The hard-boiled formula

John G. Cawelti, Adventure, Mystery, and Romance: Formula Stories as Art and Popular Culture. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1976. pp. 142 - 54.


The hard-boiled formula resembles the main outlines of the classical detective story's pattern of action. It, too, moves from the introduction of the detective and the presentation of the crime, through the investigation, to a solution and apprehension of the criminal. Significant differences appear in the way this pattern is worked out in the hard-boiled story. Two are particularly important: the subordination of the drama of solution to the detective's quest for the discovery and accomplishment of justice; and the substitution of a pattern of intimidation and temptation of the hero for the elaborate development in the classical story of what Northrop Frye calls "the wavering finger of suspicion" passing across a series of potential suspects.

The hard-boiled detective sets out to investigate a crime but invariably finds that he must go beyond the solution to some kind of personal choice or action. While the classical writer typically treats the actual apprehension of the criminal as a less significant matter than the explanation of the crime, the hard-boiled story usually ends with a confrontation between detective and criminal. Sometimes this is a violent encounter similar to the climactic shootdown of many westerns. This difference in endings results from a greater personal involvement on the part of the hard-boiled detective. Since he becomes emotionally and morally committed to some of the persons involved, or because the crime poses some basic crisis in his image of himself, the hard-boiled detective remains unfulfilled until he has taken a personal moral stance toward the /201/ criminal. In simpler hard-boiled stories like those of Spillane, the detective, having solved the crime, acts out the role of judge and executioner. In the more complex stories of Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett, the confrontation between detective and criminal is less violent and more psychological. In both cases we find the detective forced to define his own concept of morality and justice, frequently in conflict with the social authority of the police. Where the classical detective's role was to use his superior intellect and psychological insight to reveal the hidden guilt that the police seemed unable to discover, the hard-boiled detective metes out the just punishment that the law is too mechanical, unwieldy, or corrupt to achieve. As [Spillane's] Mike Hammer puts it in his forthright way:

By Christ, I'm not letting the killer go through the tedious process of the law. You know what happens, damn it. They get the best lawyer there is and screw up the whole thing and wind up a hero! . . . No, damn it. A jury is cold and impartial like they're supposed to be, while some snotty lawyer makes them pour tears as he tells how his client was insane at the moment or had to shoot in self-defense. Swell. The law is fine. But this time I'm the law and I'm not going to be cold and impartial.

Chandler's Philip Marlowe, a bit more subtly, also views the law as an impediment to the accomplishment of true justice:

Let the law enforcement people do their own dirty work. Let the lawyers work it out. They write the laws for other lawyers to dissect in front of other lawyers called judges so that other judges can say the first judges were wrong and the Supreme Court can say the second lot were wrong. Sure there's such a thing as law. We're up to our necks in it. About all it does is make business for lawyers.

Because the hard-boiled detective embodies the threat of judgment and execution as well as exposure, the pressure against his investigation is invariably more violent than in the classical story. Philip Marlowe, Sam Spade, Mike Hammer, and the rest are threatened by physical violence to a degree unknown to the classical detective whose activities are largely confined to the examination of clues, the taking of testimony, and the reconstruction of the crime. The hardboiled detective faces assault, capture, drugging, blackjacking, and /202/ attempted assassination as a regular feature of his investigations. Moreover, he is frequently threatened with loss of his license or tempted with bribes of various kinds to halt his investigations, for the criminal is commonly a person of considerable political and social influence. Inevitably there comes a point in the hard-boiled detective's investigation when he can lament with Philip Marlowe: "I get it from the law, I get it from the hoodlum element, I get it from the carriage trade. The words change, but the meaning is the same. Lay off."

These two differences of emphasis—the detective becoming judge as well as investigator, and the intimidation and temptation of the detective—shape the pattern of action in the hard-boiled story into a formula different in many respects from its classical counterpart. Like the classical story, we usually begin with the introduction of the detective, but instead of the charming bachelor apartment of Holmes and Watson, or the elegant establishment of Lord Peter Wimsey, the hard-boiled detective belongs to the dusty and sordid atmosphere of an office located in a broken-down building on the margin of the city's business district. Sometimes the story begins in this office but, more often, the detective is already in motion to the scene of the crime, on his way to visit a client, or, like Philip Marlowe in the opening to Farewell, My Lovely, simply sucked violently in:

The doors swung back outwards and almost settled to a stop. Before they had entirely stopped moving they opened again, violently, outwards. Something sailed across the sidewalk and landed in the gutter between two parked cars.... A hand I could have sat in came out of the dimness and took hold of my shoulder and squashed it to a pulp. Then the hand moved me through the doors and casually lifted me up a step.... The big man stared at me solemnly and went on wrecking my shoulder with his hand.

