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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Learning from The Maltese Falcon

by James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell

Read on to the end of this post, for you will get one of the greatest trivia questions of all time. Use it to flummox your film snob friends (and isn’t that what life is all about?)

The Maltese Falcon by Dashiell Hammett is one of the great American novels. In fact, I think it should replace The Great Gatsby on high school reading lists (that is, if they still have high school reading lists that look at quality fiction for no other reason than that it has quality). The book is more exciting and true to human life than Gatsby, and has all sorts of characters and themes running through it.

I mean, come on! Greed, sex, money, murder, mystery, and the hero’s code. Gatsby teaches kids (who can get through the book) that you don’t always get what you want. The Maltese Falcon teaches a much better lesson: don’t trust somebody just because you think they’re hot like Brigid O’Shaughnessy.

And do the right thing, even if it tears your heart out.

The novel has been made into a movie three times. The first version starred Ricardo Cortez, an actor with a handsome smile and all the acting range from A to B. He had “Latin features” which was a big deal at the time (late 20s, early 30s) because of Rudolph Valentino’s popularity. But Ricardo Cortez was no more Latin than a plate of gefilte fish. He was born Jacob Krantz, son of Morris and Sarah Lefkovitz Krantz, in the Bronx. But the studio heads saw a chance to turn him into a talkies version of Valentino. Thus, the new name.

In this 1931 film, Cortez plays Sam Spade as a kind of laughing Lothario, always giving ladies’ legs a creepy once over. A strange choice, given the tone of the novel, which was captured most brilliantly by the John Huston version starring Humphrey Bogart, made in 1941. (The other version was a loose one, Satan Met a Lady (1936) starring Bette Davis and Warren William. This “light-hearted” rendition was not met with critical acclaim. The leading film critic of the day, Bosley Crowther of the New York Times, said of it, “So disconnected and lunatic are the picture’s incidents, so irrelevant and monstrous its people, that one lives through it in constant expectation of seeing a group of uniformed individuals appear suddenly from behind the furniture and take the entire cast into protective custody.”)

Dwight Frye as Wilmer in The Maltese Falcon (1931)

But I will give the Cortez Falcon props for one great casting decision. In the book there’s a “gunsel” named Wilmer Cook. He’s the henchman and catamite for the fat man, Casper Gutman. While nicely played by Elisha Cook, Jr. in the Bogart film, Dwight Frye makes an unforgettable Wilmer in the 1931 version.

Frye is best known for his portrayal of Renfield in the Bela Lugosi Dracula. Man, you can’t forget his crazy laugh and his desire to eat flies. And those eyes! He was dubbed “the man with the thousand-watt stare,” and that’s what he brings to Wilmer.

More interesting things you should know about The Maltese Falcon:

  • There are three prop falcon statuettes still in existence from the 1941 movie. Each is valued at around $1 million.
  • In the novel, the fat man is Casper Gutman. In the shooting script for the 1941 version, for some unknown reason, he is listed as “Kasper Gutman.”
  • In the Bogart version, the fat man was famously played by English actor Sydney Greenstreet, in his film debut. At 357 pounds, he certainly embodied the character. The Warner Bros. wardrobe department had to make special clothes to fit Greenstreet. Interestingly, Bogart wore his own clothes for the part of Sam Spade.
  • Mary Astor, who plays Brigid O’Shaughnessy, won an Oscar that same year for her role in The Great Lie. She wasn’t pleased. Why? Because she thought she should have been put up for Brigid! She is brilliant in both movies.
  • Bogart, of course, was a noted onscreen smoker (only Bette Davis rivaled him). But the studio didn’t want him to! Why not? Because they thought that audience members seeing Bogie light up might be tempted to step into the lobby for a quick smoke during the movie. In fact, the studio almost fired John Huston over this issue. But Huston convinced them that Sam Spade’s cig was an indelible part of his character, and the cancer nails remained. (Bogart died of cancer at the age of 57. His widow, Lauren Bacall, later admitted, “Cigarettes killed Bogie.”)

Tips for writers from The Maltese Falcon:

  • It may be the greatest “show, don’t tell” novel ever written. It is in what is called Cinematic-Omniscient POV. That’s because there is no dipping into the thoughts or feelings of any of the characters. It’s like watching a movie on the screen. You see the scene and hear the dialogue.
  • The orchestration of characters is brilliant. You should always create your cast to not only be different from one another, but also in such a way that conflict may arise between any of them at any time. Spade, Brigid, Joel Cairo, Gutman, Wilmer, Effie (Spade’s secretary), Iva (Spade’s mistress), and Detective Tom Polhaus are all unique and have various mini-conflicts with each other throughout the book.
  • Hammett was a master of dialogue, too. The characters all speak with unique voices. One of my favorite examples, from both book and movie, is this exchange between Spade and Joel Cairo, coming some time after Spade knocked Cairo out in Spade’s office.

