Writing Hardboiled Fiction

by James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell

Would there be a Mike Romeo without Race Williams?

Scholars are pretty much in agreement that the first—and for a couple of decades the most popular—hardboiled series character came from the typewriter of the prolific pulp writer Carroll John Daly. His PI, Race Williams, appeared in over 70 stories and 8 novels, up until Daly’s death in 1958.

Today Race and Daly are all but forgotten, having been overshadowed by writers like Hammett, Chandler, Spillane, Ross Macdonald, and John D. MacDonald. I think this is a mistake. The Race Williams stories, though not on par with Chandler’s Philip Marlowe or Hammett’s Continental Op, are still a fun, juicy read—exactly what America was hankering for during the Roaring Twenties and the Great Depression.

Race Williams made his debut in the December 1922 issue of Black Mask. He became the prototype of the hardboiled private eye, with these features:

  • First-person narration, with attitude
  • Lots of action
  • Cynicism
  • Dangerous dames (the femme fatale)
  • A dearth of sentimentality
  • Violence to end things, usually from a gat

It’s clear that Daly’s style and popularity influenced Chandler, who took the PI story to its heights. And because of Chandler we’ve had a long line of popular PIs, including Robert B. Parker’s Spenser and Sue Grafton’s Kinsey Millhone.

Mickey Spillane, creator of arguably the hardest of the hardboileds (Mike Hammer), and at one time the bestselling author in the world, said Race Williams was his inspiration. In fact, in the mid 1950s he wrote a fan letter to Daly, who was living in obscurity in California. The letter said, in part:

Right now I’m sitting on the top of the heap with my Mike Hammer series, but though the character is original, his personality certainly isn’t. Sometimes I wonder if you’ve ever read some of the statements I’ve released when they ask me who I model my writing after. Maybe you know already. Mike and the Race Williams of the middle thirties could be twins.

Yours was the first and only style of writing that ever influenced me in any way. Race was the model for Mike; and I can’t say more in this case than imitation being the most sincere form of flattery. The public in accepting my books were in reality accepting the kind of work you have done.

Side note: this effusive praise got into the hands of Daly’s agent, who began a lawsuit against Spillane for plagiarism! When Daly found out he was incensed, and fired her. He was actually delighted with Spillane’s letter because it was the first fan letter he’d had in 25 years.

Speaking of Spillane, and his lifetime sales of around 225 million books, what explains the popularity of Mike Hammer? According to Prof. David Schmid in The Secrets of Great Mystery and Suspense Fiction, the factors are:

  • Hammer’s absolute conviction about matters of good and evil
  • the way he keeps his promises
  • his brutally effective approach to problems and challenges
  • his impatience with the system
  • his fondness for vigilante justice

Most of these factors are baked into my own Mike Romeo series. To them I’ve added some unique elements, which is a key to writing any current hardboiled hero. You want to pay homage to the past, but you also have to make it feel new and fresh.

I look back and see a clear line of influence:

Carroll John Daly >> Raymond Chandler >> Mickey Spillane >> John D. MacDonald >> Mike Romeo

So the question of the day is: can you discern a line of influence in your own writing? How far back does it go?

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38 thoughts on “Writing Hardboiled Fiction

  1. In my mystery series, which is the only one with a single, continuing protagonist, I’d think Jesse Stone is his forebear. I haven’t been writing all that long, and my romantic suspense titles share a wide range of influencers. JD Robb, Suzanne Brockmann, Sandra Brown, Brenda Novak … the list goes on.

    Happy Easter, TKZers. Passover ends tonight, and Easter candy will go on sale tomorrow. Good timing this year!

  2. Fascinating question, Jim. You uncovered a genealogy rabbit hole to trace character DNA.

    I’ll start with Nancy Drew, Sherlock Holmes, Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine, Peter Wimsey, Phillip Marlowe, James Bond, Travis McGee, Kinsey Milhone, etc., etc.

  3. Great post, Jim. Thanks for making us think about our writing journey. I’ve taken a break from writing suspense to work on a series of middle-grade fantasy for my grandchildren, the Mad River Magic series. I tell people that the story is Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn meet Harry Potter in rural Ohio with Shawnee Indian magic and flying barrel carts. Thinking back at the line of influence, I would trace it as this: Hardy Boys mysteries >> Sugar Creek gang series (Paul Hutchens) >> Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn >> Harry Potter >> Mad River Magic series.

    Have a joyous Easter!

    • Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn meet Harry Potter in rural Ohio with Shawnee Indian magic and flying barrel carts.

      You own the franchise on that genre, Steve! Happy Easter to you.

