You say it’s your birthday?

100 Years of the Hard-Boiled American Private Eye

EDITOR’S NOTE: The  following article, in slightly different form, first appeared in the Fall 2022 issue of Mystery Scene (#173), but it makes for a nifty intro to the upcoming panel at Bouchercon 2023 that I’ll be moderating, entitled “You Can’t Kill Me—Why the P.I. Won’t Die.”

Sadly, the article ran in the penultimate issue of the late, great and sorely missed Mystery Scene, and my intended follow-up, where, after offering a potshot quickie history of the genre, I planned to dig into the its future by grilling some key members of the Shamus Game, never came to pass. 

Hopefully, all will be rectified on Thursday, August 31 at 10:30 AM when I get to interogate P.I. writers  Andrew Welsh-Huggins (Andy Hayes), D.P. Lyle (Jake Longly and Bobby Cain & Harper McCoy),  David Housewright (Mac McKenzie and Holland Taylor) Janet Elizabeth Lynn (Skylar Drake) and Sara Paretsky (V.I. Warshawski) about private eyes—where he/she/they were, and where he/she/they are going. Hopefully, you’ll be able to join us.

And don’t worry, I’ll let the panelists ask YOU plenty of questions…

If you’re at Bouchercon and CAN’T make the panel, and you still for some reason want to see me sometime, I’ll be in the bar…

But I’ll tell you straight up, I’m a man who likes to talk to a man who likes to talk.

The hard-boiled American private eye turned 100 sometime this year, which means he’s pretty old.

No, really.

And, it turns out, he may have two daddies.

The December 1922 issue of The Black Mask (the legendary pulp lost the “The” over the years) marked the original appearance of both “The False Burton Combs” by Carroll John Daly and “The Road Home” by Peter Collinson (actually Dashiell Hammett). They ran as the first and second stories in the issue, along with a dozen or so other stories of varying quality by mostly forgotten writers.

Still… Daly and Hammett? In the same issue? Not bad for 20 cents.

(That must have a doozy of an issue. I’ve searched for years online for a copy—or even a scan of the cover, and as far as I know, nobody has seen one in decades. Anyone got a spare one they don’t want, gimme a call. I’ll even pay cover price. But I digress…)

Most scholars (and even pissant mystery geeks like me) pinpoint this issue as pivotal in the genre’s evolution, even if neither the nameless adventurer who posed as Burton Combs in Daly’s story or Hagedorn, the relentless manhunter in Hammett’s yarn, identified themselves as detectives per se, never mind private eyes.

Oh, you could trace the DNA way, way back—to the American cowboy, to Sherlock Holmes, to James Fenimore Cooper, to Robin Hood, to Edgar Allan Poe and a zillion others. But ground zero for the hard-boiled American private eye—as we understand the term—is a hundred years old, give or take a little quibbling.

Anyway, it’s not what they called themselves that matters… but what they did. Daly’s man is hired by the “real” Burton Combs, a rich swell, to travel to Nantucket assuming his identity, and to continue posing as Combs for reasons that aren’t exactly clear, except that the real Combs is in “some kind of trouble.” Fortunately, there’s enough murder and mayhem to cover any plot holes.

Meanwhile, Hammett’s “The Road Home” owes more than a little to Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. Just a few pages long, it packs a wallop, cramming in themes of honour and treachery, violence and duty. Hagedorn is a gaunt, humourless grey-eyed manhunter who leaves his family back in New York to trail an elusive criminal, Barnes. For over two years, he follows him; overseas, through countless ports and eventually deep into the jungle. Like Daly’s story, the motivation for the chase are murky—Hagedorn mentions, briefly, a promise made to his “people” but that’s about all we know—or need to know. He’s a man on a job.

They both are. In each story, the detective is a hard-boiled sort of guy, a working class joe earning his daily bread as a manhunter, an adventurer with a sometimes-flexible set of ethics and a bone-deep sense of skepticism, if not downright cynicism, a go-between rubbing up against criminals  in a dangerous world, but disavowing any official connection with the authorities.

A sense of fatalism and hard-earned pragmatism permeates both stories, and both heroes face down threats and bribery attempts, following a personal moral code neither would easily cough to, perhaps, but to which they both cling to without question.

The false Combs proclaims “I ain’t a crook; just a gentleman adventurer and I make my living working against the law breakers. Not that I work with the police — no, not me. I’m no knight errant either,” while Hammett’s hero, predictably, cuts to the chase “Maybe manhunting isn’t the nicest trade in the world, but it’s all the trade I’ve got.”