Sometimes instead of plunging the hero immediately into violence, the story opens in a context of decadent wealth. The Big Sleep begins with Marlowe visiting rich old General Sternwood in a hothouse atmosphere redolent of corruption and death:

The air was thick, wet, steamy and larded with the cloying smell of tropical orchids in bloom. The glass walls and roof were heavily /203/ misted and big drops of moisture splashed down on the plants. The light had an unreal greenish color, like light filtered through an aquarium tank. The plants filled the place, a forest of them, with nasty meaty leaves and stalks like the newly washed fingers of dead men.

These opening scenes immediately establish a number of the central motifs of the hard-boiled story. We see the detective as a marginal professional carrying on his business from the kind of office associated with unsuccessful dentists, small mail-order businesses, and shyster lawyers. However, we soon realize that he has chosen this milieu. His way of life may look like failure, but actually it is a form of rebellion, a rejection of the ordinary concepts of success and respectability. As Raymond Chandler puts it:

The other part of me wanted to get out and stay out, but this was the part I never listened to. Because if I ever had I would have stayed in the town where I was born and worked in the hardware store and married the boss's daughter and had five kids and read them the funny paper on Sunday morning and smacked their heads when they got out of line and squabbled with the wife about how much spending money they were to get and what programs they could have on the radio and TV set. I might even have got rich— small town rich, an eight-room house, two cars in the garage, chicken every Sunday and the Reader's Digest on the living room table, the wife with a cast-iron permanent and me with a brain like a sack of Portland cement. You take it, friend.

Or as Shell Scott puts it:

I suppose I should be—oh, more orthodox. Nose to the old grindstone, up at the crack of dawn, charge around with an expression of severe pain on my face. Like right now, for example. But that wouldn't be me, and if I lost me, where would I be.

The beginning of the hard-boiled story usually represents both this marginal, rebellious aspect of the hero and his capacity to function effectively in a world of wealth, corruption, and violence. Since his office is scruffy and his salary and mode of life that of the lower middle class we see the detective not as a brilliant eccentric w~th transcendent powers of ratiocination but as an ordinary man. At the same time the opening incidents reveal that his commonness is a /204/ mask for uncommon qualities. For this antihero, this seemingly frustrated and cynical failure knows how to handle himself in the midst of violence. The rich, the powerful, and the beautiful desperately need his help with their problems.

As the pattern of action develops, the rich, the powerful, and the beautiful attempt to draw the detective into their world and to use him for their own corrupt purposes. He in turn finds that the process of solving the crime involves him in the violence, deceit, and corruption that lies beneath the surface of the respectable world. [Ross Macdonald's] Lew Archer enters on his investigation in The Doomsters with a typical hard-boiled reflection on what he knows will come of his quest:

We passed a small-boat harbor, gleaming white on blue, and a long pier draped with fishermen. Everything was as pretty as a postcard The trouble with you, I said to myself: you're always turning over the postcards and reading the message on the underside. Written in invisible ink, in blood, in tears with a black border around them, with postage due, unsigned, or signed with a thumbprint.

