There are literally dozens of great authors and great novels that could have been suggested as essential reading for this guide. The writer of the article went through agonising decisions over who to leave out and is more than aware that your favourite author probably hasn’t been mentioned but feel free to start a discussion in the comments.
A (not-so-brief) Brief Overview of Hard-boiled and Noir Fiction
Part Three – The Times They Are A Changing (1960s to 1980s)
It’s a terribly clichéd expression to use as a title for this chapter I know but when looking at the evolution of hard-boiled and noir fiction it’s hard not to take in to consideration the fact that socially and politically America was in turmoil like never before.
In part two we acknowledged that the bleak outlook adopted by the second generation of noir authors, such as Jim Thompson, was a reflection of societal fears regarding Communism and nuclear war as they moved away from the prohibition era writing of Hammett and Chandler but as the 60s came around the audience for these books found themselves disconnected from the next generation who had radical ideas for changing the world.
The growth in popularity of television, the baby boomers, the Vietnam war, a President assassinated and that guy Nixon are just some of the major changes in American culture which saw the market for the bleakest noir fiction dwindle in size.
First there was the closure of several paperback original imprints whilst the ones that remained tended to focus on recurring characters rather than taking chances on original pulp work, then there was the splintering of the world of noir as it suddenly became a more diverse place. From the 70s onwards we’ve been treated to books about serial killers, forensics experts, hardened cops working within the departmental structure, and the redemption of the lone wolf. Not to mention females, homosexuals, non-whites and just about everything a writer desperate to stand out from the crowd could think of in between.
As mentioned previously several of the second generation of hard-boiled and noir writers kept writing after the death of the paperback original. Ross MacDonald’s Lew Archer and Mickey Spillane’s Mike Hammer were perfectly suited to repeat adventures throughout the 60s and 70s (Blue Hammer the 18th Archer in ‘76 and Black Alley the final real Hammer in ’96) and sat alongside the newcomers as wisened old heads ready to guide the next generation.
One of the most important names in the history of the genre is Lawrence Block, he got started writing short stories during the heady days of the paperback originals (some of which are collected in the highly enjoyable Lost Weekends and One Night Stands) and had his first novels published in the early 60s. Amongst his mixed bag of early work the superb and disturbing Mona AKA Grifter’s Game (1961) has the distinction of being the first novel republished by the excellent Hard Case Crime imprint. He is a man that appears to have adapted quite readily to the need for recurring protagonists with no fewer than six different series created by him since the mid 60s. The Sins of the Fathers (1976) marks the debut of perhaps his most popular character, Matt Scudder.
Swedish born American Donald Hamilton is someone that isn’t so readily known in the 21st century but his character Matt Helm was created for Gold Medal Books in Death of a Citizen (1960) and ran for 27 books until The Damagers (1993.) Helm is a no-nonsense kind of guy, working as an undercover counter-terrorist agent he narrates his escapades with a detached, dead pan style include the many fights, torture sequences and sexual conquests.
"Donald Hamilton has brought to the spy novel the authentic hard realism of Dashiell Hammett; and his stories are as compelling, and probably as close to the sordid truth of espionage, as any now being told."Donald Westlake was an incredibly prolific author in the genre who used many pseudonyms to divide up his different work. His most famous being Richard Stark, creator of the hard-boiled Parker, a ruthless master thief willing to do whatever it takes to get what he wants. Parker first appeared in The Hunter (1962) and went on to star in a further 23 novels until Dirty Money (2008).
The Deep Blue Good-Bye (1964) marked the debut of hard-boiled detective Travis McGee. His creator John D. MacDonald would write one book per year until The Lonely Silver Rain (1985) brought the sequence to a close after 21 adventures. McGee is known for being a misogynist, a character that has dated quite badly and can easily offend some readers. MacDonald has an easygoing approach to the series, his detective lives on a houseboat and would prefer to lounge around drinking to solving crimes, that belies the intricate plotting he uses and misogyny aside this is a great series of third generation hard-boiled fiction.
Robert B. Parker wrote his Ph.D dissertation on Hammett, Chandler and Ross MacDonald and went on to create his own legendary private eye, Spenser in The Godwulf Manuscript (1973). Parker is known for his modern approach to the classics of the genre and including series characters from minority backgrounds as more than just punchbags for his protagonist. Sixkill (2011) was the 40th Spenser outing and was the last novel he finished before his death, making Spenser The Rolling Stones of hard-boiled fiction.
Joseph Hansen is best known for his ground breaking series of crime novels starring his most iconic creation, Dave Brandstetter, an openly gay insurance investigator who still embodied the tough, no-nonsense personality of the classic hardboiled private investigator type of protagonist. His first outing was Fadeout (1970) and he went on to appear in eleven more novels until A Country of Old Men (1991).
James Crumley is a self-declared heir to the Chandler tradition, he defines his own sensibility as conditioned by the disillusionments of the Vietnam War and his vision of justice less clear-cut. His protagonists are environmentalists and sustained by eccentric alliances with criminals and other misfits. Described as the literary offspring of Chandler and Hunter S. Thompson he was another author who found success outside of America long before the Americans took to him. His book The Last Good Kiss (1978) features the alcoholic ex-army officer turned private detective, C.W. Sughrue, as it’s protagonist and has been labelled as the most important crime novel of the last 50 years, influencing much of what will be described as the fourth generation of hard-boiled and noir writing. The Mexican Tree Duck (1993) is the only one of his novels to be acknowledged with an award.
I’ll now break my own rules and mention briefly the British author Derek Raymond. In 1984 he wrote the first book in The Factory Series, He Died With His Eyes Open, a book that seems to have captured both the hard-boiled spirit of Chandler and the blackest, bleakest noir poetics of David Goodis in one wonderful novel. Whilst he wasn’t American he is the closest I have found to true hard-boiled and noir fiction outside of America and deserves to be read by all fans of the genre.
Part four will bring us right up to date with a quick look at some of the shining lights in contemporary American hard-boiled and noir fiction.
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