Guest post by Otto Penzler, award-winning editor of mystery
fiction and owner of The Mysterious Bookshop in New York City.
James M. Cain, the quintessential
hard-boiled writer, claimed he didn’t know what the term meant, and he wasn’t
alone. So what is it?
Hard-boiled stories mostly
involve private investigators as the hero; though Sherlock Holmes was a private
eye and the stories aren’t hard-boiled, and Cain never wrote a detective novel.
They are realistic, in the sense
that people with a private investigator license are hired to solve crimes,
which is more than the village vicar or the head of the gardening club can say.
PIs need to be tough, since they are dealing with killers, so in the books
about them, they act tough and talk that way, too.
They are usually American loners,
much like the old gunslingers of the Wild West. They have a code of honor and
justice that may not be strictly legal, but it is moral. They may be threatened
or beaten, but they won’t give up a case or betray a client.
They are individuals who often
face a corrupt political or criminal organization, but they prevail because
they are true to themselves and their code.
And they are smart-alecks. To
paraphrase Raymond Chandler: someone says, “I don’t like your attitude;” the PI
responds, “I’ve had a lot of complaints about it. It keeps me awake at night
worrying about it.”
are five hallmarks of the genre backed by some great novels that epitomize each
This novel begins in the heart of
Manhattan’s Upper West Side, when Paul’s family is brutally attacked for a
handful of money. The hero pursues justice, slowly spiraling into the gritty
corners of New York City.