You saw the title and I bet you’re thinking Dashiell Hammett? Raymond Chandler? Perhaps these two men would dominate if we were awarding style points, but the hard-boiled genre isn’t about flash or pretty prose. It’s about page-turning grit, two-fisted aggression and the dod-eat-dog underbelly of society. It’s the kind of thing a grunt would carry in his pocket in Flanders or Normandy or Korea as opposed to the kind of thing whose author would be fêted on Fifth Avenue.
Noir film has understood this since the beginning, which is why the source material is often forgotten. Honestly, most people have seen The Maltese Falcon, and recognize it as a classic, even today, but how many have read the book?
Even we at Classically Educated are guilty. Looking back at our history of book reviews, we’ve done Paul Auster’s New York Trilogy, which, as postmodernist literature would likely have been about as popular with the troops as gonorrhea, we’ve done Agatha Christie which has murder and popular appeal, but isn’t noir, and we’ve looked at the wonderful Garrett books by Glen Cook, which tick all the boxes, but are undermined as pure noir by the fact that they tick an extra box: they’re fantasy.
It’s time to address that failing.
To do so, we need to grab the bull by the horn and go for the noirest of the noir, Mickey Spillane himself. In his day, especially in the 1950s, the man probably outsold every other noir writer combined… and he did it the old-fashioned way: by making his stories more violent, sexier and more sensationalist than anyone else.
A good way to get a feel for what this implies is to pick up one of the omnibus editions out there.
So I did, and I have to say the man earned it. I read the big block of a book containing Spillane’s three first novels (I, the Jury, My Gun is Quick, Vengeance is Mine!) in a breathless rush that was only resolved in the last sentence. While not every writer would be well served writing this way (I wouldn’t try it–the critics would have a field day), it works perfectly for Spillane himself.
Mike Hammer might not be as well-remembered today as Marlowe or Spade… but he should be. And some of the endings might be predictable if you’re familiar with the genre, but none of them will leave you unsatisfied (and remember that they are probably predictable because they’ve been copied).
Just the thing to forget about those shells falling all around your foxhole in some foreign land.
Gustavo Bondoni is an Argentine author whose novel Outside will also keep you guessing until the last pages (not the last sentence, though. He chickened out). You can check it out here.