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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The Terrible Task of Weeding Out Books

by James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell

“Fill your house with stacks of books, in all the crannies and all the nooks.” — Dr. Seuss

And when the books come falling down, I hope they find you ere you drown.” — Dr. JSB

It had to happen sooner or later. And now it’s later. I can’t put it off any longer. It’s time to disgorge a significant number of the books that stuff all the spaces in every room in my house—except, of course, the bathrooms, wherein the reading material is imported singulatim.

Like you all, I’m a book lover. How can anyone not be and become a writer? I don’t think that’s possible. With books I purchase, my practice has always been to read them and keep them. I’ve always loved being surrounded by books. Right now in my office all four walls have shelves stuffed with reading matter—literary kudzu.

But I know that someday I will be moving from my abode. So as much as it hurts, I need to make a significant dent in my stacks. I’m trying to be systematic. 

First off, I know I’m keeping some series and not others. I’ll keep Connelly, Chandler, Parker, MacDonald, Spillane. But I’m finally ditching Ross Macdonald. I’ve read all his books because Anthony Boucher tagged him as the best of the PI writers. He has a great following among critics. But I never connected with him or his PI, Lew Archer. And I simply don’t have time to try again.

I have a shelf of hardcovers autographed by the authors. I’ll keep those. Ditto my collectibles. I have some oldies that are probably worth something. I’ll let my kids figure that out someday via ebay. 

Another stratagem: I’m reading first chapters at random. If it grabs me, I’ll keep that book (if I think I might read it again). If not, it goes in the giveaway box. Here are some books that have survived:

Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier
At All Costs by John Gilstrap
The Postman Always Rings Twice by James M. Cain
The Human Comedy by William Saroyan
Final Seconds by John Lutz and David August
Sometimes a Great Notion by Ken Kesey
361 by Donald Westlake
White Oleander by Janet Fitch

Sometimes the writing might be fine, but something else will come up that causes me to pitch the book. An overabundance of F and S words, for example. Or something that doesn’t seem plausible. Ed McBain’s legal thriller Mary, Mary didn’t make the cut for just that reason. I was hooked by the first page. The narrator, lawyer Matthew Hope, is interviewing a potential client accused of murder. But then he states, [I]t was my policy never to defend anyone I thought was guilty.

Ack! No criminal defense lawyer ever says that, because he’d never have any clients. The defense lawyer’s job is to make sure the cops haven’t overstepped their constitutional bounds, and hold the prosecution to its burden of proof. So nix to this book and the others in the Matthew Hope series. 

What am I looking for in that first chapter? We talk about that a lot here at TKZ. I want a grabber hook or a grabber voice—having both is a bonus. An example of a grabber hook is the opening of Harlan Coben’s Promise Me:

The missing girl—there had been unceasing news reports, always flashing to that achingly ordinary school portrait of the vanished teen, you know the one, with the rainbow-swirl background, the girl’s hair too straight, her smile too self-conscious, then a quick cut to the worried parents on the front lawn, microphones surrounding them, Mom silently tearful, Dad reading a statement with quivering lip—that girl, that missing girl had just walked past Edna Skylar.

For grabber voice, here’s the opening of High Five by Janet Evanovich:

When I was a little girl I used to dress Barbie up without underpants. On the outside, she’d look like the perfect lady. Tasteful plastic heels, tailored suit. But underneath, she was naked. I’m a bail enforcement agent now—also known as a fugitive apprehension agent, also known as a bounty hunter. I bring ’em back dead or alive. At least I try. And being a bail enforcement agent is a little like being bare-bottom Barbie. It’s about having a secret. And it’s about wearing a lot of bravado on the outside when you’re really operating without underpants. 

Nonfiction is much harder for me to cull. I read nonfiction for specific information that interests me, and I make heavy use of the highlighter. When I’m finished I keep the book because I think maybe I’ll need that information again sometime. And hasn’t this happened to you: The moment I give a book away, or let someone borrow it, not a week goes by before I need something from that very book!

So I don’t know what to do about my NF. I know I’ll never give away my writing craft books. I have several shelves of these, and they are an archaeological record of my writing journey. I often refer to them for refreshers. 

I’m heavily stocked with biography, history, philosophy, theology, reference. Alas, I can’t see myself parting with many of these. I have a full set of the 1947 edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica (handed down from my grandfather, who sold them door-to-door during the Depression). I keep this because the articles in it are often so much better and more authoritative than what you find online these days. Also, in a special bookcase, is my Great Books of the Western World set, complete with the incredible achievement that is the Syntopicon. That’s obviously staying put. 

Which makes all this slow going! I have a feeling it’s going to take years to gain any significant space. I’m sure I’ll have to revisit my criteria down the line and get tougher on myself. 

“A room without books,” wrote Cicero, “is like a body without a soul.” I’m right with you there, Cic. But now what?

Do you have any advice for this melancholy bibliophile?

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