Hard-Boiled Mysteries

Hard-boiled, or Black Mask, fiction was born in America during the 1920s, a time when magazines known as pulps were flourishing. Since the turn of the century, these cheap publications had grown increasingly popular.

Probably the best known of these, and certainly the most influential, was The Black Mask, founded in 1920 by Henry L. Mencken and George Jean Nathan. During its long run (1920-1951), the magazine came to be associated with a style of writing that profoundly changed the face of detective fiction. Originally publishing any type of adventure story, The Black Mask eventually came to focus on crime and detective stories exclusively.

It was during Joseph Thompson Shaw’s editorship (1926-1936) that the magazine really hit its stride. It was Shaw who shortened the magazine’s title to Black Mask, and attempted, through the stories he published, to reflect a certain style of writing, taking detective fiction in an entirely new direction.

Black Mask stories reflected the harsh realities of life in America during that time; consequently the main characters were usually tough guys, loners, men who lived not only by strict ethical codes, but also “brought justice to the weak and death to those who preyed on them.” (The Crime Classics)

Two Black Mask writers in particular came to symbolize hard-boiled fiction.

Dashiell Hammett (1894-1961) and Raymond Chandler (1888-1959) both created stories and characters that will forever be identified with private-eye fiction, in the process creating a whole new genre. These stories, with their harsh realism, violence, and terse dialogue, remain the best examples of a style of writing that is acknowledged to be the most important contribution the United States has made to the mystery genre.

Dashiell Hammett started to write for Black Mask and other pulp magazines, where his first two novels, “Red Harvest” (1929) and “The Dain Curse” (1929), were serialized. These were followed by The Maltese Falcon (1930), which introduced his most famous character, Sam Spade. The 1941 version of the novel starred Humphrey Bogart as the reclusive P.I. Also appearing in The Adventures of Sam Spade (1944), Spade is probably the best-known private eye of all time.

Hammett also created the amateur crime-solving team of Nick and Nora Charles in his last book, “The Thin Man” (1934).

Raymond Chandler began writing late in life, publishing his first novel at age 50. After losing his job as an oil executive during the Depression, he saw detective fiction as a way to earn money. His many short stories published in Black Mask helped define hard-boiled fiction.

With “The Big Sleep” (1939), he introduced gumshoe Philip Marlowe, immortalized on film when the book was made into a movie starring Humphrey Bogart as the popular private eye. Chandler went on to write seven novels featuring Marlowe.

An expert at dialogue, Chandler’s use of metaphor and simile in his writing conveyed a sense of time and place that exemplified hard-boiled fiction at its best.


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