The Hard-boiled Way
by Gary Lovisi
What is hard-boiled?
Hard-boiled is attitude. Attitude to the core. It’s also a lot more. Some may think it’s only fiction about violence, often very brutal violence, but that’s not a necessary ingredient. Violence is there because we’re talking about realistic crime fiction when we talk hard-boiled, and that means you lay it out truthfully to the reader. Don’t sugarcoat the truth, don’t play it cute. The attitude comes from realizing that truth. No matter how truly rotten or violent it may be. Knowledge of that truth can not help but effect the writer, or his characters, and if done well, the reader as well.
There’s a lot of tough-guy talk and action in some hard-boiled fiction, but that’s not all there is to it either. Others think all that’s important is style, all that wonderful Chandleresque chit-chat which a lot of readers and critics like perhaps too much, but too often these days has entered the area of nostalgia, pastiche, or cliché. However, the real hard-boiler, Dashiell Hammett is, to those in the know still on top. Carroll John Daly had real heart. Mickey Spillane made you read him. Jim Thompson, David Goodis, Cornell Woolrich ( in his William Irish Noir days),Chester Himes and Charles Willeford lived lives no writer could ever make up and their work soared because of it. Or, in spite of it. And modern hard-boiled fiction is all that and more.
Part of what hard-boiled is about is the adherence to a moral code in a world without any moral code or moral values at all. Hammett and Chandler wrote about it in the old days. However today, it can be a moral code as minimalist as that of Andrew Vachss’ Burke, or as twisted as one of James Ellroy’s cop heroes.
Today, more than ever, hard-boiled fiction is relevant fiction that has meaning and stands for something, unlike the broader spectrum of literature, and most other mass-market entertainment. Modern authentic hard-boiled material (not Chandler clones or blood and guts retro-pulp), seriously examines crime or social issues, often taking us to places and depths we’d rather not be taken into at all. The world is a cruel place, but for the hard-boiled hero (and the reader and writer by extension), it’s far crueler than anyone can ever imagine. And that’s part of the real story most people who do not read hard-boiled fiction do not want to face. Escape is, after all, so much more pleasant. And comforting. And easy. It can be so…cozy. And all the answers are laid out for you at the end. What could be nicer? Well, folks, that ain’t the way it is with authentic hard-boiled material. Oh, you might get a tidy answer at the end of the story, but if you do, there’ll be little comfort in it I can assure you.
Hard-boiled fiction is not just about private eyes either. Even in the past, some of the best hard-boiled writers; W.R. Burnett (The Asphalt Jungle), and James M. Cain (Double Indemnity and The Postman Always Rings Twice), were certainly not writing private eye fiction. They were writing hard, cold truth. The way it was back then, the way they saw it every day of their lives. Dashiell Hammett did the same thing as a Pinkerton, he took that life he’d lived and molded it into his Continental Op stories, later on into Sam Spade and the stuff that dreams are made of. But the core truth and attitude is always there in Hammett’s work. And it is no less true today than when his work was first published over 70 years ago.
Today the hard-boiled tradition comes on strong, in some ways even bolder than ever. Today there are serious issues and debates in hard-boiled work that you don’t see any place else. And certainly not at this level of detail and intensity.
Hard-boiled deals with crime, naturally. But it goes deep down into the black heart of crime. The corruption crime can bring into a person’s life, or into our society. The pain and decay it spawns on so many levels. The effect on the criminal and the victim. The reasons for it all.
Authentic hard-boiled fiction is also about real people trying to live their lives, to make it in the day-to-day and getting smashed down inch by inch, lower and lower. But they still hang in there. They refuse to go down for the count. They’re not giving up a damn thing, because they’ve had to fight like hell every day of their life for what they’ve got – and they’ll fight like hell every day of their life to keep it. And I’m not talking materialism here, folks. Not at all. I’m talking pride, honor, dignity, respect, the truth, going out of your way to help a friend, or going out of your way to fuck the enemy, days of blood and rage, a gut full of hurt, stand-up people in a sit-down shut-up world. That’s hard-boiled!
