Detective Fiction

Hardboiled literary style in crime fiction writing is associated with detective stories. It is often distinguished by the cynical interpretation of sex and violence in the literature. Caroll John Daly is credited to be the pioneer of hardboiled crime fiction style writing in the mid 1920s with his “Knights of the Open Palm” published on June 1,1923 in Black Mask Magazine (Nolan, 273).

Hardboiled fiction writing was popularized by Dashiell Hammett with his character Sam Spade in The Maltese Falcon, over the course of time in the late 1930s Raymond Chandler refined hardboiled writing through his Philip Marlowe in The Big Sheep ( Collins, 153 – 154).

This paper aims to illustrate the hardboiled qualities and features of detective stories in analysing the three most notable authors’ characters in their novels namely Sam Spade of Dashiell Hammett’s The Maltese Falcon, Philip Marlowe of Raymond Chandler’s The Big Sheep and Kinsey Millhone of Sue Grafton’s A for Alibi.

Dashiell Hammett started the hardboiled writing trend in detective stories through his character Sam Spade in his The Maltese Falcon novel. Hammett through his novel portrayed Spade as someone who has a cold detachment to the situation he is in and with the people he is with.

Spade, though he displays several similar features of other detectives such as his keen eye for details and unwavering determination to accomplish justice, the character’s hardboiled qualities is depicted in his selfish, bitter and sardonic personality. In The Maltese Falcon novel, Spade was having an affair with his partner Miles Archer’s wife, a portrayal of his antagonistic and self-centred nature.

His aloof personality together with his cold emotionless isolation from matters are displayed upon the discovery of several murders namely that of Archer and Thursby in which Spade was found to be one of the suspects. He lets everyone, including the police, the criminals, and other characters in the novel believe that he is indeed one of the law offenders while he single-mindedly works on solving the case on his own.

Though Sam Spade’s character was able to do the noble thing at the end of the novel, his actions depict him as someone who only does so because of self-interest. Hammett never showed his readers the characters inner thoughts in which what was said and done by the characters were already the factors that shape them thus Spade’s morality was questionable. In Spade’s case it was ambiguous if he really displayed the usual hardboiled characteristic of detectives who pose idealism underneath their hard cynical shells.

The Big Sheep was Raymond Chandler’s first novel in his series about the adventures of Philip Marlowe. Chandler’s character, Philip Marlowe is indeed a true hardboiled character in which underneath his sceptical, hard drinking, tough persona Marlowe is thoughtful and idealistic. His character’s soft side is portrayed in his enjoyment of simple pleasures such as the playing of chess and his love of poetry. Marlowe’s contemplative nature surfaces when he sets scores through other means rather than violence.

In the novel, The Black Sheep a scene were Carmen Sherwood had a gun and shot Joe Brody but missed, Marlowe quickly confiscated the deadly weapon from Sternwood and told her to go home, this was a display of Marlowe’s evasion from hostility. He is careful in thinking things through before making a statement or stance. In terms of his morality, Philip Marlow is decent for he was stern in avoiding the tactics and temptations brought about by the femmes fatale of the novel, Vivian and Carmen Sternwood.

Both sisters tried to seduce Marlowe for instance when Vivian was saved by the detective from an apparent mugging, he drove her to the beach resulting to her advancing towards him, while Carmen found herself waiting for Marlowe to arrive home in his bed naked. In both instances Marlowe refused the ladies advancements.

Unlike the first two novels discussed above, Sue Grafton’s lead character in her novel, A for Alibi, is a woman in the form of Kinsey Millhone. Millhone fits the hardboiled qualities and features needed in detective stories through her lonesome nature developed as an orphaned child, her tough persona in her case dealings and her idealism underneath her hard shell of cynicism which is slowly revealed in her encounters with family members.

Grafton’s Kinsey Millhone is significant in the hardboiled detective world because gender equality is illustrated in the novel. The notion of equality among men and women is being tacked here in that what other male protagonist can do, Millhone, a female lead can also do.

Though the personality of Grafton’s character had been adjusted to fit that of a woman, her primary characteristics are similar to those of male protagonist in usual hardboiled fictions such her morality struggles in having her own “femmes fatale” in the form of Charlie Scorsoni whom Millhone was involved with even if he was still in her suspect list, her tough girl attitude sometimes associated by her being tomboyish but her idealistic side also surfaces when she secretly yearns for comfort of a loving relationship whether be that with her family or with a man.

Works Cited

Collins, Max Allan. The Hard-Boiled Detective. Ed. William DeAndrea. Prentice Hall, 1994. Print.

Nolan, William. The Black Mask Boys: Masters in the Hard-Boiled School of Detective Fiction. William Marrow and Company, 1985. Print.


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