typewriter ribbon. This was tough work because the typewriter wouldn’t be invented until 1870 and the first “OfficeMax” wouldn’t open for damn near 100 years.  Poe also wrote the first “Locked Room” mystery with Rue Morgue, considered the first “sub genre” in crime fictions. So, we can say that Poe was the first American Crime Fiction author. Of course, as pointed out above, publishers and other thieving bastards business types wouldn’t catch on for near sixty years to invent the words “sub genre” which is Greek for 85% please.


Historical PerspectiveMoon Stone

Wilkie Collins came along a few years later with The Moonstone in 1868 which was serialized in England in Charles Dickens‘ magazine All the Year Round. That would make The Moonstone the first Pulp Fiction which we’ll be covering later on in this scholarly epistle.  Pretty soon, everybody that could afford a typewriter was getting in on the game. Joseph Conrad, Sheridan Le Fanu, and Dick Donovan, tried their hand but their ingenuity only extended to secret passages, duplicate keys and diabolical mechanical devices. Pretty one dimensional as far as crime fiction went.

bog bow

It wasn’t until 1892 when Israel Zangwill wrote The Big Bow Mystery that the final element of great crime stories  was tossed in the stew, “misdirection”.  In 1887, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle gave us the first “serial” detective.  Sherlock Homes, Sherlock of course, was a brilliant “consulting detective”, Holmes is famous for his astute logical reasoning, his ability to take on almost any disguise, and his use of forensic science skills to solve difficult cases. Holmes was so popular (read profitable) that the vultures publishers finally released the meaning of the world genre to the public. Conan Doyle had many imitators;  Jacques Futrelle, Thomas and Mary Hanshew, G. K. Chesterton, Carolyn Wells, John Dickson Carr, C. Daly King and Joseph Commings turned out novels featuring impossible crimes in vast quantities all solved by ingenious amateur detectives  . To a lesser degree, Christianna Brand, Agatha Christie, Ellery Queen, Clayton Rawson and Hake Talbot did the same. In Europe, the Frenchmen Pierre Boileau, Thomas Narcejac, Gaston Boca, Marcel Lanteaume, Pierre Very, Noel Vindry and the Belgian Stanislas-Andre Steeman were also writing these “mental giants” of crime detection.


Emergence of Genres

So why do we need critics and scholars, genres and such? Literary-Criticism,-caricature-of-literary-critics-removing-passages-from-books-that-displease-them,-c_1830

I think the first time someone tried to tell a story, there was someone else there (who probably couldn’t tell a story to save his life) to deconstruct it; tell everyone else what was right and wrong with it. This would be the first critic. Then someone else came along and figured that if he sounded iScholarmportant enough, he could probably make some money teaching other people why he was so important and smart. This would be the first scholar. Then someone came along and figured if they could take a little bit of scholarship and a little bit from the critics and a little bit from the writer and talk somebody into signing a contract, he could sell the work which he had contributed nothing to and make some money…the first marketer/adman/publicist.


So why do we need all these guys to sell me a story? Well, the truth is we don’t…but we do. It is a double edged sword, like most things in the world. Even if you are a casual reader you may want to tell a friend about a book you’ve read and being able to say something more than it’s a book and I liked it ,could be called for to convince the other person to read it. So, like it or not, you become a critic.Further, if you are the writer, you would probably like someone to read what you wrote (you need the critics to spread the word) and maybe even Org Chartget paid for it. And, if you are a real fine writer (or have a large ego), you may want other writers that come after you to know that “this is how to write!”  All of these other individuals, that actually aren’t involved in telling the story come into play when you decide you want to make a living telling stories. Who knows when, but sometime along the way most fiction got divided into two categories. Two genre if you will.  “Literary” aClassicsnd “Popular” . Literary would be stories that carried maybe a moral message or imparted items of interest to the condition of man, life, society. Popular fiction, or ‘pop-art’’ would be stories that held not many ideas or ideals beyond entertaining. Sort of like the difference as between “folk music” and “Beethoven or Bach”. Now, obviously, some stories do both. Some music does both. Most genre cross over or embrace or make use of the devices, forms, styles and clichés  of other genre. In other words, there is a lot of inner breeding and cross breeding going on here. There almost has to be.  Raymond  Chandler, who not only wrote some great stories, books and screen plays but also had a lot to say about the industry and writing, had this to say about genre: Critics“When a book, any sort of book, reaches a certain intensity of artistic performance it becomes literature. That intensity may be a matter of style, situation, character, emotional tone, or idea, or half a dozen other things. It may also be a perfection of control over the movement of a story similar to the control a great pitcher has over the ball.” If one critic totally agreed with another, or found the same value in a work, then by definition, he shouldn’t need to be employed as a critic. Same with scholars. Everybody has to bring another point of view, or find different value, or even different ways to sell the story once the story becomes a product. And story writers have to forever change and blur those lines in order to tell new and original stories.

The Golden Age Of Crime Fiction

These “early school” crime writers gave way after World War I to the “Golden Age” of crime fiction. Until this time, in Europe and America, crime fiction could be mostly classified as “Whodunits” “Locked Room Mysteries” and “Cozys” – although that term wasn’t coined until the late 20th century to describe the sort of “Victorian/Gothic”  detective stories where sex and violence were down-played or handled  humorously.  200px-DimeNovel

Up until this point in time, most of these authors published their works in “Dime Novels” and “Pulp Magazines”  The voice for ‘Popular Fiction’. These publications featured crime and detective stories as well as “Westerns” , “Adventure Stories” ‘Pirate stories” early “Science Fiction” and “Horror” stories. 220px-The_Strand_Magazine,_bound_volume_1894

Most of these stories were considered of very little literary value and thus not worth the investment of  printing in actual bound books. Even works today considered “classics” –Charles Dickens, Conan Doyle, Poe and others published their short stories here. Their longer works were serialized. You can think of these as the ancestors of todays “mass market paper backs”. Oft times the authors of these “Pulp Fictions” would have to write hundreds of stories every year just to make a living.

