RARA-AVIS: On Defining Hardboiled (Was: "Prey" Series & Hardboiled Defined)

ejm duggan (ejmd@mcmail.com)
Sat, 25 Jul 1998 12:32:35 -0700 On Fri, 24 Jul 1998, PhantomPhan <40730@www1.utech.net> wrote:


> Bill, what I would define as "hardboiled" is a story where the protagonist is
> usually a cop or a private eye with a cynical, tough attitude towards the world, a
> "rough on the outside but sweet on the inside" kind of guy. And the plot
> invariably involves murder, though not necessarily a killer-type story, like The
> Maltese Falcon, which is really about the theft of an object worth dying/killing
> for. What distinguishes hardboiled from just a thriller is the depth to which the
> characters are drawn. One can read a dozen Robin Cook medical thrillers and not
> remember the "heroes" while a character like Sam Spade sticks forever in your
> mind. The "Prey" hero, Lucas Davenport, is a pretty fleshed out character, which
> is why I consider this series to be in the "hardboiled" school. Anyway, that's
> how I define the genre. I'd love to hear how others here define "hardboiled."

I'm not so sure that characterisation is as central to the genre as
As far as some accepted key hard-boiled texts go (Chandler, James M.
Cain) the characters are pretty crude stereotypes.

I think milieux and sensibility is more important in contributing to the
'hard boiled-ness of a text. By this I mean the air of corruption that
permeates the institutions of society (corrupt police force, corruption
in other legal offices/officers, corrupt politicians). The setting, I
think, is seamy: showing a view of and from the underside, or from a
perspective that finds the corruption distasteful. This kind of leaks
into sensibility--the writing conveys a distaste for institutionalised

There is also the tendency for the modus operandi of the hard boiled
protagonist (not necesarily a private detective or cop) to be similar
to/indistinguishable from the corrupt authority figures.

The list enjoys some intermittent discussion of this topic, but has
never (AFAIA) resolved it or reached a consensus. If we had, we could
have put a definition in the rara-avis FAQ [There is no rara-avis FAQ].

If you browse the archives you can see how we've tried, and failed, to
define 'hard boiled' in the past.


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