The Mysterious Bookshop

Many mystery readers will start out by reading and collecting the hard-boiled/noir types of gritty, city-based crime novels. Well-known examples of this type of story might be Double Indemnity by James M. Cain (remember the fantastic film with Fred MacMurray and Barbara Stanwyck?  Of course you do.), The Maltese Falcon by Dashiell Hammett (Bogie!), In a Lonely Place by Dorothy B Hughes (Bogie again, but the film is quite different from the book), The Big Sleep by Raymond Chandler, or The Black Angel by Cornell Woolrich--all fantastic novels and complete classics. Mind you, hardboiled and noir fiction is not the exclusive domain of the detective or private eye. For example, the popular James M. Cain novels The Postman Always Rings Twice and Mildred Pierce are as hardboiled as the egg in your lunch box, but are not vehicles for private eyes.   

But before Hammett and Chandler, et al, and before the films, there was Black Mask. Launched in 1920 by H.L. Mencken and George Jean Nathan, the two authors invested $500 in a pulp venture that originally was intended as a kind of a catch-all for different types of stories. An early issue ballyhooed the magazine as five publications in one, containing (hopefully) the best in romance, love, adventure, occult, and mystery & detective tales.

After the seventh issue, Nathan and Mencken sold out for $12,500, a nifty return on their investment. The new publishers recruited writers who contributed tough crime stories, but with a strong moral compass. Distrust of the police was rising in the Prohibition era, which is why so many of the stories featured private detectives, who are generally cynical not only of the culture of crime that they are combating but also of the ‘respectable’ society that generates the crime and the hypocrisy that surrounded the legal system during this time.

This early Black Mask style is exemplified by authors such as Paul CainFrederick C Davis,and Steve Fisher. Their stories were fast and tough, a mixture of dames, drinks, and guns. Cain only wrote one novel--but it was a doozy!  Published under the pen name of George Caryl Sims, Cain’s Fast One was a very early hardboiled novel and a highlight to boot. He enjoyed some success as a screenwriter after penning 17 stories for Black Mask. Quick shooting gambler Gary Kells has ultra tough adventures in tough, declarative sentences, invaluably setting the tone for numerous HB novels and stories to come.

W.R. Burnett was another hugely influential writer in the early days of the genre who introduced the notion of telling a tale from the criminal’s point of view. Little Caesar is told by the gangster himself, quite the innovation back in 1929, especially when film censorship wouldn’t allow sympathetic portrayals of crooks. The wide influence of Burnett and his other work like The Asphalt Jungle and High Sierra is evident when one considers the raft of imitations that flooded the market in subsequent years.

It is during this era that most mystery scholars credit Carroll John Daly and his characters Terry Mack and Race Williams with the genesis of the hardboiled genre, dating back to May of 1923.

Close on the heels of Daly’s heroes was Dashiell Hammett’s Continental Op, which first saw the light of day in October ‘23.  The unnamed P.I. helped to introduce some well known themes so familiar today including terse, spare dialogue, casual violence, and a, shall we say, uneven relationship with women.

Another popular and well known example of a hardboiled hero is Hammett’s Sam Spade, who made his bow in the 1930 novel The Maltese Falcon. Spade departs from the strong, silent type of the Op in favor of a detached, cynical outlook that helped to solidify the hardboiled private eye in the public imagination. 

Hammett’s immediate successor, thematically and chronologically, was Raymond Chandler. He started publishing stories in the Black Mask in 1933, by which time the magazine was publishing crime stories nearly exclusively. While no less hard-boiled than Hammett, Chandler’s work usually includes a humorous tone largely missing from his predecessor. His novels are highly crafted, with a decidedly literary tone. Throw in a sense of ironic detachment from his surroundings, and you get a novel--and a PI--that often feels more in control than Spade might have been, with less of the pessimistic world view, a more controlled cynicism, and a kind of superiority over his surroundings that indicate a greater level of intelligence than evinced by many of his quicker-to-action counterparts.

Once Hammett and Chandler opened the floodgates, the next wave of writers weighed in with their contributions to the hardboiled/noir world.


Prominent among the second wave of hardboiled and noir writers was Cornell Woolrich.  While his work lacks the staccato bursts of prose found in the pioneers’ writing, he very much evokes the atmosphere of the nascent noir film genre as well as the overriding themes of cynicism and

Ross Macdonald, aka John Ross Macdonald,  pen names of Kenneth Millar, was the author of a very popular series set in Los Angeles and featuring private eye Lew Archer. Seventeen novels of Archer’s adventures followed the first, The Moving Target. As hardboiled as they come, Archer has a basic humanity that may be lacking, or well hidden, in some of the earlier tough guy characters.


Of course the gritty tradition has been carried on by a host of subsequent authors, such as Ed McBain/Evan Hunter, Jim Thompson, Mickey Spillane, James Ellroy, Patricia Highsmith, Dorothy Hughes, Charles Willeford, and many more.  Among current exponents of the tough old school crime fighters, try Donald Westlake, George Higgins, Derek Raymond, Mo Hayder, Andrew Vachss, and Richard Lange, which is only scratching the surface.  

Why not drop by your local bookshop, like the one whose blog you are now reading, and check out a few titles?  Just the thing for winter reading in front of the fireplace!  If you are not sure where to begin, your friendly bookseller will be glad to assist you. Who knows, you may even start solving crimes yourself! (Note from our lawyers: Don’t do that.)

Written by Ian Kern — February 11, 2016


We are devoted to all things mysterious, from hard-boiled hardcovers to pulpy paperbacks, suspected signings and whispers around town.

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