After World War I, this “golden age’ was led by authors such as Agatha Christie and Dorthy Sayers. These would be works of the “whodunit” variety. In America, things weren’t to remain quite so tame. Dozens of publications such as Dime Detective and Black Mask Magazine were to muscle up the genre.

.Dime Detective    300px-Secret_Service_COLOR  BlkMsk  imagesCA5KW58I

America always was a little rough and tumble for English drawing rooms. While Holmes and Watson were wrapped in Tweeds and knocking around the foggy streets of London America had Wyatt Earp and the OK Corral Butch Cassidy and The Sundance Kid.


Social Influences

After the Great War, the English went home to their quaint villages, cozy pubs and Miss Marple solving gentile crimes in dusty mansions. The Dough Boys came home to prohibition and man, were they pissed. So, we answered Miss Marple with Nick Carter Kill Master, Race Williams and The Shadow. We invented the Hardboiled Detective.  We_never_sleep

There were many factors that led Americas popular fiction away from the “cerebral detectives”that remained in fashion in Europe after The Great War.  First, we had a self image as a land of freedom and opportunity, as a “free country” to all intents and purposes. Secondly, we had a gun culture. We had needed one to settle a vast continent. Third, after the completion of the transcontinental railroad we became a highly mobile society. After 1869 it was possible for an American to get on a train and in a matter of a couple of days be 3,000 miles away without any passport or crossing any national boundaries. This made it possible for Americans to pack up and, in effect, move to another country on little notice. Rail RoadTo build this railroad, this means of mobile freedom, had required that gun culture. The land was full of vast, empty spaces, sparsely populated by hostile natives and sometimes, outlaws. Some hostile natives we made hostile and some of those outlaws we created too. Some of them we even admired as folk heroes. Americans considered ourselves a land of opportunity, and we were also a land of immigrants seeking that opportunity. Then, as now, the American Dream didn’t come true quick enough and these immigrants would avail themselves of “The Land Of Opportunity” part to speed it up.  If someone denied us an opportunity, we’d just as soon take it at the point of a gun. This led to the cowboys and outlaws of the wild west. At the same time, cities out side of the eastern sea board were growing by leaps and bounds and becoming densely populated behind the industrial revolution. These two factors led to the establishment of “Private Police Forces” such as the Pinkerton Agency who provided everything from protection against train robbers, to controlling workers in places like Chicago. They also provided paramilitary services to the government and at one time employed more agents than the standing Army of the U.S.Badge These agents were oft times just as lawless and unethical as the outlaws and rabble rousers they were hired to police. Alan Pinkerton himself became a sort of a ‘private hero for hire’ when he reportedly foiled an attempt to assassinate president elect Lincoln.These were the models for the first Hardboiled Detectives in American crime fiction. Tough, individualistic and not beyond stretching the letter of the law to do what they considered right.

The economic boom following the First World War combined with the introduction of Prohibition in 1920 to encourage the rise of the gangster. The familiar issues of law and lawlessness in a society determined to judge itself by the most ideal standards took on a new urgency. At the same time, the business of seeking opportunity thrived as well. Often, the gangsters were profitable enough to “buy” the police and present themselves to the public as ligit businessmen. Oft times the gangsters were so popular with the majority of the people – think boot leggers –that they were more respected than the official law. This led to the image of individual citizens seeking ‘justice’ from private detectives and other people that could redress a wrong where the official law could not or would not. Another thing that I have come to believe influenced our fictional heroes to move to a more hardboiled, a more realistic (as opposed to romantic or dramatic) persona was the disillusionment of the men returning from an awful war. The author David Corbett traces the rise and fall of ‘noir’ or realism in fiction to a rise in popularity in the aftermath of wars.  Although David examines the ebb and flow of the ‘Noir Films’ popularity in this light, I think it at least is worth considering as an influence  in popular fiction as well. He explains it this way in an article on Mullholland Books web site entitledInsulting Your Intelligence (“Just gimme some noiriness”). (After a war) …”when America was searching for a deeper understanding of itself, something that would remain once you tore away the paranoia and the swagger and the teary, knee-jerk flag-waving. Watching wood-hut villages napalmed before our eyes on nightly TV, we were obliged to confront a much different America than we’d grown up to believe in; it showed in our art.”…” neo-noir echoed classic noir, which was rooted in the Second World War and its aftermath, when soldiers stripped of their illusions returned home to a country desperate for normalcy. Inwardly, many of these vets recoiled from their portrayals as heroes, for they knew what it took to survive combat, and often it was luck, or something much darker, not fit for a chat with the wife and kids or Reverend Tim.” WWIHe goes on else where in the article to say, “these films had tough, blatantly tragic endings, and even the ones that didn’t had a sense that if the hero survived, he did so through luck or guile, not virtue. “(There’s) a desire for the lowdown, the real deal, the inside dope. A craving for the authentic — or at least its veneer.”  I believe the same can be said for the creation of the Hardboiled Detectives emergence in the first place, in the after math of the First World War. After surviving trench war fare, mustard gas, inept leaders and mud, blood and tears we weren’t much convinced in Knights in Shining Armor, of the superior intelligence of  the intellect and our own infallibility. Especially when the vet came home and only wanted to sit and drink and absorb it all only to find out that “the good guys” had outlawed drink!We knew in our collective souls that to survive the war and to survive the world we had to get down and dirty. We had to be at time devious and that superior morals and law and order would only get you so far. The Hardboiled Protagonist was such a man and understood this.