It’s about attitude. And that still lives. It still has meaning. These writers are rebels all right, but they’ve got causes. Real causes and plenty of them. It’s a new millenium now, and all that 1960s pseudo-angst crap just won’t wash anymore. We’re talking war. We’re talking survival now.
So who are some of the people writing the good stuff today? Too many to mention here so I’ll just talk a bit about some of the best and some of my own favorites. On the top of any list is Andrew Vachss. His Burke novels, (the latest is Dead And Gone, Knopf, 2000), is fiction with a microscopic attention to detail and reality, showing the harsh truth about the world today. It can be a brutal truth, an ugly truth, but never to exploit, never to be gratuitous in any way. Vachss’ fiction serves to illuminate and enlighten his readers and the public to the importance of child protection. Vachss puts himself on the battle line every single day in this fight, as a working attorney whose practice is solely devoted to child protection.
Eugene Izzi took it all a step further, the abused child as adult criminal, cop, con, ex-con, citizen trying to make it. His work is raw and sparse with the impact of a sledgehammer to the brain. It can knock you out. Or knock some sense into you. Izzi also wrote a trilogy as "Nick Giatano." He committed suicide a few years ago under strange circumstances.
Gerald Petievich did the same for Los Angeles, exposing us to crooked cops, counterfeiters (One-Shot Deal), government treasury agents on the hunt, L.A. gangs and cops out of control. His Earth Angeles, out years before the Rampart scandal in the LAPD was a warning that went unheeded. There’s even a foray into a suicide/murder in the White House years before Vincent Foster’s suicide (Paramour). Petievich stopped writing a few years back, he was real good. I wish he would pick up a pen again.
Stephen Solomita writes a tough crime novel. His Stanley Moodrow books about a broke-down cop who knows all the ropes but still gets his ass in trouble with the brass, even as he solves their most complex cases (A Twist of the Knife, Force of Nature, etc), is just great stuff. Keeplock, written as by David Cray (Otto Penzler Books, 1995) is an intense crime caper that spells doom for all involved. In it an ex-con who wants to go straight takes a ride on the hellbound train. Along for the ride are crooked cops, crazy cons, killers, druggies, punks and Mafia bad guys. It’s a must book to search for.
James Lee Burke (with his Dave Robicheaux series of novels) and James Crumely (Milo Milodragovitch and C.W. Sughrue are his detectives, and both appear together in Bordersnakes, Mysterious Press, 1996), are doing some of the best work around today. But not often enough, they are not prolific at all. But they are hard-boiled and often brutal, starkly real and full of heart. These guys expand the bounds of the hard-boiled crime novel, expand the bounds of crime itself, showing us the intermix with everyday life, and with everyday America. Social consciousness that shows the dark heart of America, as nasty and brutal as it has ever been. Burke even has Robicheaux enter the netherworld between his detective and the ghost of a dead Confederate general – and he pulls it off! Crumley’s The Last Good Kiss is a kick-ass classic that is a must read.
James Ellroy (The Big Nowhere, L.A. Confidential, and what I consider his two classics, White Jazz and American Tabloid – hard to read but worth the work) is another writer up there with the greats. He lifts the covers off pretense and hypocrisy and shows us all the wet slimy things that wriggle underneath. Ugly, brutal, but like a highway accident, you can not look away. Whether it’s 1950s Los Angeles, or the modern world of cops and crims, Ellroy is right on target. And he pulls no punches.
Some newer writers are also chalking up excellent work. Michael Connelly was a relatively new writer when I first wrote this article years ago. At that time he’d checked in with his first novel, The Black Echo. Since then has become a legitimate super star with many fine novels to his credit, Black Ice, The Concrete Blonde, and his latest Void Moon. Connelly’s detective, Harry (Hieronymus) Bosch is at odds with his own department, the F.B.I., and even himself, in an exciting series of books that twists and turns like a Hieronymus Bosch painting itself. His first book even won an Edgar Award, but I won’t hold that against it.