The language is tough and recognizably American, but it would take Raymond Chandler (no slouch at the private eye yarn, either—you may have heard of him) another twenty or so years to boil the hard-boiled dick down to his essence, in an essay in the December 1944 issue of The Atlantic Monthly. Sorry, but here comes that damn, oft-repeated “Down These Mean Streets” quote again (possibly the most quoted piece of crime fiction criticism ever):

“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. I do not care much about his private life; he is neither a eunuch nor a satyr; I think he might seduce a duchess and I am quite sure he would not spoil a virgin; if he is a man of honor in one thing, he is that in all things. He is a relatively poor man, or he would not be a detective at all. He is a common man or he could not go among common people. He has a sense of character, or he would not know his job. He will take no man’s money dishonestly and no man’s insolence without a due and dispassionate revenge. He is a lonely man and his pride is that you will treat him as a proud man or be very sorry you ever saw him. He talks as the man of his age talks, that is, with rude wit, a lively sense of the grotesque, a disgust for sham, and a contempt for pettiness. The story is his adventure in search of a hidden truth, and it would be no adventure if it did not happen to a man fit for adventure. He has a range of awareness that startles you, but it belongs to him by right, because it belongs to the world he lives in.”

That pretty much sums it up for me. Within a few months of that pivotal issue of The Black Mask, the first official hard-boiled private eye, in the eponymous “Three Gun Terry,” would appear in the same pages, and there would be no doubt this time about his occupation:

“I have a little office which says “Terry Mack, Private Investigator,” on the door, which means whatever you wish to think it. I ain’t a crook, and I ain’t a dick; I play the game on the level, in my own way.”

Alas, “Three Gun Terry” didn’t exactly set the world on fire (he only appeared in one more story), but a scant two weeks later, “The Knights of the Open Palm” would appear in the next issue of The Black Mask, introducing Daly’s most famous (and longest -running) creation, private eye Race Williams (Williams wasn’t much different from either Terry or the bogus Combs guy, but with his guns a-blazing he hung around until the fifties, displaying tremendous staying power, before the guns a-blazing baton was passed on to Mike Hammer).

A few months after that, Hammett (still flying under the Collinson flag) would unleash his beloved private eye, The Continental Op, in “Arson Plus,” in the October 1923 issue.

And before you knew it the hard-boiled American private eye was everywhere. In Black Mask and all the other pulps. In novels. Film. Radio. Television. Comics. On stage and in video games. Pop culture, even now, is still soaking in it. For a century we’ve learned to walk like the heroes we thought we had to be. Humphrey Bogart cracked wise and we took notes. And the “eye” in private eye became all of us.

And sure, the stereotype is the straight-talking, straight-shooting pale male in a fedora and trench coat, a bottle in the desk drawer and a lonely bed to sleep in, but even from the beginning there were other voices, other choices, calling from the corners of the genre.

Hammett’s Op was a company man, working for the nation-wide Continental Detective Agency, and Whitfield’s Ben Jardinn ran a small Los Angeles agency, but they were their own men, working in a world far removed from what the mystery genre had been, with it’s white-gloved amateurs running around country mansions, schmoozing with the Vicar and rattling the silverware. How could there be fair-play mysteries in a world that didn’t play fair?

“It’s my business. I’ll take your money…,” Jardinn admitted. “I’ll take anyone’s money, if I can give something for it. This isn’t a hobby with me. I don’t work in a library, or go into trances. I don’t dope out involved codes. And I don’t bother too much with the D.A.’s office or the harness bulls.”

Those first rugged eyes of the twenties rumbled through a post-war America of robber barons, flappers, the Klan, bootleggers and a whole new kind of widespread corruption (thank you, Prohibition!), it soon became clear the straight-shooting, straight-talking American Eye wasn’t just a guy with a gun. Sure, he could blow the bad guys all away, but he could also exhibit a keen and nuanced sense of justice—or even mercy. Or humour.

By the thirties, the Depression had rolled in. The private eye was in ascendance, spreading from the countless crime and detective pulps on the newsstands and onto the shelves of bookstores. Sam Spade was welcoming Miss Waverly into his chambers, while Fredrick Nebel was keeping it tough and tight in the pulps, and Jonathan Latimer, Norbert Davis,  and Robert Leslie Bellem were slipping banana peels into the works, having a ball with the genre’s already well-established tricks and tropes. Hard-boiled private janes were popping up, and Ramon Delacorta (Whitfield in disguise) had spread the gospel to Manila. The end of the decade saw Erle Stanley Gardner’s Bertha Cool and Donald Lam, Brett Halliday’s Mike Shayne and some dude named Philip Marlowe all making their novel-length debuts. The first Golden Age of the Shamus Game had begun.

And then the world went to war. Again.

America was becoming a superpower, and everything was bigger, brighter and better. For some, the good times were spreading like crabgrass, but for others… not so much. The boys were coming home, but they’d seen more than Paris. They’d seen evil up close and not even a house in the suburbs and a shiny new Chevy in every garage could make them unsee what they’d seen.