The typical American investigator in hardboiled fiction works alone even if he is part of an agency or has a partner. He is mid thirties to 45 years or so, and both a loner and a tough guy.  He has often served in the military or been a policeman for a short period of time.He hangs out at shady all-night bars. He is a heavy drinker but always aware of his surroundings and able to take care of himself if physically attacked. He understands and accepts that you win some and you lose some, but you get back up and continue onward.  He always “wears” a gun. He shoots criminals or takes a beating if it helps him solve a case. He is always poor, pursuing his own ideals instead of selling out for riches or a ‘straight’ job that might provide them. Cases that at first seem straightforward, often turn out to be quite complicated, forcing him to embark on an odyssey filled with dead ends, misdirection, and ‘twists’ through the urban landscape. He is involved with or is a familiar of organized crime figures and isn’t above using them for favors if it serves his goals. He also is familiar with and tolerant of other lowlifes (pimps, prostitutes, gamblers and petty thieves) on the “mean streets” of , preferably real major metropolitans cities of America or slightly fictionalized  ones. hardboiled1 He usually isn’t directly investigating murders, preferring to avoid the police until he needs them for information or an arrest. He is usually working for a client that either can’t go to the police or the police apply little effort to remedy this clients problems. He investigates lesser crimes such as thefts of priceless or sentimental objects, black mail, fraud or to search for missing persons. However, he may end up investigating a murder in the course of his other work for a client, especially if that client is the murder victim. In which case our P.I. will pursue to the ends of the earth the murderer in order to met out his vengeance and give the dead client his moneys worth. A hard-boiled private eye has an ambivalent attitude towards the police and is usually insubordinate of traditional authority and by nature suspicious of their motives. It is his ambition to save America and rid it of its mean elements all by himself.bogart He is also lucky with women to the point of being a womanizer and is not above adultery but as Chandler said, “a good detective never gets married.” All apologies to Nick and Nora Charles, but Nick was after all, retired and was only reluctantly involved in anything other than the next cocktail.

The first hardboiled story recognized as such was published in Black Mask Magazine in 1922 by Carroll John Daly. It was called “The False Burton Combs”. The hero here is never named, other than he is hired to impers,onate Burton Combs. He also doesn’t give his profession as a detective but as a “soldier of fortune”. He describes himself thus, “I ain’t a crook; just a gentleman adventurer and make my living working against the law breakers. Not that work with the police—no, not me. I’m no knight errant either. It just came to me that the simplest people in the world are crooks. “ It is this ‘buffer’ position between the cops and bad guys that is most obviously related to the development of hard-boiled detection. He is positioned between the crooks and the cops, one that is after the victim, Burton Combs, and the other the victim can’t appeal to for help. Daly’s investigative figure, the nameless first-person narrator, is both morally ambivalent and dangerously implicated. Guilty and vulnerable, he occupies, at different stages of the story, the three roles kept carefully separate in most classic detective fiction, that is, victim , murderer and detective.  Daly’s stories are crudely written and, for the most part, are not notably akin to noir. They do, however, break sharply from traditional detective fiction up to that time,in being more violent and urban and in establishing a partial prototype of the hard-boiled investigator . If you’d like to read this first hardboiled story, it is available, in eBook Format, for free from The Gutenberg Consortia Center. It is in all major formats, Mobi (Kindle), Nook, and even in PDF to be read in Adobe Acrobat Reader.

Race Williams His work, for the most part offers little in the way of social criticism. The entertainment factor, and the character of his ‘adventurer’ are what this story, and most of Daly’s work, is about. But he establishes the cynical one liners, and simple, raw language that would come to identify the genre. Daly’s most famous, and the first hardboiled detective was Race Williams who was introduced the next year, a couple of months before Dashiell Hammett’s Continental Op. Race could have been this same character in the Burton Combs story as the language, the position between the cops and bad guys, is exactly the same.

Dashiell Hammett

Dashiell Hammett became the writer to elevate the hardboiled genre into the realm of literature, but initially it was Daly who was the more popular of the two.  Daly’s first series character and his most famous creation, Race Williams , is ‘the true progenitor of the American private eye ‘. Well-armed and well-paid ($25 an hour and $3.75 for each dead body) for fearlessly tackling brutal gangsters and master criminals, Race always managed to escape impossible situations, usually by shooting his way out. ‘”Call it murder if you like – a disregard for human life. I don’t care. I’ll run my business – you run yours.” The Race Williams stories  between 1923 and 1934 sometimes touch on  sources of socio-political corruption, but the boastful exploits and rugged individualism of the hero are closely connected to gunfighters of the American West .

Maltese Falc

Soon Hammett would emerge as the master of the hardboiled detective writers. Not only did he give the genre its hallmarks in his short stories, but he also wrote three of its masterpieces in his novels. He was recognized immediately for lifting a previously disreputable style of fiction into literary prominence. In other words, he crossed the lines of genre. I’m not going to attempt to give a review of the books, or even a bi0graphy of  authors here,  but I think it is worth noting that Hammett both served in WWI and worked as a Pinkerton Detective, both of which I think instilled in him that cynicism and realism for his characters as well as plot, setting and dialogue.  One major development he made in the ‘style’ was to move away from the cliché of  blood thirsty gangsters and evil master mind arch criminals into exploring corrupt societies, political systems and politicians. In other words, he didn’t only make the hero real, if jaded, but also the bad guys became more like real life bad guys. Not totally evil, sometimes even likable, but just too far over that moral line. The line between good and evil, legal and illegal and honorable and thoroughly dishonorable became very fine. As Raymond Chandler said of him, “He was spare, frugal, hard-boiled, but he did over and over again what only the best writers can ever do at all. He wrote scenes that seemed never to have been written before.” His prose style was often compared to Ernest Hemingway and vice versa. raymond-chandler_1214443c

