Shoot to Kill & Kiss the Dames – a fond look at hard-boiled detectives

The hard-boiled detective is America’s contribution to the mystery genre.  For a good hard-boiled detective story you need a sarcastic, licensed private eye, with a loyal secretary who often hasn’t been paid regularly due to lack of funds, a few gunshots, a dead body or two, at least one beautiful dame probably called ‘sweetheart’ and the gum-shoe getting fired from the case but sticking with it because of his/her own moral code. Get out your old books and enjoy!


Ross MacDonald’s Lew Archer

Lew Archer goes mostly undescribed but in THE DOOMSTERS he is referred to as being 6’2″ with blue eyes. He drinks too much, is weary in his soul and thinks about his ex-wife a lot.

He did describe himself once:

“I tried smiling to encourage myself. I was a good Joe after all. Consorter with roughnecks, tarts, hard cases and easy marks; private eye at the keyhole of illicit bedrooms; informer to jealousy, rat behind the walls, hired gun to anybody with fifty dollars a day; but a good Joe after all. The wrinkles formed at the corner of my eyes, the wings of my nose; the lips drew back from the teeth, but there was no smile. All I got was a lean famished look like a coyote’s sneer. The face had seen too many bars, too many rundown hotels and crummy love nests, too many courtrooms and prisons, postmortems and police lineups, too many nerve endings showing like tortured worms. If I found the face on a stranger, I wouldn’t trust it.” (THE MOVING TARGET)


Dashiell Hammett’s The Continental Op

The Continental Op is unnamed but we do know he is short and fat. Tough as nails, he has no sentimentality and no sympathy. He is just trying to do his job in a very messed up world. The most feeling he shows was when he shot a woman: “I never shot a woman before. I felt queer about it.” (THE GUTTING OF GUFFIGNAL)

He was described thus in THE DAIN CURSE:

“You came in just now, and then I saw -”

She stopped.


“A monster. A nice one, an especially nice one to have around when you’re in trouble, but a monster just the same, without any human foolishness like love in him, and – What’s the matter? Have I said something I shouldn’t?”


Dashiell Hammett’s Sam Spade:

Hammett described Spade: “…he is what most of the private detectives I worked with would like to have been … a hard and shifty fellow, able to take care of himself in any situation, able to get the best of anybody he comes in contact with, whether criminal, innocent by-stander or client.” Spade was also good with the one-liners as these from THE MALTESE FALCON show:

Cairo: You always have a very smooth explanation ready.
Spade: What do you want me to do, learn to stutter?”

O’Shaughnessy: “I haven’t lived a good life. I’ve been bad, worse than you could know.”
Spade: “You know, that’s good, because if you actually were as innocent as you pretend to be, we’d never get anywhere.”  

“Listen, Dundy, it’s been a long time since I burst into tears because a policeman didn’t like me.”

“Don’t be too sure I’m as crooked as I’m supposed to be”


Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe

Marlowe was great with the wise cracks, drank whisky, played chess, and didn’t have a secretary. He describes himself:

“There’s very little to tell. I’m thirty-three years old, went to college once and can still speak English if there’s any demand for it. There isn’t much in my trade.” (THE BIG SLEEP)

“Okay, Marlowe,” I said between my teeth. “You’re a tough guy. Six feet of iron man. One hundred and ninety pounds stripped and with your face washed. Hard muscles and no glass jaw. You can take it.” (FAREWELL, MY LOVELY)

I needed a drink, I needed a lot of life insurance, I needed a vacation, I needed a home in the country. What I had was a coat, a hat and a gun. I put them on and left the room.” (FAREWELL, MY LOVELY)

Marlowe has reappeared in THE BLACK EYED BLONDE by Benjamin Black. Honest, you wouldn’t know that Chandler didn’t write it unless I told you, it’s that good.


Leigh Brackett’s Ed Clive

At a time when the field was dominated by male writers, Leigh Brackett, a science fiction writer of short stories, created a hard-boiled detective named Ed Clive in her first novel, NO GOOD FROM A CORPSE. The novel was so good that film director Howard Hawks told his people to “get that guy Brackett”. She wrote the screenplay for THE BIG SLEEP and THE LONG GOODBYE among other big flicks.