  4. Excellent post, Jim. I believe Spillane was a master of the first-person pov, which is much more difficult than many imagine. It’s my “go-too” pov when I write in genres other than mystery.

    You’re also right about the challenge to “Make It New,” as Pound phrased it. Incorporating fresh insights into a living tradition gives the work both immediate and deep-seated relevance.

      • Funny you should mention Rand — it was her comparison of Spillane to Wolfe that first drew my attention to Spillane’s works. And she was right — Spillane’s vision is gritty, packed with concrete visual details, while Wolfe is more flowery and abstract.

  5. Great post, Jim! How do you come up with those fascinating asides from the past, like the lawsuit? *Deb shakes her head*… 🙂

    Compared with y’all, I still sleep in a bassinet in the author nursery, sucking my thumb. My first two fiction debuts are almost cooked and ready to eat. One is born of a love of our US veterans…I can’t say it was influenced by anyone but those brave folks.

    The other, however, has the distinct eerie flavor of Jim Rubart and Bill Myers. I’ve read, I think, all of Jim’s novels and love them. They both weave ordinary people with other-worldly fantasy, and that’s what I’m going for in No Tomorrows.

    I think, however, having read Kay’s books, JSB’s books, and a few others here, everything I read makes its way into my subconscious (boys in the basement?) and emerges in some form or other. The beauty of reading several genres, yo?

    Happy Easter!

    • Happy that you mention Rubart and Myers, who I count as friends.

      And you’re right that literally everything going into our heads can, by wondrous alchemy, become fodder for stories. It’s an amazing mix of art, craft and experience, isn’t it?

      Happy Easter to you!

  6. Love the literary history packed into this post, Jim. I had no idea about Daly and his creation Race Williams. I love that Spillane wrote him a fan letter, acknowledging his influence.

    The literary lineage of my hero, Mathilda Brandt, is a bit less straight forward, but she’s influenced by urban fantasy hero Harry Dresden, as well as first person hard boiled PIs like Spenser, etc in her voice. Fitting, since Dresden was inspired by hard boiled detectives, too.

    Aside: you probably knew this, but I’m fascinated by the literary lineage that Jim Butcher is a part of. He was a student in the 1990s in the University of Oklahoma’s fiction writing program, taught by author Debbie Chester, herself a protege of author Jack Bickham, while Bickham was a protege of Dwight Swain.

  7. I love the history you share, Jim.
    In part triggered by your(and Joe Hartlaub’s) discussion of books from the pulp age I picked up a number of books from the 1950s at a sale. I recently completed completed the first – “… The men from the boys“ By Ed Lacy.
    I can’t recall if you ever mentioned Ed specifically. Talk about a dearth of sentimentality and cynicism! This guy is a captivating master.
    His first person protagonist is not a sympathetic character but I was fully engaged and compelled to see where the story led.
    Thanks for helping to expand my reading and writing perspective and helping me gain exposure to some uniquely skilled writers.

    • Oh, man, I LIVE for sales like that! To find a trove of 50s paperbacks. Lucky!

      Yes, Ed Lacy was one of the more enjoyable paperback originalists of that era. I have a few of his titles. And ha, if dearth of sentimentality is your game, wait till you get a load of Dan Marlowe, Gil Brewer, and esp. Richard Stark (aka Donald Westlake)!

      • Actually the cynicism, lack of sentiment, and unsympathetic protagonist are contrary to much of what I favor. Despite that the craft demonstrated and the atypical story aspects engaged me.
        I was impressed and believe Ed Lacy taught me a thing or two about writing.

  8. My elder brother was a drinking buddy of Mickey Spillane who retired to Murrells Inlet, SC. Lots of talking about fishing and boats. Sadly, if there was writing advice, none was passed along to me. Both died of nastiness involving the pancreas.

    I’ve always been my own person as far as my writing was concerned and have always been between 10-20 years ahead of trends. Editors: “Women don’t want to read romances in outer space.” “Ghosts and the paranormal don’t belong in romances or mysteries.” And my personal favorite, “Vampires aren’t romantic.”

    • It’s tough to get a trad editor to take a risk, because a YES that flops is a career killer. Very little downside in saying NO.

      Reminds me of that line from Sunset Boulevard, when Joe Gillis castigates a story assistant who told him his treatment wasn’t original. “Oh, one of the message kids,” Joe says. “You would have turned down Gone With the Wind.”

      And the producer says, “No, that was me. I said ‘Who wants to see a Civil War picture?'”