You can’t talk about the hardboiled genre during the golden age of crime fiction without exploring Raymond Chandler. Chandler was born in Chicago, but was raised and schooled in London, England which may account for his mastery of the language to an extent. He originally set out to be a poet, and by all accounts was a pretty poor poet. Chandler also served in the Canadian armed forces during WWI and had moved to Los Angles by then, the place he made his own in his stories and books. Chandler came to the pulps at an advanced age, he was 45 when he sold his first story, “Black Mailers Don’t Shoot” to Black Mask in 1933. This put him smack dab in the middle of the golden age, considered to be 1920 til around 1940. Chandler didn’t write his first novel, “The Big Sleep” until 1939 and that was cobbled together from numerous short stories. But, it was iconic for introducing Philip Marlowe. Chandler, finding literary success as well as the success of Marlowe on the silver screen soon migrated to Hollywood as a script writer for both his own hardboiled fiction and some of the great films that were to be made in the “Film Noir” movement.

the big sleep1

The main ingredient that Chandler brought to the hardboiled genre was the dialogue driven story. His quotes are some of the most memorable in the genre being both tough-guy and cynically funny and often consisting of double entendre.  Although his pace and style were openly emulating Hammett, who he admired, his use of lyrical similes was totally original.  His greatest creation, Philip Marlowe broke some of the clichés, not being your typical tough-guy. He had attended college, spoke some Spanish, he could be a sentimental sap, especially with women and weak or defeated clients.  He’d also refuse a clients money if he is unsatisfied with the job he preformed. He was  more complex than the usual hardboiled detective. He studied chess and classical music and was capable of learning everything from gemology to fine art in very short order if it served a case. He also was known to plan elaborate “back stories” and set rather involved traps to catch a bad guy. ChandlerHe also had that ‘Sherlockian’ ability to play an actors role, a disguise in personality in order to get close to a bad guy.In a way he brought back just a touch of the cerebral to the American detective.  

His stories and novels are perhaps more descriptive and evocatively written than the usual hardboiled novel. It isn’t unusual for a reader to actually follow on a map the routes and roads Marlowe would take as he navigated the Los Angles area. His descriptive prose conveying the time, place and ambience of Los Angeles and environs in the 1930s and 1940s even when he chose to use pseudonymous names for the places. Finally, Chandler provided that link between the end of the golden age and the start of the Film Noir era. He is also probably one of the most studied and admired writer of that era by those who came after him in the Noir Fiction and neo noir eras of the 50’s and 60’s and even to the present day.


Some other notable contributors to the golden age and hardboiled era were Jonathan Latimer who blended hardboiled with screw ball comedy. Latimer also penned a few novels that pushed the boundaries of sex for the era, most notable would be Solomon’s Vineyard.  H.C. McNeil was a another, a British author of the Bulldog Drummond novels. Bulldog Drummond

James M. Cain is often considered a hardboiled crime writer although his protagonists were rarely, or only peripherally “investigators”. He is most famous for The Postman Always Rings Twice Postman and Double Indemnity. Later on we’ll se how Cains work was reassessed by the scholars, critics, marketers and even the readers to be reassigned to a different genre.

We’ll also get to what  is  called now the modern or second generation hardboiled fiction writers, most of which carried on the tradition in the “paperback” era. It’s always seemed odd to me to say the “golden era of American Crime fiction” ended at the end of the 30’s. A good deal of these folks are still with us today or have joined the ranks well after 1940 and after WWII. Oddly enough, the same thing is said about the decline of the “whodunit” and “cozy” writers in Britain around the same time. Even though the style seems alive and well in the 21st century.  Supposedly because the “age of innocence”  ended with WWII, there could no longer be support for the tameness of that genre in the face of the European Continent exploding in yet another world war that couldn’t be beat.  But how does that explain the end of the era in America? Instead, it seems that the “scholars” seem to measure this supposed end to when most of the old Black Mask writers, many achieving “literary fame” for their works, abandoned the novel and the short story for Hollywood. But lets move on to the main sub-genre of the golden age of American Crime fiction ‘noir’  and we’ll come back to this “end” very soon.

    To Noir or not to Noir

It seems that no one agrees on exactly what Noir Fiction is. If you got ten experts together in a room, you’d get eleven definitions.  To further complicate things, it doubtful that noir fiction was ever called noir fiction at all until a good number of writers that wrote it were dead. To mix things up even worse is the very name of the genre was most likely lifted from the Hollywood Film Genre, who had lifted it from the French. And if you don’t think those big publishers are thieves with all that ‘lifting’ going on….hollywood sign

According to noir aficionado George Tuttle, Noir fiction is the name sometimes given to a mode of crime fiction regarded as a subset of the hardboiled style.  In this sub-genre, the protagonist is usually not a detective, but instead either a victim, a suspect, or a perpetrator. He is someone tied directly to the crime, not an outsider called to solve or fix the situation. Other common characteristics…are the emphasis on sexual relationships and the use of sex to advance the plot and the self-destructive qualities of the lead characters. This type of fiction also has the lean, direct writing style and the gritty realism commonly associated with hardboiled fiction.silent-watcher_050411100458 Indeed many hardboiled writers wrote noir and not hardboiled by this definition.

The popular use of “noir” in the term “noir fiction” derives from “film noir” as it has been used to characterize certain “dark” Hollywood crime dramas and melodramas, many early examples of which were based on works by the original hardboiled writers. Additionally I have heard it stated that one good reason these films had this dark quality was because of the low budgets laid out by the studio execs. This usually lead to “darkly lit sound stages in order to hide the obvious ‘fakeness’ of the settings. In turn, “noir” (French for “black”), first applied to American films in the mid-1940s by observers in France, was used there in the same senses. Most relevantly, the term roman noir (“black novel”) was employed to describe a range of books, some that an English speaker might think of as mysteries, others as gothic melodramas.  So, the term as applied to crime fiction had a much broader meaning in France and Germany than it did by the “intelligentsia” in America which stole it and brought it back to sell Hollywood movies. Marketing. Those guys again. Plain and simple.hardboiled noir Anyway, Film Noir is usually used to describe this “style” of films, made from roughly 1945 to 1960. Some critics say 1950 to 1964, other include 1941’s Maltese Falcon –made from hardboiled super star Dashiell Hammett’s hardboiled master piece of fiction, as the first noir film…..got that?