Clive is a tough, tough-guy. He gets hit over the head so many times you wonder if he has a steel plate up there:

“Did it hurt much, getting hit like that?”

Clive laughed. “I hardly notice those things any more. You get hardened to it.

She studied his face intently. “I guess a detective has to be tough. Are you tough, Mr. Clive?”

“How do I look?”

“Tough. Awfully tough.”  (NO GOOD FROM A CORPSE)


 Loren Estleman’s Amos Walker

The things Walker doesn’t like would make a book – gun control, non-smokers, liberals, and feminists just to give you an idea. He’s a hard-drinking, chain-smoking thorn in the side of the authorities. He’s the guy for whom the term “tough guy” was invented.

“If it weren’t for concussions I wouldn’t get any sleep at all.”
— Amos responds to a suggestion that he see a doctor after he’s slugged (again). (THE LEFT-HANDED DOLLAR)


Mickey Spillane’s Mike Hammer

Spillane never claimed to be a “good” writer. He wrote to sell books, and sell they did. His 13 Mike Hammer books sold over 225 million copies. Clad in the private eye’s traditional trench-coat with his hat brim pulled down low, Mike Hammer was a no-holds-barred, take-no-prisoners, private detective who carried a .45 Colt.

He wasn’t interested in catching the killers. He figured the legal system would mess it up. He cared about justice and he was more than willing to shoot to kill a killer. In the first five books of the Hammer series, Hammer dispatches 34 dirty, low-down killers.

Hammer’s saving grace may be that two good people were his friends and cared about him, Velda, his secretary, and Pat Chambers, Homicide Captain of the NYPD.

Spillane describes him thus: “Imagine this guys hits Mike Hammer over the head with a wooden coathanger [sic] and knocks him out. You hit Mike Hammer over the head with a wooden coathanger [sic]; he’ll beat the crap out of you.”

There are some very modern lady detectives that are hard-boiled as well, and they are for another time.

The Klondike Era Mysteries

I feel like I have found a gold mine myself!  This historical mystery series by Canadian writer Sharon Rowse shows great development.  While I am eagerly awaiting the third book in the series, I am also wishing I hadn’t found the series so early on – then I could sit down and devour them one after another.

The first book, The Silk Train Murder, came out in 2012 and has the best of all possible lines for a series set in the Klondike ~ “Shut the door!  It’s bleedin’ cold out there.”  This historical mystery is set in the late 1800s in Vancouver, BC, Canada. John Lansdowne Granville undertakes to clear his friend, Scott, of murder; gets a client who will pay for him to do so (making him a private detective even though detectives probably weren’t licensed at that time); gets beaten up as private detectives are prone to do and at the end forms a private detective agency.

This book’s strongest feature is not historical atmosphere, but this is Rowse’s first book and as such it was quite strong.  Strong enough to be a nominee for the Arthur Ellis award.  The book is notable for its interesting characters that make you want to know more about them.

The second book, The Lost Mine Murders (2013), was much stronger.  Granville and Scott formed their detective agency in The Silk Train Murder and are now in need of a client. In walks Cole, with a map to a gold mine and a cache of gold, and hires them to help him get to the mine and bring out the gold. It’s the middle of winter and not a good time to take to the mountains.

Rowse’s characters are still strong, the historical atmosphere and the plot is better than her first.   This is a series to enjoy.  Bring on the third one, Ms. Rowse!

Since Winter Doesn’t Seem To Want To Go Away….

There are still a few nippy days ahead in which to curl up in a chair, in front of the fire with a good mystery.  Here are some that will make you glad to see spring.


Dead of Winter –  Rennie Airth:

During a London blackout in 1944, a young woman is murdered.  She worked on the farm of retired Scotland Yard Inspector John Madden.  This is the third in a trilogy and you will enjoy it more fully if you read the series in order beginning with River of Darkness; followed by The Blood-Dimmed Tide.  The series covers the time from when Madden returns from The Great War, until 1944.


