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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First Page Critique – The Recruiter

Photo credit: Thomas Quine, Creative Commons lic.

 

Please welcome today’s Brave Author who submitted the first page of The Recruiter for feedback. Enjoy the excerpt then we’ll talk about it.

~~~

The butt of the revolver smashed into my face, slicing open a half-inch gash above my left eyebrow. I pressed a hand to my bleeding forehead and cursed.

“You have a smart mouth,” Mr. White said.

“And you’re wasting my time,” I replied, feeling the sting of sweat in the wound. As soon as I pulled my hand away, I could feel the blood begin to pool again. In a few seconds it would trickle down and stain both my shirt and suit jacket a deep red.

Shit. I just had them both dry cleaned.

“Your time is my time,” Mr. White said. With his thick Eastern European accent, the line sounded more cartoonish than I bet he intended.

“Not until you pay me it isn’t. And for the past half-hour I’ve sat here and answered questions about everything from my shoe size to my favorite porn star.” I turned to the hired muscle standing behind me, the one whose gun now had drops of my blood on its handle. Guy was wearing Ray Bans even though it was 1:30 in the morning and we were inside an empty bar. Douchebag. “By the way,” I said to him, “my favorite porn star? It’s your Mom.”

This time the butt came down on the back of my neck. I almost passed out but bit my tongue until the gray spots in my vision disappeared. I spat a mouthful of pink saliva onto the dirty floor and sat up.

“I’m a thorough businessman,” Mr. White said as he twisted a pinkie ring between his thumb and forefinger. Another unintentionally cartoonish move. “And I don’t make deals with someone based solely on their reputation without asking some questions of my own.”

“Cut the shit. My reputation is the only reason your boy hasn’t blown my brains out all over this table and we both know it.” To that, neither man had a reply. “So if you’re done with the HR interview, let’s talk about why I’m sitting here, because it sure as hell isn’t for the company.”

Mr. White twisted his pinkie ring a few more times–gold, of course, and shiny–before he finally smiled. He nodded to Ray Bans and a black briefcase fell on the table in front of me. A thin cloud of dust from broken peanut shells and cigarette ash puffed up where it landed.

~~~

First off, congratulations to today’s Brave Author for an action-packed start. Nothing like the protagonist being pistol whipped to catch the reader’s attention.

Immediately following are a couple of great lines that firmly establish the genre as gritty and hard-boiled:

“In a few seconds it would trickle down and stain both my shirt and suit jacket a deep red.

Shit. I just had them both dry cleaned.”

Clearly, this ain’t the first rodeo for the as-yet-unnamed protagonist. For now, let’s call him Tough Guy or TG.

TG is no stranger to violence. In fact, he provokes it:

“By the way,” I said to him, “my favorite porn star? It’s your Mom.”

That earns TG another thump on the back of his neck.

The Raymond Chandler vibe predisposes me to like this page because Chandler is my all-time favorite author. The writing is crisp, clear, and error-free. The voice is strong and sardonic. The description is sparse but still paints a vivid picture of a grimy, low-end bar.

“A thin cloud of dust from broken peanut shells and cigarette ash puffed up where it landed.”

Good job of drawing the reader deeper into the story with action and unanswered questions. We want to learn who these people are, why they’re meeting, and what’s at stake.

We know Tough Guy isn’t tied up since his hand is free to wipe away blood. That raises more questions: Why does he tolerate being smacked around? Why does he bring more abuse down on himself? To prove his toughness?

Cops, private investigators, and fixers in 1930s and ’40s movies behaved that way and the audience bought it. But contemporary readers will wonder about TG. If he’s really that good, he could–and would–disarm Ray Bans after the first blow. Further, a pro would not risk unnecessary injury simply for the sake of hurling a snarky insult…even though the line about mom being a porn star is very funny. 

Here’s a possible different approach: TG baits Ray Bans with the insult about his mom, knowing the guy will retaliate. He’s prepared for the attack and takes the gun away, making RB look stupid in front of his boss. TG also makes himself look smarter and more competent to the reader.

Suggest you identify the protagonist on the first page by having Mr. White address him by name. Two possible opportunities: “You have a smart mouth, Mr. XYZ.” Or “Your time is my time, Mr. XYZ.”

A few small nits:

A revolver is generally perceived as a weapon from an earlier era. Semi-auto pistols with high capacity magazines are more likely to be today’s gun of choice for the well-armed thug.

Unless Tough Guy can see himself, he can’t know the gash is a half-inch long. Suggest you just use “gash” without the measurement.

“I could feel the blood begin to pool again.” Blood wouldn’t pool if it’s running down his face. Blood generally pools on a horizontal surface like a floor or table.

The blood on the gun butt is more likely to be smears than drops.

None of these issues is significant and all are easily fixed.

My biggest concern is the portrayal of Mr. White which veers into clichés. Mr. White’s thick Eastern European accent, pinkie ring, and stock dialogue have been done in countless books and films. The Brave Author even acknowledges that by calling him “cartoonish.”

Unless this is meant to be a satire, like Steve Martin’s Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid (1982), the author might consider a fresher approach to describing the heavy.

There are some great humorous lines.

“Guy was wearing Ray Bans even though it was 1:30 in the morning and we were inside an empty bar. Douchebag.”

“So if you’re done with the HR interview…”

Overall, this page is well written, strong, and compelling. I’m sure Brave Author will find a fresher way to characterize Mr. White.

The excerpt was a pleasure to read. It was also difficult to critique because I found so few problems. All were minor and readily fixable by this obviously capable writer.

A fine job, Brave Author! Thanks for submitting. Let us know when this is published.

~~~

TKZers: What are your thoughts on The Recruiter? Any ideas for the Brave Author? Would you keep reading?

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Coming soon! Debbie Burke’s new novella, Crowded Hearts, will be FREE for a limited time. Watch for the announcement here at TKZ.

 

 

 

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