To recap or reconfuse, as the case may be,  we now have a  style of fiction (noir) named after movies, usually written by the guys that wrote  the books ( hardboiled when they were written) the movies were made from….I need a drink! hammett the bar

The term, Film Noir may have been a popular description of the dark, moody film coming out of America, and used by the French to describe them, but the term noir, according to Charles Higham and Joel Greenberg in their book Hollywood in the Forties wasn’t even used in America until 1968 when their book was published. Long after Film Noir was itself a “dead style”. But, how then can we call the style of crime fiction, named after the movies noir if the movies weren’t even called that at the time they were made? Back to Messrs.’ Higham and Greenberg; ,

Higham and Greenberg had imported the term from France, where it had been coined back in 1946, by Nino Frank (and Italian). It was not until much later, in 1984 that Americans started seeing “noir” in reference to literature.Killer Inside

It was in 1984 that author, editor, Barry Gifford founded Black Lizard Books, and spearheaded the line with reprints of three Jim Thompson novels: The Getaway, Pop 1280, and A Hell of a Woman. For these books, Gifford wrote a preface that exposed American readers, for the first time, to noir as a literary concept. He wrote:

The French seem to appreciate best Thompson’s brand of terror. Roman noir, literally “black novel,” is a term reserved especially for novelists such as Thompson, Cornell Woolrich and David Goodis.

goodis night fallGifford’s use of the term is not inconsistent of its French meaning, but by identifying the term with Thompson, Woolrich, and Goodis, he led the reader to a new, more narrow concept of the term that it is used today.

Thompson, Woolrich and Goodis were not part of the hardboiled tradition of Carroll John Daly, Dashiell Hammett, and Raymond Chandler. They are instead, associated more with James M. Cain and W.R. Burnett, (who were, in the 30’s, considered ‘hardboiled’) a type of crime story where the protagonist is usually not a detective, a type of fiction that, back in the early 1980’s, was largely ignored by American mystery scholars, who were focusing more on detective fiction from that “second generation of hardboiled writers”. So, if we trace this term back, though it wasn’t ever applied to the style until the mid 80’s, it is applied to the seminal writer of the style, which would be some of the works of James M. Cain. Even though he was considered a main part of the hardboiled movement. As Chandler observed, “What greater prestige can a man like me (not too gifted, but very understanding) have than to have taken a cheap, shoddy and utterly lost kind of writing, and have made of it something that intellectuals claw each other about?” And a lot of the argument about what is noir, and what is hardboiled and what is ‘suspense and what is a thriller or a cozy or a what have you, is just that; Intellectuals clawing.” I can go along with some of the clawing, in the interest of accurately conveying the “feeling” of a book, especially since Cain himself avoided labels of all sorts. And especially hardboiled label. A number of the  hardboiled writers, such as Hammett and Chandler disapproved of his work being considered along side their own. So, you might say, we could go back in time and posthumously reassign some of the hardboiled writers and there works to the subgenre of Noir Fiction. Geez, the French can be trouble! Waltz into Dark

The thing that particularly gels for me in this “genre reassignment surgery” is that in the mid 70’s there was an obvious resurgent interest in the hardboiled films, and between then and the early 80’s  the same was happening to  hardboiled fiction by some of the second generation hardboiled “paperback”authors who had managed some longevity but had missed the golden age before 1940. Authors like Mickey Spillane who had written comic books before WWII and penned I, The Jury in 1947 – the first Mike Hammer book.

Friends of Eddie Coyle  After all, no matter what you think of Spillane or whether you consider some of his works as nothing more than “playing” at being a hardboiled writer, and the critics (those guys again) did pan him and write him off as too much overt violence to truly be considered in the vein of Hammett or Chandler. But,In 1980, Spillane was responsible for seven of the top 15 all-time best-selling fiction titles in the U.S. That this renewed popularity in hardboiled came in the after math of the Vietnam War doesn’t escape me or others such as David Corbett and only reaffirms for us that a search for realism in our entertainment comes on the tail of disillusionment of war and other ‘waxing and waning’  social conditions.  Or as Corbett put it, “a desire for the lowdown, the real deal, the inside dope. A craving for the authentic — or at least its veneer.”

Thieves Like Us

I don’t really want to get into Noir Film here, mainly because I am more interested in fiction, but also because I’m no film scholar or film critic. I don’t desire to be anything but entertained by films, but I do aspire to writing and writing the kinds of fiction that have always interested me and most readers of this blog.  That would be the hardboiled –both before and after the “golden age” and what we now are told is Noir Fiction.  Perhaps we can get someone else to write a little more in depth about the Noir Films.

The Second Coming

It may work for scholars and critics and marketing types to Intellectuals have pronounced the “end of the golden age” of crime fiction (both the hardboiled American school and the British whodunits) as dead but I think what really changed is those golden agers went for the buck that they weren’t getting from the book world. Chandler, Hammett, Cain and many others devoted their time to Hollywood. Hollywood repackaged it and sold it as something new and the public bought it. So, it wasn’t so much a funereal but a gong away party.

But the hardboiled writers were still around and still active and still had a market for their work, which was still as real after WWII as it was before. Maybe some of them – a great deal of them –didn’t add or bring anything new to the genre, but maybe everything had by then already been brought. But I think it is worth remembering that Spillane sold 7 million copies of “I, The Jury” in the first two years it was out. That hardly sounds dead, no matter what the critics think. Personally, I think a lot of them did bring new and inventive things to the genre; Drop of the Hard Stuff Lawrence Block with Bernie Rhodenbarr  is true to the comedic tradition of Latimer and Thin Man era Hammett, only Bernie is only in it for himself and he’s a burglar. Donald Westlake (in all his incarnations) brought us dry, wry, and semi farcical hardboiled with his comic-capers starring John Dortmunder and he gave us the hardboiled with Parker.

