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The History of the Hard-Boiled Detective

There are many sub-genres of detective fiction and hard-boiled fiction is one of them. What exactly is hard-boiled detective fiction? Hard-Boiled detective fiction is fiction that features tough, cynical, urban private eyes who expose corruption and frequently get injured in the course of their investigations (“Detective Fiction,” Literary). Hard-Boiled fiction is considered one of the more popular sub-genres of detective fiction; there have been numerous films and novels about urban detectives exposing corruption in the police force and in politics.

The author credited with inventing the first successful hard-boiled story is Carroll John Daly. His character, Terry Mack, was quick to fight, was quick to shoot and he made plenty of wise-cracks (Marling). This character is what defined hard-boiled detective fiction and is the prototype for thousands of other detectives. To really understand what sets hard-boiled fiction apart from other type of detective fiction you need to know about the history of detective fiction up to when hard-boiled fiction was invented. Characters that use logical reasoning and notice “clues” have been appearing in literature since the 6th century BC.

The first appearance of a detective like character was the fox in Aesop’s fables. In one story the fox decided not to enter a hungry lion’s cave when he saw that there were many animal footprints going into the cave but none coming out (“Detective Fiction,” Literary). Another ancient detective was Daniel from the Bible. In one of the stories Daniel exposes a religious fraud by tracking the culprits’ footprints (“Detective Fiction,” Literary). In a different story Daniel uncovers a conspiracy by questioning two witnesses separately to reveal contradictions in their evidence (“Detective Fiction,” Literary).

The actual invention of detective fiction did not occur until 1841 when Edgar Allen Poe wrote The Murders in the Rue Morgue. In this novel Poe introduced Auguste Dupin, who was the main character of the story. In Poe’s story the detective was very intelligent and he had superior reasoning skills. Poe’s story set the basic plot for detective stories of that time. A crime, usually murder, is committed; a detective investigates the crime; a number of suspects are considered; the guilty party is discovered and imprisoned, killed, or allowed to escape at the conclusion (Detective Fiction,” 1 Twentieth Century).

The detective story was originally a competition between the reader and the writer. It was a game intended to challenge the intellect and stimulate though. The reader is challenged by the writer to attempt to solve the mystery with the clues provided. In the final pages of the story the reader would learn if their solution matched that of the detective (Herbert and Hillerman 3-4). Detective stories continued to be this intellectual challenge between reader and writer for many years until the hard-boiled genre emerged.

The first hard-boiled detective was Terry Mack, who first appeared in Black Mask magazine in 1923 (Marling). This detective was quick to fight and less on an intellectual than Auguste Dupin. He battled corrupt policemen and gangsters and almost always became injured in the process. Hard-Boiled detective fiction brought the complexity of the story down and added a greater sense of adventure to the novels. This attracted many readers and caused the sub-genre to take off like a rocket (Marling). Hard-Boiled fiction reached its peak in the 1930s and the 1940s. It reflected the pressures of the Depression and World War II.

Its villains changed from the small-time hoodlums to white-collar criminals (Marling). Film accelerated the popularity of the genre (Marling). There were many new themes added to the genre during this time, some writers took all traces of mystery out of the novel and left only the action, others created more realistic characters with problems such as we have in the real world, but for the most part the detective was still a gun-slinging wise-crack who didn’t mind a few scrapes and bruises. At this time dime novels were very popular. Dime novels are obviously novels that could be bought for only a dime.

These novels were also a major contributing factor to the popularity of the genre, because the novel could be bought for so little more and more people were buying one. The other effect of the novels being sold for only a dime was that authors would write thousands of words every week just to sell their story, if they were lucky a publisher would buy the rights to the novel and it would become popular and bring them a considerable sum of money (Marling). Sadly after the 1950s hard-boiled fiction started to decline in popularity, people were moving on to other genres of course there were exceptions but there were not very many.

Today there are still many great hard-boiled detective novels but there are not many films made about hard-boiled detectives. Hard-Boiled fiction has branched into many sub-genres, some of which are very popular today (Siegel). Hard-Boiled fiction has come a long way from its beginnings in a monthly magazine millions of novels read around the world. The only place where hard-boiled fiction has actually died off is in the theaters, hopefully that will be the only place where it dies.

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