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.

Private Gumshoes in America

These are all licensed private eyes in the good old USA. No amateurs here, for these sleuths solving crime is their bread and butter.


Robert Crais – If you are looking for the return of the ‘hard-boiled’ detective, Elvis Cole, in Hollywood, is your man.  He first appears in The Monkey’s Raincoat, which won three of the four major mystery awards it was nominated for.


Walter Mosley – Easy Rawlings is a black detective in 1940’s Los Angeles. The first book is Devil in a Blue Dress.  Check out the movie, too.


Sharon Duncan – While the Scotia Mackinnon series is on the “cozy” side, Ms Duncan writes a very enjoyable mystery with skill and convincing detail. Start with Death on a Casual Friday. The series takes place on San Juan Island in Washington.


Stuart Kaminsky – Kaminsky was the originator of Jim Rockford of the TV’s Rockford Files, but his really fun series is with Toby Peters. Peters is a Hollywood private eye in the hey-day of the big movie studios and big name stars appear in the books beginning with Bullet for a Star.


Peter Spiegelman – John March is a Manhattan PI that you should get to know. Educated, erudite and insightful, he is also street-smart and tough. The first in this short series is Black Maps.


Bill Pronzini – This Grand Master of Mystery Writers began his Nameless Detective series when he was just 27 years old with The Snatch.  The Nameless Detective has appeared in 37 novels so far with the latest being released just last month. Read them from the beginning.  They take place in San Francisco.


Dick Lochte – Here’s a fun series featuring Leo Bloodworthy, a 50 year old private eye in LA. who gets an unusual sidekick in the form of 15 year old Serendipity. There are only two of these books but they are very enjoyable reads. The first is Sleeping Dog, followed by Laughing Dog.


Stephen Greenleaf – Here’s another ‘hard-boiled’ detective for you. John Marshall Tanner, in San Francisco, is too familiar with the gritty crime of the city. He’s a loner and a get-down-to-business kind of guy. No long passages on the nature of life here! Let the reader beware though, swearing and violence are aplenty, so if this isn’t your cup of tea pick up a cozy instead. If it is your cup of tea – start with Grave Error.


Sue Grafton – Kinsey Malone’s successful appearance in the private eye world was the beginning of the resurgence of popular lady detectives and female mystery writers. The books are easy to read in order as they are alphabetical. The first is A is for Alibi, but I have to tell you that I think B is for Burglar was my favorite.


Stephen Dobyns – Two writers are “must reads” for mystery lovers around here – Archer Mayor and Stephen Dobyns.  Dobyns’ private eye is Charlie Bradsaw, with his friend Vic, they are just across the state line in Saratoga Springs.  If you want to start at the beginning read Saratoga Longshot, but Saratoga Fleshpot is maybe the best of the bunch.