As in the classical story, the introduction of the hard-boiled detective leads immediately to the presentation of the crime, but substantial differences in the treatment of the crime give it rather different implications. The classical detective generally faces a fait accompli. The crime has left behind its mysterious clues. The detective is called to the quarantined site and challenged to expose the hidden guilt. This proceeding emphasizes the abnormality and isolation of the crime, its detachment from the detective and the reader. The hard-boiled story, on the other hand, typically implicates the detective in the crime from the very beginning. In many hard-boiled stories, the detective is given a mission—usually a deceptive one—which seemingly has little to do with murder and violence. Pursuing this mission, the detective happens upon the first of a series of murders that gradually reveal to him the true nature of his quest. In this way, the hard-boiled detective's investigation becomes not simply a matter of determining who the guilty person is but of defining his own moral position. For example, Sam Spade in The Maltese Falcon is asked by a beautiful young lady to investigate the disappearance of her sister. While pursuing this investigation, Spade's partner is mysteriously murdered. Then Sam himself is /205/ confronted by a mysterious Levantine who first asks him puzzling questions about a bird and then attempts to hold him up and search his office. Gradually events accumulate, more murders take place, and additional mysterious characters are introduced. The shape of Sam's mission keeps changing from the search for the client's sister, to the investigation of his partner's death, to the hunt for the falcon until finally it turns out that his real problem is not to find the killer but what to do about a woman he has fallen in love with and who has turned out to be a murderess. A similarly shifting definition of the detective's mission occurs in many Mike Hammer stories. In The Body Lovers, Mike undertakes to locate the sister of a convict. His investigations lead to a ring of rich and powerful sadists who get their kicks from torture-murders. But with this discovery the problem changes, for the sadist group is largely made up of UN diplomats from the Middle East who have "diplomatic immunity" and , therefore cannot be punished by the police. Finally, Mike must take up his usually climactic role of personal judge and executioner and work out some way of blowing up the dirty foreigners. It only remains to be added that in a fashion almost invariable to Spillane but common to the hard-boiled story, Mike discovers that the beautiful and fashionable woman who has thrown herself at his feet is actually the procuress for the sadist ring. In the end, like Sam Spade, Mike faces a personal moral and emotional decision: must he destroy the woman he loves but who has turned out to be a vicious killer? That Mike has so little trouble with such decisions suggests some of the more disturbing psychological undercurrents of the hard-boiled story.

Thus, while the classical detective's investigation typically passes over a variety of possible suspects until it lights at last on the least-likely person, his hard-boiled counterpart becomes emotionally involved in a complex process of changing implications. Everything changes its meaning: the initial mission turns out to be a smoke screen for another, more devious plot; the supposed victim turns out to be a villain; the lover ends up as the murderess and the faithful friend as a rotten betrayer; the police and the district attorney and often even the client keeps trying to halt the investigation; and all the seemingly respectable and successful people turn out to be members of the gang. While all these discoveries of the villainy of the seemingly innocent, the duplicity of the seemingly faithful, /206/and the corruption of the seemingly respectable do not occur in every hard-boiled-story, what can be called the rhythm of exposure is almost invariable in one form or another. In many ways this rhythm is the antithesis of the classical story where the detective always shows that the corruption is isolated and specific rather than general and endemic to the social world of the story.

Like the classical story, the hard-boiled formula develops four main character roles: (a) the victim or victims; (b) the criminal; (c) the detective; and (d) those involved in the crime but incapable of resolving the problems it poses, a group involving police, suspects, and so on—in effect, the set of characters who represent society in the story. To this set of relationships, the hard-boiled formula very often adds one central role, that of the female betrayer.

I have already noted the characteristic multiplicity of victims in the hard-boiled story. While the classical story typically maintains an emotional detachment from the victim by making him relatively obscure and by stressing the complicated and exotic circumstances surrounding his death instead of its brutality and violence, the hardboiled story more often encourages readers to feel strongly about the crimes by eliminating most of the complex machinery of clues. Often, the initial victim is a friend of the detective or some other person whose death seems not simply mysterious but regrettable. For example, in The Maltese Falcon the first victim is the detective's partner; in The Big Sleep he is a noble and handsome son-in-law much loved by the detective's client; in I, the Jury he is the detective's best friend. In many stories, the emotion roused by the sympathetic victim is intensified by a threat to the detective or one of his friends. Mike Hammer's beautiful secretary Velda commonly faces a horrible fate at the hands of the criminal before she is rescued by the opportune appearance of her boss. (The criminal here nearly succeeds in carrying out what the detective can never quite steel himself to perform: violation of the ideal and chaste sweetheart and companion.)