Dead of Winter –  P. J. Parrish

Loon Lake, Michigan lures policeman Louis Kincaid who is searching for a ‘quieter’ place to live and work, but when local policemen start turning up murdered Kincaid’s loyalties are tested.  This is a fast-paced, suspenseful book.


In the Bleak Mid-Winter – Julia Spencer-Fleming

This multiple award winning mystery is the first in the series featuring Rev. Claire Fergusson.  Claire, after serving as an Army helicopter pilot, is a newly ordained Episcopal minister in the upstate New York town of Miller’s Kill.  It’s a very well-crafted series and in this first book, winter plays an important role.


Winter of Her Discontent – Katherine Miller Haines

Rosie Winter is hoping to land a part on Broadway but she must also solve a murder to clear a friend.  The series does a wonderful job of portraying the US home-front during WWII and in spite of a few historical inaccuracies it is very entertaining.  This is the second book in the series.


The Winter Garden Mystery – Carla Dunn

The Honorable Daisy Dalrymple is a very likeable English journalist in 1923.  While this mystery series falls into the genre of “cozy” it does not rely on gimmicks or cuteness, but on the plot and Daisy’s inimitable style.  Here she is writing an article about English manor houses when the body of a maid is discovered in the garden.


Winter House – Carol O’Connell

The Kathy Mallory series are not cozy.  In fact, if Kathy was a private detective rather than a NYPD detective, you could call it a ‘hard-boiled’ detective series.  You might not like Kathy; she has her own moral code and often walks the fine line of legality.  Here, she is investigating the murder of a burglar.  He was carrying an ice-pick.  The Winter House was the scene, years before, of a family murdered by an ice pick.


The Winter Murder Case – S. S. Van Dine

This is the last case of Philo Vance.  Unlike all the others, it takes place in Massachusetts’ Berkshire Mountains. Carrington Rexon is worried about his emerald collection.  He has a houseful of guests and is uneasy so he has called on District Attorney Markham for help.  “Yes. Collectors are like that. Where can he turn in his hour of uncertainty? Ah, his old friend Markham! Equipped with all the proper gadgets for just such delicate observation. Gadget Number One: Mr. Philo Vance. Looks presentable in a dinner coat. Won’t drink from his finger-bowl. Could mingle and observe, without rousing suspicion. Discretion guaranteed. Excellent way of detecting a lurking shadow–if any.” Vance smiled resignedly. “Is that the gist of the worried Rexon’s runes by long-distance phone?”


Winter Prey – John Sanford

A savage killer named The Iceman and the unrelenting cold of a Wisconsin winter combine forces against Minneapolis, ex-cop Lucas Davenport as he struggles to help the local police identify the killer.  Suspenseful, gritty and very enjoyable.


Winter Queen – Boris Akunin

In the late 1800s, young Fandorin is an investigator with the Moscow police.  He witnesses the apparent suicide of a young man and is convinced there is more to the case than is commonly thought.  From the streets of Moscow to the Winter Queen Hotel in London this book reads like a literary historical novel.


Winter Study – Nevada Barr

Isle Royale, an island in Lake Superior off the coast of Michigan is the setting for National Park Ranger Anna Pigeon’s adventure.  She is taking part in a wolf study. Between the cold, the wolves and the untrustworthy humans this book moves from mystery to terrifying suspense. If you would like to visit our country’s National Parks and have all the adventure you can handle, pick up this series.


Winter of the Wolf Moon – Steve Hamilton

Alex McKnight is one of the four ‘white knights’ I would want to find at my door if I were in trouble.  McKnight is another series set in northern Michigan where the cold is a big factor in winter. The first book in the series won the Edgar award for Best First Novel and this one lives up to that standard.  Here, an Ojibwa woman is at Alex’s door one winter night asking for help.  In the morning she is gone and Alex is about to be plunged into a world of trouble.


The best “winter” mystery of all is Hell Is Empty by Craig Johnson, but it doesn’t have “winter” in the title…  Read it anyway, it takes your breath away and will keep you indoors for the rest of the winter.