The Hard-Boiled Mystery: American Influence

In The Golden Age of Mystery: British Influence I wrote about how I was influenced by reading hundreds upon hundreds of British novels written during the first Golden Age of Mystery (roughly 1920-1940). At the same time, I also read American mysteries written during the Golden Age.

Earl Derr Biggers, creator of Charlie Chan (novels, not movies!) published his first mystery, The House Without a Key, in 1925, and the sixth and final Chan novel, Keeper of the Keys, in 1932. Biggers’ Chan novels fit perfectly into the Golden Age. Like some of Christie’s Poirot novels, they’re set in exotic places. They often contain an element of romance. And, the crime is cleverly planned, in keeping with the Golden Age tradition. Only careful observation of everything and everybody leads Chan to the solution.

My mother was a fan of Erle Stanley Gardner, who created lawyer Perry Mason and published The Case of the Velvet Claws in 1933. Between 1933 and 1973, forty-six Perry Mason novels were published, the titles all starting with The Case of the. I read maybe a dozen of these. After a while they all seemed alike to me — though I did enjoy the way each novel ended with a courtroom scene in which Mason exposed the murderer. I think that Gardner was particularly good at such endings because he himself was a practicing attorney.

toomanywoman2Rex Stout’s Nero Wolfe books are one of my favorite mystery series. Individual titles that I regard with admiration are The Red Box, Too Many Cooks, Some Buried Caesar (love it!), Too Many Women, In the Best Families, and A Family Affair. And although The Black Mountain isn’t one of my favorites, I do love the fact that it takes place in Montenegro and that Archie and Nero must hide in a haystack.

Stout published the first Nero Wolfe novel, Fer-de-Lance, in 1934, so he falls directly into the Golden Age of mystery. He published his last, A Family Affair, in 1975. Even though he started writing during the Golden Age, wrote throughout the hard-boiled age, and even into the modern age, Stout wrote short, clever-solution stories in which most of the characters were two-dimensional. I think of him as a classic Golden Age writer who just kept on producing.

Dashiell Hammett wrote during mystery’s Golden Age, but he represents the beginning of a new style of mystery — the hard-boiled — and is decidedly not part of the Golden Age “style.” Hammett’s most famous novel, The Maltese Falcon (1930), carried on the hard-boiled detective type he had created in his first novel, Red Harvest. The detective in Red Harvest is called the Continental Op, named after the agency he works for. The detective in the second is Sam Spade. Hammett is considered a great mystery writer, credited with creating the hard-boiled detective and an “American style” mystery with three-dimensional characters and gritty details.

The hard-boiled detective novel dominated the 1940s. Raymond Chandler’s hero, Philip Marlowe, was first introduced in The Big Sleep in 1939. With imperialist nations on the verge of a second World War, the intellectual mysteries so prominent during the Golden Age gave way to a more realistic, more hardened type of detective fiction. And this fiction would begin to approach mainstream fiction in its concern with plot, character, setting, motivation, and theme. Chandler’s The Big Sleep, for example, was considered by many critics to be a mainstream novel that just happened to be a mystery. Mysteries of the Golden Age, on the other hand, confined themselves to being short, focused works. The writers of hard-boiled mysteries paved the way for modern mysteries of the 1970s through today.

51z2zsixJ+L._AA300_While most Golden Age mysteries are solved by an intellectual confrontation at the end, in most modern day mysteries there’s a physical confrontation at the end. And while I am very drawn to the intellectual solutions in Golden Age mysteries, I confess that in both of my mysteries, Dirty Proof and Sound Proof, there’s a physical confrontation at the climax. I can reconstruct my thinking as I was writing those endings: I thought that in most cases a murderer would react physically and thus have to be confronted in the same manner.

In modern mysteries there’s more opportunity for the reader to feel an emotional involvement with the hero. Emotional involvement with fictional characters helps develop empathy toward other human beings: the fear or pity or love or hate we feel for a fictional character helps us see that others are perhaps not so different from us as we thought they were. Modern mystery writers are huge on emotional involvement. And I doubt there will ever be any going back to a time in which reader involvement was purely intellectual.

The downside (it’s a downside for me, though I don’t know if it’s a downside for others) is that the modern way of emotional involvement with detective heroes seems to be to load them down with baggage — ex-lovers, murdered children, murdered spouses, — that follows them from book to book like the black cloud follows Joe Btfsplk. After a while this gets tedious. Very tedious. That’s when I turn to the Golden Age Hercule and Charlie and Nero for a breath of fresh air, a shouldering of responsibilities without focusing on the baggage.

As a modern-day mystery writer, I’m strong on emotional involvement. But I’m equally strong on intellectual involvement, and I especially value the classic elements of Golden Age fiction, such as the use of small clues sprinkled throughout (playing fair with the reader) and the revelation of the “least likely” villain in such a way that it all makes sense at the end. In Sound Proof there isn’t a roundup of suspects as in a Golden Age, but rather a modern-day ending in which the detective and the murderer confront each other. My lifelong reading of mystery novels, about half of them Golden Age and half of them modern, helped me with all aspects of Sound Proof — but particularly with planting the clues.


Barbara Gregorich wanted to use a planting machine for the clues in Sound Proof, but couldn’t find one that worked. So she planted the clues herself.

4 thoughts on “The Hard-Boiled Mystery: American Influence

  1. schillingklaus says:

    I detest emotional involvement and empathy unconditionally; consequently, there is no way I will ever be deterred from writing in an old-fashioned style, and from detesting and boycotting so-called modern mysteries rigorously at any cost.


  2. Thanks, Becky. I’m glad the info (and probably the photos) in the blog are helping you with the unusual instruments in Sound Proof. Let me know if you find any emotional baggage with Frank Dragovic!


  3. Becky Zielinski says:

    I got Sound Proof for Christmas, and just started reading it. I realized right away that your recent post about “country” musical instruments was a compilation of notes for this book — very helpful. Now, I’ve learned to look for any signs of emotional baggage in Frank Dragovic. BTW, thanks for the spelling of the last name of that little guy with the storm cloud over his head! Becky Z, Durham, NC

    Liked by 1 person

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