The sympathetic victim and the threat to the detective stimulate the reader's feelings of hostility toward the criminal and his wish for the detective to pass beyond solutions and attributions of guilt to the judgment and execution of the criminal. In contrast to the classical pattern of making the criminal a relatively obscure, mar- /207/ ginal figure, a least-likely person, the hard-boiled criminal usually plays a central role, sometimes the central role after the detective. Since Dashiell Hammett first created the pattern in The Maltese Falcon, one hard-boiled detective after another has found himself romantically or sexually involved with the murderess. In other hard-boiled stories, the criminal turns out to be a close friend of the detective, as in The Dain Curse, where the criminal has been in a Watson-like association with the detective throughout the story. In this respect the pattern of the hard-boiled story is almost antithetical to the classical formula. In Agatha Christie, Dorothy Sayers, and their fellow writers, sympathetically interesting or romantic characters frequently appear to be guilty in the middle of the story but are invariably shown to be innocent when the detective finally unveils the solution. (The great prototype of all such stories is Wilkie Collins's The Moonstone where the two lovers are successively suspected and exonerated of the crime.) In Dorothy Sayers's Strong Poison, for example, Harriet Vane, with whom Lord Peter Wimsey falls in love (a gesture rather uncharacteristic of the classical detective), is thought to be guilty of a murder. The action of the story focuses on Lord Peter's successful demonstration of her innocence. The exact opposite is the case in I, the Jury, where the detective's romantic object is the one character who appears to be innocent throughout most of the story but who is finally revealed as the killer.

Thus the hard-boiled criminal plays a complex and ambiguous role while the classical villain remains an object of pursuit hiding behind a screen of mysterious clues until the detective finally reveals his identity. The hard-boiled villain is frequently disguised as a friend or lover, adding to the crimes an attempted betrayal of the detective's loyalty and love; when revealed, this treachery becomes the climax of that pattern of threat and temptation noted earlier. To support this pattern of threatened betrayal, the hard-boiled criminal is often characterized as particularly vicious, perverse, or depraved, and, in a striking number of instances as a woman of unusual sexual attractiveness. Facing such a criminal, the detective's role changes from classical ratiocination to self-protection against the various threats, temptations, and betrayals posed by the criminal.

A second important characteristic of the hard-boiled culprit is his involvement with the criminal underworld. Rarely is the classical / 208/,criminal more than a single individual with a rational and specific motive to commit a particular crime. The hard-boiled criminal, on the other hand, usually has some connection with a larger criminal organization. Sometimes, as in Dashiell Hammett's Red Harvest, the detective's mission is to battle a criminal syndicate that has taken over a town. More characteristically, the criminal is a highly respectable member of society whose perverse acts have involved him with the underworld. In The Big Sleep, Carmen, the daughter of the wealthy General Sternwood, has killed Rusty Regan in a pathological sexual rage. Her sister has called on a local racketeer to help dispose of the body and to cover up the crime. By the time Marlowe enters the story, the racketeer has moved in to blackmail the Sternwood family. Marlowe finds that he must cope not only with Carmen's perversities but with the threats and attacks of a gang of racketeers somehow connected with the wealthy and respectable Sternwoods. This, as we have seen, is the typical hard-boiled pattern of action: the detective is called in to investigate a seemingly simple thing, like a disappearance; his investigation comes up against a web of conspiracy that reflects the presence of a hidden criminal organization; finally, the track leads back to the rich and respectable levels of society and exposes the corrupt relationship between the pillars of the community and the criminal underground.

What sort of a hero confronts, exposes, and destroys this web of conspiracy and perversion? Like many formula heroes, the hard-boiled detective is a synthesis of antithetical traits. Where the classical detective combined scientific ratiocination with poetic intuition, the hard-boiled detective's character paradoxically mixes cynicism and honor, brutality and sentimentality, failure and success. The hard-boiled detective is first and foremost a tough guy. He can dish it out and he can take it. Accustomed to a world of physical violence, corruption, and treachery, the detective's hard and bitter experience shows in his face:

Samuel Spade's jaw was long and bony, his chin a jutting v under the more flexible v of his mouth. His nostrils curved back to make another, smaller, v. His yellow-grey eyes were horizontal. The v motif was picked up again by thickish brows rising outward from twin creases above a hooked nose, and his pale brown hair grew down—from high flat temples—in a point on his forehead. He looked rather pleasantly like a blond satan. /209/

Even an exotic costume cannot hide the rugged and battered look of a later avatar of Sam Spade like Shell Scott:

The effect of sheer beauty was perhaps marred only by the bent-down-at-the-ends inverted-V eyebrows over my gray eyes, since those brows were also obtrusively white . . . And naturally, nothing could be done about my twice-broken and still bent nose, the bullet-clipped ear top, the fine scar over my right eye, and the general impression of recent catastrophe I've been told I sometimes present.

