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 Good, The Bad & The Ugly ~ six recent reads

The Good

Mr. Resnick, I hope you never tire of writing Eli Paxton! A new hard-boiled detective you just have to love. Thanks, also, for the short story – it puts ‘Marlowe’ into a perfect relationship with Eli. I was worried that maybe he was going to go soft with Marlowe around, but I can see it will work out perfectly.

Good, modern-day, hard-boiled detectives are hard to find. Eli Paxton seems to be one. Granted – being hired to find a dog doesn’t seem like the best case in the world, but we all know that hard-boiled detectives are always struggling with a poorly funded bank account and one has to take what work one can get. Of course, the case is much, much bigger than one missing dog.

I need more room on my book shelves, because every Eli Paxton book is going to need a home.

Absolutely her best yet. Good mystery, deep characters and exquisite prose. There is a stand-alone mystery that is really well done, and there is also the on-going problems with the Surete itself. At the end of the last book I was quite upset and it seemed that evil wouldn’t be punished…. ah, all good things come to those that wait.

This fun con story has been re-published by Hard Case Crimes.  What a welcome addition to the publishing world they are!

Johnny Hayden and Doug Rance are con men who feel they have the perfect con ~ perfect because the have the mark’s secretary/girl-friend taking part.

Ah yes, the girl – Johnny says, “She had a special beauty nude. Most women look better clothed. Bodies are imperfect. Clothes hide, and also promise, and the promise is too often better than the fulfillment of it. Not so with Evvie.”  And ~ she has a grifter’s soul.

There comes a moment when the con is almost done, and you know in your heart of hearts something just has to go wrong… but never in my wildest imagination did I have a clue.

The Bad

This review was written for LibraryThing Early Reviewers.

I have mixed feelings about The Black Country. I enjoyed The Yard a great deal and was eagerly awaiting this novel, in order to follow Insp. Day and the rest of the Murder Squad.

This second book has Day, Hammersmith and Dr. Kingsley (all from the first book) sent out of London to the Midlands to investigate a missing persons case. I assume that Scotland Yard felt the missing would be found dead, or they would have sent other detectives rather than two key members of the Murder Squad. That was the first thing I questioned.

This book is darker than The Yard. The village is Blackhampton, a mining community. Small, grim and insular. This allows for the superstitious and secretive nature of the people. Grecian describes the village and its people extremely well. The village is ‘sinking’ into the hollowness beneath it created by the mining and this allows for a climax at the end that I found more suited for a ‘thriller’ than a police procedural which is what I had hoped Grecian’s series would be.

And that is my question/thought. Perhaps Grecian doesn’t see this series as ‘historical police procedural’. Perhaps he is leaning towards a more gothic, darker series. Both this book and The Yard involved children – crimes done by and to children – and I am hoping that this is a coincidence and not what the rest of the series will be. I find the idea of a police procedural at a time when police were just being to develop their skills and forensics was still in its infancy to be a very intriguing idea and would like to see the series develop along those lines.

Grecian has brought in sub-plots and extra characters. Some of them are necessary to the story and others not so much so. Not all loose ends are tied – I found it strange that when Campbell, the local constable, disappears no one in the village, or our Yard detectives, seems worried or concerned.

It is pretty obvious, early in the book, what has happened. I found the ending unsatisfying and unlikely. Given the attitudes of the time towards children I found it unlikely that the two children would have been treated as they were even though Day and Hammersmaith have shown their concern for children in the previous book.

I really like these characters and have great hopes for the series, so I will read the next one, as well, before deciding if I am going to follow the series over the long term.

Picked this up hoping for a hard-boiled detective that was female. While she does get a physical beating the dialogue isn’t quite sharp enough for me to call her ‘hard-boiled’. It was enjoyable, but the plot was very predictable and I didn’t get involved with her character enough to hunt for more in the series. I would read one if it fell into my lap, mind you, but I am not going to hunt them down.

The Ugly

I am having a difficult time reconciling the fact that this book has been placed in the finalists for ‘Best First Novel’ for the Anthony Award. The level of writing among ‘first novelists’ must be pretty bleak this year.

I am also having a difficult time with the fact that writers I respect – Patricia Cornwell, John Grisham, John Connelly and Christopher Reich all have glowing blurbs for this book.

What am I missing? Pavone’s method of telling the story – a section dealing with the ‘climax day’ interspersed with chapters giving you the story leading up to this day is supposed to (I think) help build the suspense. For me, it did exactly the opposite; giving strong unmistakable signs of what the true story was. There was no suspense and not really any surprises.