Hunter In both of these series, you’ll find socially significant commentary that is just as relevant as Hammett’s Continental Op discovering political corruption. Then there is Block’s Mathew Scudder, dark and flawed and morally ambivalent as Sam Spade, only he is a recovering alcoholic who’s best friend is a violent criminal. Scudder may just be my favorite hardboiled detective and maybe that only because there is more of him than both Spade and Marlowe. bigclockposter_c

Some other writers that came after the supposed golden age, that made an impact were Kenneth Fearing, The Big Clock is one of my favorite novels in crime fiction, and is considered a ‘noir’ classic now a days. In it, Fearing had the protagonist, George Stroud, hunting for himself, a suspect in the murder of his boss mistress. An interesting ‘device’. Also of interest is the narrative technique. Where most noir and hardboiled stories are usually told by one narrator, and often in the first person, Fearing told his story with multiple narrators and we see the flaws and personal failings in nearly every character so that by the end of the story you hardly know who to root for.

Travis McGeeJohn D. MacDonald and Travis Mcgee have to be mentioned. And with McGee, MacDonald took the crime story out of major metropolitan cities, off the mean streets if you will, into Florida.  MacDonald one of the best of the “paperback era” By this period after WWII the Pulp Magazines were being replaced by straight to paperback writers. Almost all of MacDonald’s works were released this way. Although a number of them sold so well that publishers would release them as hardbacks, AFTER they did so well in paperback. McGee wasn’t a detective, but acted as one. Deep Blue GoodbyeHe was in his straight life, a salvage consultant and self described knight in rusting armor. In many other ways, McGee would have fit in well with the typical hardboiled detectives. He had a hard, cynical streak, he was introspective, like Marlowe and intelligent. And, as would fit a man living on a 52ft house boat, he was an individualist, although he often had a side kick from amongst the other loners that populated the Florida coast.

index_miami-blues-by-charles-willeford-3_0_1_132720734Charles Willeford is another writer considered amongst the giants of the second generation. Willeford published a few paperbacks in the mid 50’s, then went to college and ended up as an editor with Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine and began a long tenure as a book reviewer for the Miami Herald. After some success in the 50’s, he didn’t publish a novel after 62 for nine more years. In ‘71 he wrote what is considered a master piece in the ‘noir’ genre, The Burnt Orange Heresy. He published sporadically but what he did publish was great. He created the Hoke Moseley series, which was a twisted take on the hardboiled tradition.

Evan Hunter/Ed McBain, both names pseudonyms (although he legally changed his name to Hunter) broke on the scene in 1954 with Blackboard Jungle The Blackboard Jungle, a tale of  juvenile crime and the New York City public school system. After that he published as Hunter, a number of books in the traditional hardboiled genre, but was warned by an agent not to wear out the names literary value in the genre field. Consequently, he became Curt Cannon, Hunt Collins, and Richard Marsten for crime fiction. He also wrote SciFi under a number of pseudonyms during this period. Around McBain1960, his crime fiction was mostly published under the Ed McBain name, which just may be even more famous than the Hunter pseudonym. Especially his 87th Precinct novels. He was a prolific writer and also penned the screen play, The Birds for Alfred Hitchcock.

This obviously isn’t a complete list of the “paperback era” novelist, nor even a list of the important ones, and a number of them, notably Lawrence Block, are still active. But those “young pretenders” of that second generation, who actually were probably more successful than the golden agers are starting to leave our world. We Lost Robert B. ParkerRobert B Parker of Spenser fame in January 2010, and Ed McBain passed in 2005. Parker is especially notable for reviving interest in the genre by including characters of other races and religions, and the inclusion of women, lending his work a modern feel and his loss will be felt for awhile.

Chester Himes I have chosen to end the coverage of the “paperback era” with a little on Chester Himes. With If He Hollers Let Him Go If He Hollerspublished in 1945  it has a ‘noir’ feel to it for many reasons, although it is rightfully named as literary fiction. The novels themes of racism, blacks being used in a position of authority (In an L.A. Ship Yard during the war) to gain the cooperation of other black workers and the protagonists exposure to communism are all very socially conscious and important themes. His characters feelings of sexual frustration and thoughts of rape as a means of revenge, land him square in the middle of the ‘noir’ genre.  He had some success writing short stories in prison during the 30’s, He was released in ‘36, and moved to L.A. around 1940. If He Hollers, and a follow up book dealt with the influx of black immigrants from the south drawn by the city’s defense industries, and their dealings with the established black community, fellow workers, unions and management .Cool Killers By 1950, Himes had moved to France to escape the still prevalent racism of California, where he had been dismissed as a screenwriter by Jack Warner when Warner found out he was black. The Harlem Detective novels of Himes fit him in the hardboiled/noir world very well and he is considered by some critics and scholars the literary equal of Hammett and Chandler. It would be another 30 years before a black author had the impact on the main stream crime genre as Himes, and lucky for us, that author, Walter Mosley is covered well in the next section.

Infinity And Beyond- Modern Crime Fiction

If the “golden age” was 1920 through 1940, and “the paperback/noir “ era say, 1945 or 1950 (to give the golden agers time to be mourned) to around 1980 ( the times when the authors either ‘came of age’ as writers or when they became active) then the Modern era can be 1980 onward, and man are these guys ever going strong in a genre that was supposed to have died with the onset of WWII.