Behind this face, the detective's mind has become knowing about the persuasive corruption of society. Unlike the classical detective, for whom evil is an abnormal disruption of an essentially benevolent social order caused by a specific set of criminal motives, the hard-boiled detective has learned through long experience that evil is endemic to the social order:

"When I went into police work in 1935, I believed that evil was a quality some people were born with, like a harelip. A cop's job was to find those people and put them away. But evil isn't so simple. Everybody has it in him, and whether it comes out in his actions depends on a number of things . . . "
"Do you judge people?"
"Everybody I meet. The graduates of the police schools make a big thing of scientific detection, and that has its place. But most of my work is watching people, and judging them."
"And you find evil in everybody?"
"Just about. Either I'm getting sharper or people are getting worse. And that could be. War and inflation always raise a crop of stinkers, and a lot of them have settled in California."

Philip Marlowe explains the inescapable relation between crime and society:

"Crime isn't a disease. It's a symptom. We're a big rough rich wild people and crime is the price we pay for it, and organized crime is the price we pay for organization. We'll have it with us a long time. Organized crime is just the dirty side of the sharp dollar."
"What's the clean side?"
"I never saw it." /210/

In this respect, Mike Hammer's world is much the same. As one of his newspaperman friends puts it, "in every man's past there's some dirt."

Though his sense of an all-pervasive evil and violence is similar, a writer with right-wing political leanings like Mickey Spillane dramatizes the cause of the corruption as the worldwide Communist conspiracy, with its American dupes. More recently, with the improvement of Soviet-American relationships, Spillane seems to have shifted his animus to other foreign sources. His 1967 The Body Lovers projected corruption onto a group of middle eastern sadist-diplomats centered at the UN. But whatever the specific foreign source, the evil encountered by Mike Hammer most frequently manifests itself in that same group of internationalist-minded, upper-class, intellectual easterners that Senator Joseph McCarthy and his disciples used to attack. A more liberal writer like Raymond Chandler ascribes the evil to American materialism and greed, rather than to some foreign source of corruption. Dashiell Hammett, despite his radical political leanings, implies a more philosophical basis for the detective's sense of a world full of evil in a pessimistic vision of the universe that goes beyond the parochial political animosities and frustrations of Spillane. But whether his vision of evil is political or metaphysical, the hard-boiled detective has rejected the ordinary social and ethical pieties and faces a world that he has learned to understand as fundamentally corrupt, violent, and hostile. To put it more abstractly, he is a man who has accepted up to a point the naturalistic view of society and the universe and whose general attitude toward society and God resembles that alienation so often and fashionably described as the predicament of "modern man."

As R. V. Cassil suggests, modern democratic man "uses the fiction of violence for its purgative effect [but] what needs to be noted is that whatever his brow level, he doesn't really want to be purged very hard. Not really scoured . . ." So, the hard-boiled detective, below his surface of alienated skepticism and toughness, tends to be as soft as they come. No one has asserted the essential sentimentality as well as the power of the conception of the hard-boiled detective more eloquently than Raymond Chandler, one of his major creators: /211/

Down these mean streets a man must go who is not himself mean, who is neither tarnished nor afraid. The detective in this kind of story must be such a man. He is the hero, he is everything. He must be a complete man and a common man and yet an unusual 'man. He must be, to use a rather weathered phrase, a man of honor, . . . "

Chandler's characterization suggests that though the hard-boiled detective's world bears some resemblance to the bitter, godless universe of writers like Crane, Dreiser, and Hemingway, his personal qualities also bear more than a little resemblance to the chivalrous knights of Sir Walter Scott. Not above seducing, beating, and even, on occasion, shooting members of the opposite sex, he saves this treatment for those who have gone bad. Toward good girls his attitude is as chaste as a Victorian father. The very thought of anyone touching his virginal secretary Velda reduces Mike Hammer to a gibbering homicidal maniac. Such knightly attitudes determine much of the hard-boiled detective's behavior: he is an instinctive protector of the weak, a defender of the innocent, an avenger of the wronged, the one loyal, honest, truly moral man in a corrupt and ambiguous world.