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Hard-Boiled Pulp

Photo illustration by Bill Drake and Michael Mardosa

Hard-Boiled Pulp
UMaine professor makes a case for the detective novel

About the Photo Illustration: Professor Jeff Evans: "They wanted escapism, but they wanted it in a problem-solving medium that made them feel better about the society in which they lived. Sherlock Holmes' cerebral rationality could no longer do that for them, but Raymond Chandler's detective, Phillip Marlowe, for instance, could absolutely do that for them by putting himself on the line, not caring about money or reward, withstanding abuse and sticking to his moral code."

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There is one thing that is most important, in all the dark mystery of tonight, and that is how that ugly little auburn-haired red-eyed man, with his torn ear and his sharp dog-pointed teeth, with his twisted corkscrew legs and his truncated height, and all the other extraordinary details about him, could have got away and vanished so completely from the face of the countryside after killing Inis St. Erme.

From The Red Right Hand, by Joel Townsley Rogers

During its heyday, from 192050, the hard-boiled detective novel dominated American pop culture. In its grit, it rivaled the outlaw toughness of the Western, which influenced it. In its darkness, it echoed the Gothic, which deepened it.

Like jazz, it was distinctly American, an exciting, fresh style of writing that reflected the brash rhythms of a new frontier the city. It was urban and racy, the dialogue snapped, sex underscored the sleaze, blood soaked the pavements.

It was everywhere on best-seller lists and magazine racks, on radio shows and at the movies. It influenced the noir movement of the 1940s and 50s, such as with John Huston's The Maltese Falcon and Alfred Hitchcock's Shadow of a Doubt, and it found some pulp magazine writers each pounding out more than 1.5 million words a year just to keep up with the demand.

Its invention was a necessity. With Prohibition killing a national high, crime on the rise and people out of work due to the Depression, the American dream essentially went belly up. Those who had been on a binge in the 20s were faced with the bleak reality that they were broke and might not become rich after all. That knowledge led to a national gloom that proved the perfect caldron for the invention of a new art form, one that would allow people to escape their frustration through urban fantasy.

What they wanted was complex. Those who were suddenly out of work resented the big-time crooks of the day who were becoming wealthy and powerful through crime; they wanted them dead for it.

At the same time, Bonnie and Clyde, Pretty Boy Floyd and John Dillinger all small-time crooks compared to Al Capone had become national folk heroes. It was a time of such upheaval, readers could no longer identify with the quaint, respectable British detective fiction that featured such mannered sleuths as Sherlock Holmes, Miss Marple and Hercule Poirot.

What they wanted was someone unmannered and tough, an honest hero who would physically take to the streets and get rid of these bums with their fists and their brains. They wanted action and they wanted heat, not crimes being solved cerebrally in the comfort of a drawing room.

So who was such a person?

According to University of Maine Associate Professor of English Jeff Evans, an expert in the hard-boiled genre, this new detective was "a lone wolf gunslinger with a sense of justice who enforced the law himself. He was a rebel, the person who turned against established society and tried to articulate a whole new set of freedoms. He was an outsider. In him are characteristics we wanted to see in the culture."

Never respected as literature until such writers as Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler and Ross Macdonald pushed it into prominence with their unique style and worldview, the genre was born in the wealth of pulp fiction magazines of the day, including such entertaining rags as Black Mask, Dime Detective, Detective Fiction Weekly and Clues.

It was considered a cheaper style of writing because of its daring content and fringe characters, and because of the quality of the paper on which it was printed. Whereas the respected magazines of the day Smart Set, Scribner's, Saturday Evening Post were printed on high-end, glossy stock, this new brand of detective fiction was published on low-end pulp. Still, it is vital and important. It offers a window into the past, and its influence resonates even today in the works of such popular writers as Elmore Leonard, Sara Paretsky, Patricia Cornwell, Michael Connelly and John Sandford.

According to Evans, the genre connected with readers of the day because of its mistrust in the institutions that failed to serve us, such as government and law, and because it recognized there no longer was a frontier. This was, after all, an era in which Dodge City had become a city, not just an outpost, and the American landscape was forever changed.

"The country was all used up," Evans says. "The edge of the frontier was California and the detective needed to confront the city. What he found was a mask, a veneer of society and civilization that concealed great complication. Politics, wealth and social status all came to bear on the problems he had to solve."

With the pressures of the Depression, Prohibition and World War II weighing down the population, people were thrown out of their ordinary sets of beliefs and faiths.

"They wanted escapism," Evans says, "but they wanted it in a problem-solving medium that made them feel better about the society in which they lived. Sherlock Holmes' cerebral rationality could no longer do that for them, but Raymond Chandler's detective, Philip Marlowe, for instance, could absolutely do that for them by putting himself on the line, not caring about money or reward, withstanding abuse and sticking to his moral code."

American society viewed evil as an ongoing reality, uncoiling just beneath the surface, and the real reason our country and its systems no longer worked.

For the hard-boiled detective, solving a case is parallel to a kind of knightly ordeal, Evans says, a gauntlet of tortures. "If there is nothing else to believe in, you believe in the profession and you try to advance that," he says. "It's what I like about the genre. Beneath the professionalism is a moral code these detectives stick to. That might be what endeared people to the reading. There is a clear sense of direction and action these characters take."

The direction the genre took went beyond magazines and books. It rippled across popular mediums, connecting with radio audiences in the detective serials of the day, and especially in Hollywood with the gangster films of the 30s and 40s.

One of the most influential films of the genre is the 1946 Howard Hawks' classic, The Big Sleep, a baffling yet entertaining movie based on Raymond Chandler's 1939 novel of the same name.

The movie stars Humphrey Bogart as Chandler's great hero, Philip Marlowe, a private dick who is on the side of justice, even though he doesn't see much justice around him. The film is crafted in the noir style, a direct descendant of the hard-boiled genre that gets to its base elements of mistrust, such as in its cynical examination of women and romantic love.

"The treatment of women in the genre isn't very good, as you would suspect," says Evans. "They are portrayed as temptresses and seductresses, or they are the good woman, the housekeeper, the home crafter, someone playing a subservient role who needed to be rescued. When they behaved as men, they would either be seen as comic, evil or immoral."

However, Evans says, as the genre evolved and as the male protagonist, such as Jack Nicholson's character in Chinatown, became more problematized the female character often broke out of stereotypes and became more complex and capable, such as the character Susan Silverman in Robert B. Parker's novels.

In his classes, Evans teaches the literary canon, but he presses against it by complementing it with other books. He joins other scholars in believing that the canon should be broadened to reflect the genres it ignores, such as this brand of fiction.

"What I've done is to insinuate Chandler into the traditional American novel," he says. "For instance, Chandler's novel, The Long Goodbye, is essentially a version of The Great Gatsby. It's fascinating to teach them together."

This semester, he will teach an advanced topics in film course that will juxtapose American noir fiction with its counterpart in film. He also teaches Hammett in a graduate-level course on 20th-century American literature.

"Hammett was writing during the same time as Hemingway," Evans says, "but he hasn't enjoyed the same critical acclaim. You can teach him for his style and vision. He was one of the first writers who melded a style with a modern worldview, which shaped a whole generation of popular writers.

"That kind of influence can't go ignored."

by Chris Smith
January-February, 2005

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