Spade said: “Let’s go some place where we can talk.”

Cairo raised his chin. “Please excuse me,” he said. “Our conversations in private have not been such that I am anxious to continue them.”

Or this between Gutman and Spade:

“Now, sir, we’ll talk if you like. And I’ll tell you right out that I’m a man who likes talking to a man that likes to talk.”

“Swell. Will we talk about the black bird?”

The fat man laughed and his bulbs rode up and down on his laughter. “Will we? We will,” he replied. His pink face was shiny with delight. “You’re the man for me, sir, a man cut along my own lines. No beating about the bush, but right to the point. ‘Will we talk about the black bird?’ We will. I like that, sir. I like that way of doing business. Let us talk about the black bird by all means, but first, sir, answer me a question, please, though maybe it’s an unnecessary one, so we’ll understand each other from the beginning. You’re here as Miss O’Shaughnessy’s representative?”

And now, friends, the great trivia question. Keep this in your back pocket for the next time you get into a film discussion with a know-it-all.

What is the final line in the 1941 movie version of The Maltese Falcon?

You’ll no doubt get the answer that it’s from Bogart: “The stuff that dreams are made of.”

Ah, but there is one more line after that! It’s from Ward Bond, playing Spades’ cop friend Tom Polhaus. He responds, “Huh?”

Have a look!

 You are now the most interesting person in the room. Congrats!

Have you seen or read The Maltese Falcon? (If your answer is no to either, correct that gross mistake ASAP!) What’s your favorite classic detective novel or movie? What can we learn from it?

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Thrillers Bring the Light

by James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell

 As if things weren’t bad enough.

We’re struggling through this national shutdown and all the dire consequences thereof, and along comes exactly what we don’t need: The murder hornet!

Yes, this unsightly wasp with its ugly orange head and relatively large body mass, has arrived on our shores intent on killing innocent little honey bees and, indeed, the occasional human.

But just when we think we are in the midst of a Stephen King nightmare, along comes a hero, a savior, a defender of all that is good and decent and pure: the praying mantis!

How appropriate that the vanquisher of a grotesque insect villain should turn out to be an insect of another sort—one that humbly supplicates to the Creator before chomping the brains of its adversary.

That’s entomological justice!

Which is what mystery, suspense, and thrillers are all about. They take us through the valley of the shadow of death, toward the light on the other side.

At least, the best ones do.

That’s been the secret of the popularity of this kind of fiction since it took off in the nineteenth century. Most scholars agree that the modern mystery story can be traced to Poe’s “The Murders in the Rue Morgue” (1841). Here is the invention of the sleuth who, through the powers of observation and deduction, solves a seemingly inexplicable crime.

Which offers hope to a population that must believe, “Crime doesn’t pay.”

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle took it to the next level with the invention of Sherlock Holmes. Holmes endures, even today, not simply because of his brainpower, but because of his eccentricities. He’s entertaining as well as brilliant. He’s flawed, too, just like us. But again we see the hope that deduction brings—justice will be done.

Back here in America we took the simple mystery and transformed it through the hardboiled school of the pulps. The quintessential detective hero of this type issued from the typewriter of Dashiell Hammett: Sam Spade in The Maltese Falcon (1930). This hero is not refined or dainty or a tea drinker. He is tough, cynical, sometimes brutal. But in the end he still gets justice. The mystery of the black bird is solved, but more importantly each of the nefarious characters Spade has dealt with get their comeuppance, including the femme fatale Spade has fallen in love with, Brigid O’Shaughnessy. Spade “sends her over” because, after all, she killed his partner. Spade tries to explain it to her: “When a man’s partner is killed he’s supposed to do something about it. It doesn’t make any difference what you thought of him. He was your partner and you’re supposed to do something about it.”

Underneath his contradictions, Sam Spade is still guided by a moral code.

In the detective pantheon, Spade was followed by Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe. Marlowe, like Spade, is tough and cynical (but a lot more fun to listen to) and has a code based on honor. Indeed, in Chandler’s world, Marlowe is something of knight errant in a fedora. Chandler made this plain in his 1944 essay, “The Simple Art of Murder.” Here is the famous passage:

But down these mean streets a man must go who is not himself mean, who is neither tarnished nor afraid. The detective in this kind of story must be such a man. He is the hero, he is everything. He must be a complete man and a common man and yet an unusual man. He must be, to use a rather weathered phrase, a man of honor, by instinct, by inevitability, without thought of it, and certainly without saying it. He must be the best man in his world and; a good enough man for any world.

As Professor David Schmid puts it in his course on mystery and suspense fiction:

Chandler’s essay helps us understand that hard-boiled mysteries appeal to the reader both because of their unvarnished, realistic cynicism and also because their private-eye protagonists embody an alternative to that cynicism, an oasis of personal responsibility and integrity in a world that is sorely in need of both.

