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Hard-Boiled and Noir Fiction

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I’m Jonathan Baker, a journalist and crime writer in Canyon, Texas, and I’m here to talk to you about our Radio Readers Book Club topic on crime and suspense books.

Today we’re going to tackle the second part of my essay the history of crime fiction, and more specifically, how the U.S. and Europe have been fighting for crime fiction dominance for almost two centuries.

Last time we discussed a pattern that has seemed to repeat itself in crime fiction over the past couple of centuries., where Americans invent and innovate, then Europe takes America’s innovation and runs with it. We saw how Edgar Allen Poe invented the detective story, and Poe’s template was then perfected by English authors like Arthur Conan Doyle and Agatha Christie. 

In the 1920s, the pattern started again. A former Pinkerton detective in Montana by the name of Dashiell Hammett began publishing stories in the pulp magazines about a nameless detective in San Francisco known simply as the Continental Operative. The “Continental Op,” as he’s usually known, first appeared in Black Mask magazine in 1923, giving birth to the hardboiled school of crime fiction, and the genre hasn’t looked back since.

The rise of American hardboiled writers like Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler, and James M. Cain has often seen as a reaction to the stuffy British crime fiction of the time, wherein a wealthy old woman was bumped off on a train or a cruise ship, and an effete, endlessly polite detective who happens to be traveling along solves the crime.    

But there were other reasons for the rise of hardboiled and noir fiction in America. Prohibition had given the U.S. a sense of lawlessness, with the rise of organized crime and the opening of shadowy, hidden speakeasies across the country. Corruption was rampant. Detective stories set in elegant parlors just weren’t going to work in that kind of environment.

The hardboiled writers introduced a host of new tropes into the genre. The detective is always a loner, a drinker, and a private eye—never a part of an official police force, he’s too insubordinate for that. The hardboiled detective is always teetering on the brink of degeneracy, but kept from toppling over by some innate moral force, almost despite himself. In the thirties, forties, and fifties, we saw this pattern repeated endlessly, in classics like The Maltese Falcon and The Big Sleep.

And then there was that branch of hardboiled fiction where ordinary men and women get caught up in forces beyond their control. We see this pattern in masterpieces like The Postman Always Rings Twice, Double Indemnity, and Strangers on a Train.

All of the books I’ve mentioned were turned into classic film noir movies, and it’s no coincidence that “Film noir” is a French term. Because it was the French who first recognized the true artistry of these shadowy crime movies.

In the 1950s and sixties, the filmmakers of the French New Wave were all heavily influenced by American noir films, resulting in unparalleled classics like Francois Truffaut’s Shoot the Piano Player, Jean-Luc Goddard’s Breathless, Jean Pierre Melville’s Bob le Flambeur, and Louis Malle’s Elevator to the Gallows. Likewise, the French existentialist novelist Albert Camus would cite the main influence for his masterpiece The Stranger to be James M. Cain’s bleak American crime novel, The Postman Always Rings Twice.

Almost 100 years after the publication of Dashiell Hammett’s first Continental Op story in Black Mask magazine, hardboiled writing hasn’t lost its grip on the world’s imagination. In recent decades, it’s Scandinavian writers who’ve taken up the mantle. Authors like the Dane Peter Høeg, the Norwegian Jo Nesbø, and the Swede Stieg Larsson have breathed new life into the genre.

I hope you’ll go out and buy some of the books I’ve mentioned here. And if you bump into me in the coffee shop, let’s talk about them!