The hard boiled detective novel first laid roots alongside some of the earliest crime novels of the 20th century. And the sub genre remains a mainstay in modern crime fiction, too.
A good hard-boiled novel explores the darker aspects of the human condition, while acknowledging that all moral centers and norms are subjective, at best. Hard-boiled detectives explore much more than the mystery at hand.
Maybe that’s why hard-boiled detective novels have endured for almost a century. Hard-boiled detectives work from their own personal sense of moral center, for better or worse. They acknowledge the relative nature of morality while insisting that a sense of shared social values is as corrupt as it is vital.
Here are 5 of my favorite hard-boiled detectives (flanked by a quick recommendation of the first novel I read in their respective series ), and the reasons I think each series is a timeless read. In some cases I started in the middle of the series, but you may want to start at the beginning (though you don’t have to).
Black Money, by Ross Macdonald (1966)
Lew Archer is probably my all-time favorite hard-boiled detective. Like many detectives of what I call the “golden era” of detective novels, Archer gives us very little of his own personal life to work with.
We know him only by his sense of values, and money is not among them. Archer instead provides the reader with an exceptional and often empathetic window into the dynamics of various families throughout the series, though he himself seems unable to make lasting connections. Macdonald, whose real name was Kenneth Millar, also uses Archer to deftly bring the social issues of the era into focus.
Archer’s powerful first-person narration highlights both the good and the ugly aspects of a society gone material, and he never loses the mooring that keeps him grounded to his morality in the process. That’s what makes him a timeless detective, if not a kind of man that no longer exists (if it ever existed at all).
There’s a reason that William Goldman of The New York Times Book Review called the Lew Archer novels “… the finest series of detective novels ever written by an American …” (ironically enough, Millar was born in America to Canadian parents, and raised in Canada).
Ezekiel “Easy” Rawlins
Devil in a Blue Dress, by Walter Mosley (1990)
I love the way Walter Mosley writes. And Easy Rawlins is the perfect specimen of the “unwitting” detective caught up in circumstances he’d do better to walk away from. Which he can never quite seem to bring himself to do. Whether raising adopted children alone or putting up with his sociopathic pal Mouse’s deadly antics, Rawlins drips with realism.
Hardworking, downtrodden, and always the first one to do the right thing (though occasionally doing the wrong one too), Rawlins provides a street-level view of the black community at a time when being black meant living on the absolute fringe of society in every way. It’s powerful stuff.
The Big Sleep, by Raymond Chandler (1939)
Unless you’ve been living under a rock, as the old folks say, you’ve probably already heard of Marlowe. Marlowe has served as the model for many a hard-boiled detective, including Lew Archer (Chandler was a notorious critic of Macdonald’s work, incidentally).
Raymond Chandler’s tough, creative prose makes the wise-cracking Marlowe jump off the page. I challenge you to read a Marlowe book and not lose yourself in the time period.
There’s maybe no other series of books that has made me pine more for a time and place that I never even came close to experiencing. I’d time-warp into a Raymond Chandler novel in an instant if given the chance.
Start with The Big Sleep, but READ THEM ALL, trust me. I won’t spend any more time on this one, because the chances that you read or write crime fiction and have never read Chandler have to be low.
Related: A mysterious something in the light
The Maltese Falcon, by Dashiell Hammett (1930)
The lone detective on this list who didn’t have a series (beyond a few rare short stories), Spade is a classic none the less. In fact, most people agree that Sam Spade is the detective who launched the entire hard-boiled sub genre.
Much like our man Marlowe, he was also portrayed by Humphrey Bogart in the book’s big-screen adaptation. The book originally appeared as a three-part series in the classic pulp magazine Black Mask, a magazine writers such as your’s truly would die to still have around.
Hammett was ahead of his time with The Maltese Falcon. The book remains a classic 88 years after it was first published for a reason. Come for the mystery, stay for the rough-and-tumble dialogue.
Ten bucks says you’ll want to read this one again. Call it the grandfather of all hard-boiled shamus tales.
The Sins of the Fathers, by Lawrence Block (1976)
Scudder is a great detective because he manages to hit every trope in the hard-boiled genre while remaining totally original. An alcoholic who spends a lot of time in AA meetings as the series plays out, Scudder is an ex-cop paying for his sins working as an unlicensed PI in Hell’s Kitchen. Or, at least, he starts out that way.
I will confess that I’ve read less of this series than the others on this list, but Scudder is the most enduring character from one of crime fiction’s most enduring authors, so I’d be remiss to exclude him.
Lawrence Block is a master of the genre, and his skills are on full display in The Sins of the Fathers. Scudder is the rare detective who evolves tremendously over the course of the series. Where a Lew Archer or Phillip Marlowe might feel frozen in time even as the books age,
Scudder, like Easy Rawlins, progresses and changes over time. But his capacity for introspection makes him a truly unforgettable and timeless detective.
Who are your favorite hard-boiled detectives?
I’d love to hear about your own favorite hard-boiled detectives. Feel free to comment below or even send me a message to discuss them. In the meantime, (not so) happy reading!
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