The world is always in need of the heroic vision. The best thriller, mystery, and suspense novels offer that to us. No matter how mean the streets, or dark the night, justice, even if rough, somehow prevails through the strength and courage of the hero.

Yes, there is a type of novel that begins and ends in the darkness—noir. For example, the world of Jim Thompson (e.g., The Killer Inside Me; Savage Night) is not your grandmother’s cozy little village. Yet even as his grifters and psychopaths meet their ends, there is a rough noir-justice being doled out. While it isn’t a hero who “solves” things, there is a price to pay for the criminal choices made.This type of novel provides what Aristotle called catharsis. We see the consequences of an immoral life and thus are instructed not to go there. Thus, even dark noir can have a candlelight’s flame of moral illumination.

All this to say that the lasting popularity of mystery, suspense, and thrillers is based primarily on a hero bringing us justice, re-enforcing our belief that good will prevail and that light will shine again. As Dr. Schmid says at the end of his course:

Although experimental examples of mystery and suspense fiction may be well respected as aesthetic objects, they aren’t popular with wide audiences. In the final analysis, it seems that we can tolerate only so much experimentation and frustration. Perhaps the ultimate secret to great mystery and suspense fiction is that, in one way or another, it satisfies a deep-seated desire we all have for the world around us to make sense.

Isn’t that why you continue to read this kind of fiction? In a world that increasingly isn’t making sense, don’t we need these books more than ever?

 

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Escapism Rocks!

by James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell

There’s always been a certain amount of stress associated with being alive. In pre-historic times, this was largely based on concerns over being eaten by large animals. Or by having pointy things stuck into your body by the tribe down the road. At the same time, you had crops to attend to and weather events to deal with. All with no TV, internet, or Candy Crush.

Later on, the Greeks sat around inventing philosophy and giving people more reasons for stress, as in, trying to figure out the point of this bewildering existence. Religion was asking the same questions in places like India, China, and Jerusalem.

As the great historians say, stuff happens. Like war. More stress. In America we had a war oddly called “Civil.” And later joined the right side in a couple of wars big enough to be called “World.”

In between WWI and II, we had the Great Depression, and the stress of actually getting food onto the table. Jobs were scarce. Prospects, in many cases, dim.

Which is where escapism stepped in to offer rays of entertaining sunshine. You had the movies, of course. For a dime you could spend a few hours with Astaire and Rogers, Gable and Tracy, Hepburn and Grant. Radio was pervasive, providing laughs from Benny and Hope and Fibber McGee, and adventures with The Lone Ranger and The Shadow. And comfort by way of “fireside chats” delivered by President Franklin Delano Roosevelt himself.

But by far the most popular form of escapism came by way of the pulp magazines. In the 1930s the pulps were booming. Newsstands and drug stores carried dozens of magazines with names like Black Mask, Dime Detective, Amazing Stories, Adventure, and Thrilling Western. Popular series characters (what the great pulp writer Erle Stanley Gardner called “the writer’s insurance policy”) included Nick Carter, Doc Savage, Tarzan, Conan the Cimmerian, Buck Rogers, Sailor Steve Costigan, and Bill Lennox.

Indeed, some of our best American writers came out of the pulps—people like Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler, Robert E. Howard, Fredric Brown, and Horace McCoy. Not to mention the many steady professionals who knew one thing above all—how to tell a dang good story.

And just what did these stories have in common? I think Gardner himself said it best:

“The public wants stories because it wants to escape.…The writer is bringing moral strength to many millions of people because the successful story inspires the audience. If a story doesn’t inspire an audience in some way, it is no good.”

I believe this is still true. Which is why I’m launching my own short fiction channel via Patreon.

If you’re not familiar with Patreon, it’s a site where artists of various stripes can find support for their work. Friends, family, and fans become patrons of the artist. Usually that comes in the form of monthly pledges, in return for which a patron receives various benefits, such as early access to new work or a personally autographed print.

But there is another model called “per creation,” which seems to me more applicable to writers. In this model, patrons are not charged monthly, but only when an actual story is published. My job is to deliver the goods, which means entertaining escapism for a busy reading public. Stories you can read on the subway or the bus, or while waiting for the doctor, or simply at home after a long day when you don’t feel like cracking Moby Dick.

All of the details about this venture are on my page. I hope some of you will join me in this venture. The stories I publish will not appear anywhere else. You’ll be able to read this exclusive content online, on your phone via the free Patreon app, or on your Kindle, Nook or Kobo ereader.

My first story will come out June 1. It takes place in Hollywood in 1945. There’s a movie studio, a murder, and a studio troubleshooter named William “Wild Bill” Armbrewster. He’s going to be a series character, so this would be a good time to get in on the ground floor.

Because in times such as these, escapism rocks.

So what are some of your favorite books, movies, or TV shows when you simply want to escape?

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