The hard-boiled style has roots in literary naturalism, a genre of writing most often associated in American literature with authors such as Frank Norris, Stephen Crane and Theodore Dreiser. Naturalism, in turn, is generally considered to be an outgrowth of realism, and in a rough approximation of its difference from that cultural mode we can argue that if realism’s mise-en-scene is the bourgeois parlor then naturalism plays out in the ghetto among urban lowlife. William Dean Howells, one of the major figures of 19th century American fiction, is easily the most famous praciticioner of realism (though movie studios have been kinder to Henry James) and novels such as The Rise of Silas Lapham and A Hazard of New Fortunes are essentially stories of the vicissitudes of social mobility told with a genial warmth that a younger generation of writers– notably the above-mentioned Norris and Crane– found claustrophobic. Norris in particular, ambitious and cocksure, sought to transform the American literary scene and so borrowed quite heavily from perhaps the absolute master of naturalism, Emile Zola. Naturalism, then, was in a sense an import, but one that morphed– as do all cultural products and practices– in translation.
Scholars and aficionados often date the inception of hard-boiled fiction with the publication of Dashiell Hammett’s Red Harvest— a dirty, violent, and canny first novel featuring a body-count equal to any Jerry Bruckheimer flick and one of the most compelling “dames” of pulp modernism, Dinah Brand. Hammett has long since become an icon, not only for his four magnificent novels (excluding the never-completed Tulip) but in deference to his delinquent charm, political courage, and variegated past. He worked as a detective, served in the Army, wrote ad copy for Samuels’ Jewelers, and helped build Black Mask magazine, a veritable school for crime fiction talent, into a lucrative venture. While working for the notorious Pinkertons in Montana– a company that was essentially a mercenary force against unions– he refused $5000 to murder IWW agitator Frank Little, whose body was later found castrated and shot hanging from a railroad trestle. Increasingly disillusioned by this sort of ubiquitous reactionary violence and suffering from tuberculosis, Hammett quit the Pinkertons and moved to San Francisco, where he began his writing career. Years later, a success and a celebrity, he went to jail rather than fink on his comrades during the red paranoia of the 50s.
Red Harvest was published the year of the Crash and there followed in rapid succession three more brilliant novels. At the same time James M. Cain was producing classics such as The Postman Always Rings Twice, Double Indemnity, Serenade, and Mildred Pierce. In the early 40s Raymond Chandler began to consolidate his reputation as a writer of calculated crime fiction. Though Chandler is usually grouped with both Hammett and Cain as one of a triumvirate of seminal roman noir authors, he resisted identification with the latter. To Chandler Cain’s novels were lurid and cheap, and he famously remarked to his publisher that
“Everything [Cain] touches smells like a billygoat. He is every kind of writer I detest, a faux naïf, a Proust in greasy overalls, a dirty little boy with a piece of chalk and a board fence and nobody looking. Such people are the offal of literature, not because they write about dirty things, but because they do it in a dirty way. Nothing hard and clean and cold and ventilated. A brothel with a smell of cheap scent in the front parlor and a bucket of slops at the back door”.
Chandler’s asperions are worth considering not only for their vitriol but for what they tell us about his vision of the hard-boiled style. If “dirty things” are the subject of the American crime novel then the method of execution required to make them interesting– perhaps even render them as art– depends on the writer’s ability to calibrate language, to take control and produce a text that is “hard and clean and cold and ventilated.” The Chandler aesthetic values lowlife– the dingy bar, the slow-witted ex-con, the slatternly cigarette girl, the arid banality of Los Angeles– on the condition that in their representation such tropes and themes become more than the sum of their parts.
For Chandler, Cain’s work fails because it is excessive, a style that relishes extremities– “cheap scent” and “a bucket of slops”– for their own sake. This self-indulgence occurs at a formal level– after all, what would “a dirty little boy with a piece of chalk and a board fence and nobody looking” write?
Realism sought to represent the world as it was (or seemed to be) yet largely confined itself to a polite social zone. Naturalism revised that impulse to verisimilitude though its obsessive concern for the abject was weighed down by theories of innate depravity and the over-determinism of heredity. The hard-boiled school drew its energy from both of these movements but tended to eschew gentility or over-arching theories of human nature in favor of a style that lingered on the surface of things, that approximated the key values of late modernity: smoothness, functionality and precision.