And there was no reason to care about the wooden characters, (in fact, most of the character are woefully short on character and the option from not caring about them was to dislike them) or the situation which I found inconsequential. It wasn’t a ‘spy’ story. Kate had worked for the CIA, but the story is about a crime, a theft of money. There is no ‘spying’. Don’t pick this one up if you are hoping for a book that will compare to the great spy/thriller writers, past or present.

Some things bothered me: for example, Kate, who is supposed to be an experienced spy, does really stupid things – leaves fingerprints all over, etc.   Her behavior just wasn’t real.

There is nothing wrong with Pavone’s writing skills.  He is very capable drafter of words.  But he just doesn’t have a good story here, in my opinion.

The Genre of Mystery

When we say that a book was  “such and such” a type of mystery.  What do these terms mean? And if we want definitions – what is a mystery? A librarian, when asked the difference between mainstream novels and mysteries replied, “If it’s got a dead body in it, it’s a mystery!” I don’t know who she was, but I think she has it pegged.

The English Manor Mystery – The suspects and the victim of the crime are members of a closed group (for example: in a snow-bound manor house, on a non-stop train or a ship at sea).  Read Agatha Christie’s Murder at the Vicarage, Dorothy Sayers’ story The Queen’s Square and Margery Allingham’s Police at the Funeral.

The Locked Room Mystery – The crime has been committed under impossible circumstances and the villain has escaped into thin air. The “king” of this genre is John Dickson Carr. His book The Hollow Man (The Three Coffins in the US) is considered by many to be the best mystery novel of all-time. Also try Jeffery Deaver’s The Vanished Man.

The Hard-boiled Detective – The USA’s contribution to mystery fiction features a tough-guy main character that faces danger and violence on a regular basis. Originally short stories in the ‘pulp’ magazine ‘Black Mask’, and later as novels in paperback (called pulp), the genre has become known as ‘pulp fiction’. Best known are Dashiell Hammett’s Sam Spade, Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe and Mickey Spillane’s Mike Hammer.

The Noir Mystery – The difference between the ‘hard boiled mystery’ and the ‘noir mystery’ is that in the latter genre the protagonist is tied directly to the crime, he isn’t an outside detective brought in to solve the crime.  Check out Elmore Leonard’s La Brava.

Police Procedural – These feature the detailed investigation of a crime from the police point of view. Their immense popularity came not from a novel but from the radio program ‘Dragnet’. Try Ed McBain’s Sadie When She Died, Joseph Wambaugh’s The New Centurions or Tony Hillerman’s Dance Hall of the Dead.

Historical – The definition of historical mysteries is quite loose. All agree that the story must take place before the book was published, but there is no agreement on how long before. Many think it should take place before the birth of the author; again no one agrees on how long before.  And there seems to be no agreement about how accurately the period must be portrayed.  There are mysteries set in every time period from ancient Rome to WWII.  Try Charles Todd’s A Test of Wills which takes place post-WWI.

Alternative History – Alternative history is when the author has changed the past. A good example is The Yiddish Policemen’s Union by Michael Chabon.  The State of Israel was destroyed in its infancy and many of the world’s Jews now live in a strip of Alaska.  His Yiddish policeman is in Sitka.

Secret History – Here, events that are not known to have happened are used, but they have not changed the past. This popular style has real life people (Eleanor Roosevelt, Margaret Truman, Oscar Wilde and William Shakespeare among others) becoming amateur detectives.

The Cozy – Cozies are “comfortable”. Instead of graphic violence, language or sex they feature a series character that solves cases through intuition, gossip and knowledge of human nature rather than forensics. (They all require a suspension of belief – after all, how many murders can a nice, elderly lady in Maine stumble across in a year?)

The Inverted Mystery – In these, the reader sees the crime committed and knows the identity of the villain. The attraction is in seeing how he, or she, is caught. On page one of Francis Iles’ Malice Aforethought you learn of a man’s plan to murder his wife. You are privy to his thoughts until a surprise ending.

Cross Genre – These are becoming more and more popular. They feature a setting that would normally place the book in the genre of science fiction, fantasy, or romance but, because the hero is a detective (willingly or otherwise), they are mysteries as well.  My favorites are Jim Butcher’s Dresden File series, starting with Storm Front, featuring Harry Dresden a wizard in Chicago, Mike Resnick’s Fable of Tonight series, beginning with Stalking the Unicorn,  and  Kate George’s romance-mystery, Moonlighting in Vermont.  Hopefully we will see more of Kate George.