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.

Bodies In The Stacks

Here’s a bit of ‘Colonel Mustard in the library with the candlestick’.  The bodies are all definitely in the library. Little did I know when I chose this theme two months ago, that a headline of the Toronto Globe & Mail, on 02 December 2010, would read “Man Killed in Library with Crossbow”. Sometimes fact is stranger than fiction.

Blind Justice – by Bruce Alexander. “There has been a shooting at Lord Goodhope’s residence.  He himself is apparently the victim.”  Masterfully written, this historical mystery is also a ‘locked room’ mystery.  The body is in the library at the London residence of Lord Goodhope.  First considered a suicide, it quickly becomes evident that it is a case of murder.  Then it turns out that the victim was apparently “murdered” twice.  First he was poisoned, and then he was shot.  Sir John Fielding, founder of London’s first police force, the Bow Street Runners, sorts out this complex and very satisfying case.

The Burglar in the Library – by Lawrence Block. It sounds like an English country manor mystery, complete with an English-style inn, snowbound guests for the weekend and bodies all over the place.  The first one appears in the library, done in by a camel and a pillow. And they continue to pile up.  But as Bernie Rhodenbarr (burglar, bookseller and sleuth) says, “…this isn’t a cozy little English murder case at all, it’s tough and hardboiled and it’s not going to be solved by pussyfooting around like Miss Jane Marple or Lord Peter Wimsey.  This is Philip Marlowe’s kind of caper.”

The Body in the Library – by Agatha Christie. A platinum blond is dead on the hearth-rug in Colonel Bantry’s library.  She was sedated and then strangled.  The Colonel’s wife calls upon her friend, Miss Jane Marple, to help solve the crime. It’s typical Christie: multiple victims, multiple policemen investigating, multiple suspects with alibis (if the time of death is right), and multiple suspects with no alibi’s but also no motive.  What more could you ask for in a Christie ‘who-done-it’?

Miss Zukas & the Library Murders – by Jo Dereski. Miss Zukas is a stereotypical spinster librarian whose prim, proper and precise manner is disrupted when she arrives at work and finds police cars outside the library.  It seems there is a dead body in the fiction section.  It’s in the Mo-Ne aisle to be exact.  The weapon is a catalog card drawer rod, straight through the heart. This is a “cozy”. Miss Zukas may be “proper”, but her friends are as zany as they come. PS: The library has a great cat.

The Cruellest Month – by Hazel Holt.  Sheila Malory is the sleuth in this very classic style mystery.  The body of a retired librarian is found underneath collapsed shelves at Oxford’s Bodleian Library. A very heavy tome appears to have hit her on the head. It is considered an accident by the police. The body was found by Sheila’s godson and his description of the scene leaves Malory feeling that murder may have been done. The deceased was not well liked and so possible suspects abound.  It has wonderful interesting bits about the Bodleian. Several literary references are made in the book, enjoyable if you know what they refer to, but it’s not necessary to know them to enjoy the story.

Bury Your Dead – by Louise Penny. Chief Inspector Gamache, top homicide detective of the Sureté du Quebec is in Quebec City, recovering from a physical and emotional trauma, the exact nature of which isn’t immediately known but which is slowly revealed throughout the book.  While he is there, the body of an eccentric searching for the burial site of Champlain, Québec’s founder, turns up in the basement of the Literary and Historical Society Library and Gamache is drawn into the case. He is also bothered by the resolution of a previous case and dispatches his colleague, Insp. Beauvoir, to the quiet town of Three Pines to revisit the case. Tying three plots into a cohesive whole is a daunting task and Penny has done it with absolute perfection.

Other suggestions:

Murder in the Stacks – by Marion Boyd.  Difficult to find, but worth the effort.

The Long Farewell – by Michael Innes.  Actually, lots of Innes’s bodies are in libraries.

Murder in a Library – by Charles Dutton.  Another oldie that’s hard to find.

Here the body isn’t in the library, but The Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco is about books, libraries, censorship, and the cost of truth.  Plus it’s a great murder mystery.

Published in: on February 16, 2011 at 11:19 am  Leave a Comment  
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