3-6-11_1910A-Edit Billy HuntWhen ever you try and divide up an art form into ‘eras” there is obviously going to be some over lap. Much as you run into the same problems trying to assign the same artists to genre or “schools”.Take James M. Cain. He was active and at first classified as part of the hardboiled writers, even though little of his stories involved detective type characters as the main character. Well, no one had really gotten around to saying hardboiled had to have a detective/reporter/investigator type for it to actually be hardboiled. That’s the thing about art and artists (not to mention hardboiled detectives). They rarely obey all the rules. They don’t always color within the lines. Neither do their birthdays.  lawrence-block-2

Take Lawrence Block. He sold his first story in 1957 and had great success in the 60’s as a member of the “paperback era”. He collaborated (some might say was an accessory) with Donald Westlake on a number of projects, published more than fifty novels and more than a hundred short stories and written some of the best books you can find for writers. You would have thought that a man with his resume was pretty much done by 1980. Nope. he was barely getting started. So, he is The Grand Master of Crime and Mystery. He is perhaps the most respected crime fiction writer by others that write in the genre, and out. In 1976 he created A Walk Among The Tomb Stonesmy favorite character, Mathew Scudder. As I said above, Scudder breaks a lot of the conventions of the hardboiled detective as he is a recovering alcoholic. Scudder also rarely gets in a fight, so he is not only perhaps the most scared, the most flawed hardboiled detective, but in many ways the least likely tough guy. yet Scudder comes across as though. Scudder also has evolved. He has a young protégée who is black. and he broke one more rule. He got married. block is still going strong with the latest Scudder installment do on the shelves anytime. Small Townhe also has another, newer series, in a new almost stream of consciousness, rapid fire, nearly manic pace, Hit Man-The Keller series. After 9/11 he published a marvelous book, Small Town, A multiple-viewpoint big novel about a small town, New York City, where a post 9/11 mourner turns killer. And if that’s not enough for someone who could be rightfully resting on his laurels, he just wrote another book for writers.  so, Lawrence Block may have been smack in the middle of the “paperback” era but he is The Grand Old Man of the modern era as well.

LA Conf

James Ellroy published his first novel in 1981, making him there at the start of the modern era, and has he brought a lot to the table. One of the most original stylists in the game, he started out in Browns Requiem in a rather conventional hardboiled style. His next two books followed suit. Very original but very true to the “golden era” clichés. Then came the L.A. Quartet.  His writing style went from that Classic Modern Noir to what has been called postmodern historiographic metafiction . This is where he got the nick name, “Demon dog of American crime fiction”. His plots are dense and his world view is pessimistic, yet moral. He uses a lot of heightened pastiche of jazz slang, cop patois, creative profanity and drug vernacular with a particular use of period-appropriate slang. His use of stripped-down staccato sentence structures which Ellroyhe describes as a “direct, shorter-rather-than-longer sentence style that’s declarative and ugly and right there, punching you in the nards.” This is not a conscious effort, where he experimented trying to ‘find’ an original style or something that fit the pace or moved the pace of his stories, but an editor asked him to shorten a novel (White Jazz) . Rather than cut up the plot, he simply (and I suspect evilly) removed the verbs. James Ellroy has indeed brought a fresh voice, style, and originality to the genre while staying true to it’s heritage.


Walter Mosley broke on the scene in 1990 with Devil In A Blue Dress introducing us to  hard-boiled detective Easy Rawlins, a black private investigator and World War II veteran living in the Watts neighborhood of Los Angeles. The book was so welldevil in a blue dress received that it was promptly turned into a great movie starring Denzel Washington. There have been 11 other EZ Rawlins novels since, each new and fresh and taking EZ and Mouse (the coldest killer and the best friend) through some of the most turbulent and important times for blacks in L.A.. Mosley has a way of bring the problems of race, and how it affects blacks and whites interacting with each other, with the police, with store clerks, and  in such a way that it doesn’t feel like preaching. He is very socially conscious and aware and brings that same knowledge to the reader, no matter your skin color or back ground. While his writing influences are readily apparent as Hammett, Chandler  and a pinch of CinnamonGraham Greene, he is wholly  original. His character can seem at first a bit over the top, but they have a humanity that grabs you, even the ‘bad boys and girls’. He has also written Fearless Jones and Leonid McGill mysteries, science Fiction and the Socrates Fortlow series as well as a number of stand alones. If you are reading crime fiction then you can’t possibly not read Mosley. It would be like studying classical music and skipping Mozart.

V. I. Warshawski, gritty, independent private investigator from Chicago created by Sara Paretsky in 1982Paretsky is an individualist in the same ways as all the great detectives…with a female point of view. She is truly a “tough guy”. She can hold her own in a street fight, she regularly breaks into houses looking for clues, drinks Johnny Black. She is fashion conscious and likes clothes, she sings opera, and has an active sex life. Kind of a female 200px-Paretsky_-_BlacklistPhilip Marlowe in heels. Paretsky is credited with transforming the role of women in crime fiction. With V.I. on the case, they ain’t just arm candy and femme fatales . Pasretsky stays true to the first person narrative that works so well in detective novels. It’s good to see the women make a mark and add a little more diversity to the genre. Robert B. Parker may have started it by including women and minorities as major characters, but now sisters are doing it for themselves.

Michael Connelly’s may break some of the rules with Hieronymus “Harry” Bosch  actually being a cop Con Blond(most of the time) but he is every bit the loner and shares many more traits with the classic detectives. He is an orphan, his mother dying when he was young. He grew up in boys homes, was a tunnel rat in Vietnam and joined the LAPD after he left the service. He had great success early in his career in catching a serial killer –breaking another convention of the hardboiled detective by investigating murders-this act caught the attention of Hollywood, who made a movie of the crime. This earned him not only the respect of his superiors, with his ability to get inside the mind of killers and solve murders more often than the department average, but it earned him the jealousy of his peers and those same superiors. Bosch not only breaks with the hardboiled convention of actually being a cop, but he gets married. The marriage doesn’t work, but he is now a single father. Connelly breaks these clichés with ease while still maintaining the hardboiled/noir edge and feel. He has even gone mutimedia. Both Harry Bosch and his other series character, Mickey Haller are music fans and Connelly has packaged some of their favorite music with his books. Michael Connelly, adding new colors to the old canvas.