  9. Jim, thanks so much for the acknowledgment of and tribute to Carroll John Daly. I was surprised to find how much of his work is readily available. I’m going to revisit what little I have and possibly acquire a little more. I appreciate the motivation.

    Happy Easter!

  10. Great post with the history, JSB. For my Historical Fiction, I’d say my big influences are (simultaneously) Ken Follett and Michener. For my Historical Fantasy, it’s probably Michael Crichton with his science-based prologues and asides (and research).

    Personal aside: I once knew Doug Crichton (Michael’s brother) in L.A. after I co-founded a swimming magazine that he contributed to. I wish now I’d asked him to introduce me to his famous brother. However, that was long before I ever imagined that I’d be a novelist. Maybe I should make contact again.

    • How well I relate to that missed opportunity, Harald. My folks were friends with one of the Black Mask pulp writers, W. T. Ballard. But I was into basketball, and had little knowledge or appreciation of pulp or writers in general. And I could have sat down with him at any time and soaked up his knowledge. Ack!

  11. I fell in love with first-person framed explicitly as something actually told by the protagonist as an informal memoir or even a yarn from Robert A. Heinlein’s “Have Space Suit, Will Travel.” Its opening paragraph is: “You see, I had this space suit. How it happened was this way:”

    The intimacy achieved when someone shares their own story in their own words, in my opinion, makes modes like first-person/present tense and the more stream-of-consciousness-y variants of third-person surprisingly impersonal by comparison, as if it were leaked security camera footage.

  12. I’d answer your question, Jim, except I’m too busy tapping my foot while impatiently waiting for the next Mike Romeo… 🙂

    Happy Easter!

  13. Funny story about the plagiarism and fired agent. Enjoyed that.

    Although I can’t say I was *heavily* influenced by him (because, alas, I wasn’t well-read enough to be when I started out in this genre), but I’d say I was subconsciously influenced by Ross Macdonald. I remember reading one of his books in college (I found it abandoned in the student union!). Can’t be sure, but I think it was The Zebra Striped Hearse. I loved that he explored the psychology behind the crimes. I’ve always been more drawn to why-dunnits than whodunnits. I read an interview with Macdonald wherein he said something to the effect of “the past is the key to the present,” and that struck a chord in me. Can anyone truly escape their past? And there was a sadness in his tone underpinning it all that appealed to my bleak side. It was decades before I came to write our Louis Kincaid series. How one’s past shadows one’s present is a recurrent theme in our books. I am sure Louis’s character owes much to Lew Archer.

    Your post reminds me that I still have gaps to fill in my crime education.

    • I met Kenneth Millar (Ross Macdonald) when I was a student at UCSB. He was a mild-mannered man, which I have to believe softened the hardboiled side of Lew Archer who, as you note, is more analytical than fisticuffish. My own bent is toward whoever dunnit should be thoroughly thrashed.

  14. I’m a Southern girl, so Margaret Mitchell, Fanny Flagg, Harper Lee, and Flannery O’Connor. Mary Stewart, Dick Francis, and Alfred Hitchcock for their normal people who end up in abnormal situations. Ray Bradbury because I love him. J.K. Rowling because I believe magic is everywhere if you know where to find it.

  15. Good evening, everyone, and Happy Easter!

    The most direct influence on my first novel was by Harry Kemelman who wrote the Rabbi Small series. I was especially attracted to the collaboration between the fictional characters of Rabbi Small and the catholic Police Chief Lanigan. It was while listening to an audio of one of the books that I decided to write my own mystery with similar undercurrents.

    My first book was also impacted by the Jane Ryland series by Hank Phillippi Ryan. I studied one of her books to get a sense of the kind of layered approach I wanted to use.

    Others (some from long ago, some recent) are Harper Lee, Mark Twain, Raymond Chandler, Dorothy Sayers, Agatha Christie, and of course, James Scott Bell. (I love the Mike Romeo character!)

    I know I’m missing some that I’ll think of as soon as I hit “Post Comment,” but that’s a pretty good list for now.

  16. I’ve been reading and learning from this blog for a few years now. I came across it after buying many (all?) of James Scott Bell’s craft books. I say this because I don’t write thrillers or even mysteries. I write light regency romances thus the author’s who influenced me might not be recognized by other’s here. Georgette Heyer, Joan Smith, Amanda Quick and of course, Jane Austen. 🙂

    • Hi Bridgit…and thanks for the mention. You’d be surprised at how well rounded are the TKZers when it comes to other genres. I’ve read a regency romance or two, so am no expert. But I do know the names Amanda Quick and, of course, Jane Austen. A good pedigree!

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