I am apparently one of those people who, if you ask them what their favorite kind of book is, will say whatever it is they are reading at the time. For the last couple years my answer would be, "Young readers' fiction, especially fantasy," since I got hooked on Harry Potter
. For several months before that, it was, "Charles Dickens
," as I was reading a long string of his books when I met Harry. Before that it was "Naval adventure," thanks to the works of C.S. Forester
. And so on. But for a few months about six years ago, my favorite thing to read was the Hardboiled Detective Story.
Hardboiled fiction, like Isaac Asimov's brand of science fiction, flourished in the era of pulp novels and magazine serials between the 1920s and 1940s. It is a very gritty style of mystery. Typically marked by hard-drinking, brutal, rather flawed heroes and a startling-for-the-times frankness about sex, they challenge the stereotype of the mystery genre as a boring story in which nothing happens between the crime and the solution. There is plenty of action in them, and a lot of soul-searching, and moments of existential despair, and you see the mixture of good and evil in everyone. And the final dividing line comes down to the detective's commitment to seeing that murderers get what they deserve (for instance, a noose around their neck). But the way he figures out whodunit, and the way he brings in the bad guy, is fraught with surprises, false endings, and bitter irony.
So basically, there's no chatty little scene where all the suspects sit around the drawing room while the sleuth sips tea and checks off one suspect after another. These are mysteries with teeth. And none bite harder, in my opinion, than the pulp novels and short stories of Dashiell Hammett (1894-1961).
Hammett worked in many trades, and served our country in both World Wars. Nevertheless he was also imprisoned for refusing to inform on his politically radical associates in the "Red Scare" of the 1950s. Among his many jobs was a stint as an operative for the Pinkerton Detective Agency, which I am sure paid off when he wrote his great detective stories, especially the ones featuring the Continental Op. His great success was as a writer, though his actual writing career was quite short. Hammett's books include some of the most famous hardboiled novels ever, which have inspired several famous films and a long-running classic radio program (The Thin Man, which, in turn, has inspired countless crossword clues). They are also some of my favorite books in the "mystery" section.
Some other authors with a similar outlook include Raymond Chandler, Earle Stanley Gardner, James M. Cain, and interestingly, C.S. Forester.
Why am I recommending these books to youngsters and Harry Potter fans? It's the obvious question, and a good one. Answer: some readers have asked me to provide some titles specifically for grown-ups. And perhaps some of them are like me, able to fall in love with one genre of books after another. But basically, Hammett is an author I like, and hardboiled is a style of fiction that I like, so some of you may like it too. This is really an "adults-only" genre, though I have to admit that I myself felt its pull when I was a teen. So if you consider yourself grown-up enough, and Mom and Dad don't object, I'd say 16 is a good age to start reading about the hardboiled detective. But be careful. You might end up dreaming of working for Pinkerton.
Recommended Age: 16+
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