Connelly’s background is as a crime beat reporter and this allows him to bring a realism to his books.  After leaving Florida and taking a job as the crime reporter for the L.A. Times, Connelly went to the High Tower Apartments , where Chandler had Philip Marlowe live in his stories. Connelly eventually rented the apartment, which still had cigarette burns on the walls. The apartment served as Connelly’s writing hide away for years. Any man that into his craft is bound to write crime fiction well.


Connelly’s books have been turned into movies, notably Blood Work and The Lincoln Lawyer, featuring his other series character, Mickey Haller who is revealed as Harry Bosch’ half brother. And, word on the street is that Connelly bought back the film rights to Harry Bosch and a movie is in the works starring Johnny Depp. It seems that Connelly is reaching higher heights in the genre as time goes by and we should be enjoying his voice for many years to come.


Robert Crais is another writer and L.A. connection, along with Connelly, to the tradition of Raymond Chandler. Crais cut his teeth writing scripts for TV, shows like Miami Vice and Hill Street Blues. His influence, along with Hammett and Chandler clearly are Ernest Heminway and Robert B. Parker, to name a few. His first novel, featuring unconventional P.I. Elvis Cole, who is fond of wearing clothes much more suited to a beach bum than a serious P.I. and who keeps a Mickey Mouse phone on his office desk, drinks his coffee out of a Spider-Man mug, quotes Jiminy Cricket and he claims he wants to be Peter Pan. Oh, and he’s the “Worlds Greatest Detective” just ask him. And he’s been known to drive a bright yellow 1966 Corvette. . Cole’s ever so serious and sun glasses wearing, ex special forces, ex soldier of fortune side kick is Joe Pike.Stalking Angel

Crais draws from contemporary news for his inspiration. Free Fall draws on the Rodney King  riots. Sunset Express featured a killer who resembled O.J. Simpson. Elvis Cole is a semi screw ball character who ultimately has a good heart and uses his flaky routine to both disarm clients and bad guys.  His office is near Musso and Frank Grill, where Chandler used to hang out. Cole has a soft spot for battered women and children, and it’s not all mad cap fun and games.

L.A. Req

Cole has grown up since the early 90’s. He’s lost some of that glibness and the characters have grown into some of the best in genre series fiction. And Crais has taken to a style featuring shifting points of view. L.A. Requiem is a master piece with  sprawling story lines and a muscularity to the plot not found in his earlier work. He also crossed a lot of lines, genre wise, mixing a police procedural with an action packed thriller and ruled over by a hardboiled detective story. There’s murder, corruption, child abuse, and the ferreting out of deep dark secrets. In short, Crais got serious about the art, and expanded it to leave his mark as one of it’s masters on the future.

There are so many more authors that deserve mention, for each of these eras,detective2_1_01 but I have tried to select a representative cross section to demonstrate, first, how the genre developed. The devices and styles, the character traits that first formed the genre, then how they were made fresh and added to as time went by. How, critics and scholars took liberties to rearrange the way not only they, but the public assessed  and thought of the work of authors, who didn’t really care. How those clichés were flaunted in the name of keeping it fresh and making it better, and how some of those forms, and clichés still work today. Some of the greatest innovations          hardboiled cover 

are keeping the form alive, and healthier than ever before. I think there are more important writers working in the crime fiction field today than at any point in time. Women are bringing a fresh voice. Blacks are diversifying the genre and making it modern. We even have gay ‘tough guys’ to be found in some of the best hardboiled or noir to be read. And now, what is certainly hardboiled and noir is finding its way to America behind the pen of writers from other countries. Ken Bruen from Ireland, Ian Rankin from Scotland just to name a few.heart of noir So, what the critics pronounced dead before WWII, is more alive than ever. Writing right now are authors like James Lee Burke, Dennis LeHane, Jan Burke, Janet Evanovich, Paul Levine, and David Ellis that are writing not only innovative crime fiction but crime fiction with new and different ‘colors’ on there pallet. What is real encouraging is with the changes in the way books are published in the day of the ebook, the fresh voices that are being heard. Voices that wouldn’t have been heard in the “Golden Age.”  And, if it is true that the genre ebbs and flow, gaining renewed support and popularity as America comes through another war or national crisis, then that is a good thing. We are going to need all the realism, all the wise cracking, raw and cynical individualists we can get our hands on.

3-6-11_1419B-Edit Billy Hunt

There is still a great future in murder and crime does pay.

Copyright © 2011 Robert Carraher – All Rights Reserved

4 responses to “A Short History of American Crime Fiction

  1. Kai

    “but neither do you unless you can read Danish or Russian or whatever that language is on the cover”
    Oh please. don’t be so ignorant. It seriously hurts. What language do you think danish speak?

  2. HOward Van Dhk

    Pretty good job of tracking crime fiction. Howard Haycraft, Ellery Queen, and others have tried to do similar work — but field is so large that such attempts are rarely successful. Maybe author forgot Elmore Leonard, who has contributed much to the scene. Internationallyh, Hednning Mankell, other Swedish, NOrwegian, and even Iceland writers are forging new paths. Anyhwkay, keep up the good work!

  3. Thank you, Howard. Now I understand how some people get PhD’s with thesis in crime fiction. One could write about this subject for pages and pages. Elmoe Leonard is one of my favorites, and it was hard to leave out mention of Nick Carter, Hite, and so many others. I have been reading a lot of “hardboiled / noir ” out of Europe, and not just the Scandanavian countries , lately. Germany, Italy, Turkey and now even Africa (I’m reading Nairobi Heat by a fellow named Mukoma Wa Ngugi, and then there is David Peace and his Tokyo stories, and tho’ he is British, he sure paints the Land of The Rising Sun in some dark colors. Some great writers out of Thailand as well. Anyway, thanks for your comment.

    Rob C

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s