Truth is most awards in the mystery field are bullshit given out to stroke friends. And most of these award winners and their books will be forgotten – but authentic hard-boiled work transcends time, fad, damnit, it even transcends bullshit. Hard-boiled is real and true, it lives and breathes right there in that book as you read it. You can feel the cold breath of death, taste the anger and rage like bile, feel your bowels tighten as you see the outrage coming. The evil is on its way into your world – and there’s no one able to stop it!
Russell James (Payback, Daylight, Oh No, Not My baby! etc.) is another guy who can write a hell of a good story, and who says Brits can’t write true hard-boiled? This guy is good! James makes it all come starkly alive, dangerous and fascinating. Good characters and tight plotting make him someone to watch.
I.K. Watson, another British writer, tells a great story in his debut novel, Manor (Foul Play Press, 1996) of the Smith family. They’re the modern inheritors of the crime kingdom of the Krays and Richardsons who now find themselves under siege in this hard-boiled crime novel that I feel is destined to become a classic. As far as I know Watson has written one other book, Wolves Aren’t White. Anyone got a copy?
Thomas Boyle so far has written three novels in his Brooklyn series (Only The Dead Know Brooklyn, Post-Mortem Effects, and Brooklyn Three), all about a homicide cop named DeSales who’s trapped between different worlds and different parts of himself. A hard-boiled Brooklyn cop trying to hold on to his decency and humanity while working at a job that every day tries its best to chip away whatever it can of his soul, his spirit and his honor. He does not give up. These are great, very underrated novels. At the time I wrote this article Boyle was working on a 4th Brooklyn/DeSales novel and looking for a publisher for it. I hope he found it, but I’ve yet to see the book.
Wayne Dundee in his Joe Hannibal series (Burning Season, The Skintight Shroud, and The Brutal Ballet), writes a more humane type of private eye, hard-boiled but with a big heart. It’s an interesting mix that works because the basic humanity of Hannibal (and Dundee) come through in his struggle to ‘fight the good fight’. And sometimes he even wins!
Joe Lansdale, is another great. At the time I originally wrote this article, he was mainly known for fantasy and horror, but he’s proved he can pen one hell of an incredible hard-boiled story when the feeling comes upon him. Urban horror or country horror – you don’t need no supernatural nonsense in Lansdale’s crime fiction to scarce the hell out of you. His Hap and Leonard books are classics, adventures of two pals in red-neck East Texas. Mucho Mojo, is a serial killer novel that grabs at your guts, twists hard, and just won’t let you go. Pretty it ain’t, but good it sure be. There are more books in this series, such as Two Bear Mambo is a sequel, more recent books keep the series going strong. Lansdale, with Vachss, even collaborated on a book, Veil’s Visit, a collection of great short stories.
I’m sure that some of the authors who have written for my own crime magazine, Hardboiled, will be stars in the future. People like Mike Black, David Scholl, Rose Dawn Bradford, Royce Allen, Joy Hewitt Mann, Cindy Rosmus, Rebecca Hardy Black, Robert Skinner, and many more are writers who offer hard, realistic, cutting-edge work. And there’s true meaning and value to their work and all the writers whose work has appeared in the pages of Hardboiled over the years. These writers take a stand and tell a story without boundries. They write serious, they have guts; they're not doing the usual crap.
To stand for something, in life, as well as in your fiction as a writer, to tell the truth and let the chips fall where they may, to have guts and attitude, and not be afraid to take chances -–that's real attitude – and that’s the hard-boiled way.
[This article was originally published in the UK crime magazine A Shot In The Dark, #3, March 1995. It has been updated for this appearance, and is copyright 1995 and 2001 by Gary Lovisi. All Rights Reserved.]