And the private eyes of the twenties and thirties suddenly seemed sort of old hat. At the same time a whole new breed of writers had entered the Shamus Game. They—and their readers—had grown up in the Depression and they’d survived a whole different kind of war. A new type of eye was called for.

Or at least old types, rewired for a new age. I, the Jury, which introduced Mickey Spillane’s Mike Hammer, was an atomic bomb to the genre; an unapologetic red meat rebooting of Daly’s Race Williams, laced with more sex and violence than Daly had ever dreamed of. Hammer was a one-gear, shoot-first, let-god-sort-it out avenger who didn’t truck in nicety or nuance. But it’s just what millions of returning vets wanted. Riding the rising tide of the new paperback format, Spillane sold about a zillion copies of his first six novels, and became one of America’s best-selling authors, and certainly one of the most successful mystery authors of all time.

Of course many, mostly lesser, writers tried to take the Hammer formula for a spin, and most crashed and burned. But some writers, at the other end of the pool, had other ideas. They imagined detectives who were tough enough, for sure, but the lone wolf  with a gun model was fading—this new breed of eyes had lives, and people in those lives, if only temporarily, who mattered, and they were involved in their communities in ways the genre hadn’t really seen before.

As the forties eked into the fifties, Wade Miller’s Max Thursday, Bart Spicer’s Carney Wilde, Thomas Dewey’s Mac, Dolores Hitchens’ Jim Sader, Blake Edward’s Peter Gunn (the P.I. was now a staple of radio, television and film) was, William Campbell Gault’s Brock Callahan and in particular Ross Macdonald’s Lew Archer all appeared, and all displayed a heretofore unseen level of empathy and compassion. They had friends, even girlfriends or wives, and there was a sense that at the end of a case, something more than a brooding soliloquy and the holy office bottle awaited. None of them sold as much as Spillane, but it could be argued that their influence on the genre, given what was to come, was longer and more sustained.

Meanwhile, ersatz takes on the American tough guy PI by the likes of such foreigners as James Hadley Chase, Peter Cheyney, Carter Brown et al had also began to sprout, rather like mushrooms, moving plenty of units around the world, but mostly they rang false. Far better was Frenchman Leo Malet’s Nestor Burma series, featuring a former political radical turned private eye who faced the mean streets of a Nazi-controlled (and later post-war) Paris in a long string of books, proving how portable the basic template— in the right hands—could be successfully exported to countries and communities around the world. It’s a shame so few of Malet’s books were ever translated into English.

As the suit-and-tie fifties meandered into the bell-bottomed sixties and the seventies, one couldn’t help but notice that there was something in the air, and the old roads were rapidly fading. Ed Lacy’s Room to Swing, featuring a credible Black eye, had won the Best Novel Edgar in 1957, but there was even more diversity to come. Michael Collins’ one-armed Dan Fortune (Handicapped!), Roger Simon’s Moses Wine (Jewish!), Marcia Muller’s Sharon McCone (Female!), and Joseph Hansen’s Dave Brandstetter (Gay!) were all chewing at the edges of the genre.

By the time Bill Pronzini’s Nameless (no name!) and Robert B. Parker’s hugely influential Spenser arrived, it was clear the Shamus Game had been served notice. Always more than just an attempt to milk those beloved private eye traditions; Parker’s bestselling Boston gumshoe was also also a deliberate, no-holds barred attempt to drag those traditions, kicking and screaming, into the modern age. Gone were the boundaries of region, gender, nationality, sexuality, race or creed—the door had been kicked open, and everyone rushed in.

As Harlan Coben, no slouch himself, admitted, “I read Parker’s Spenser series in college. When it comes to detective novels, 90 percent of us admit Parker’s an influence, and the rest of us lie about it.”

Once as American as apple pie, the private eye could now be just about anyone, anyway, anywhere, anyhow. He or she or theu could be a gay man in Singapore, a Black woman in India, a wisecracking ex-cop in Detroit, an ex-pat Lesbian in Bangkok, a Moslem in London, a Korean-American in Los Angeles—hell, they could even be Canadian!

The last fifty or so years have proven that. And yet, and yet, and yet…

Like Paul Simon’s Boxer, the essence of the original private eye still remains. Fighting the good fight, still clinging to a perhaps tattered and tarnished personal code of honour, dogged and determined. For hire.

As that old chatterbox Chandler put it, “If there were enough like him, I think the world would be a very safe place to live in, and yet not too dull to be worth living in.”

So let us raise a glass to the American Private Eye, one hundred years old this year.

Insert your pronouns where you will, but let’s give credit where credit is due. He’s been sapped, shot, drugged, strung out, beat up and let down. He’s survived cozies and sci-fi and horror and rebootings and re-imaginings, politics and lung cancer. He’s been hard-boiled, soft-boiled and scrambled. He’s been re-imagined, rebooted, recycled and pronounced dead, and his heart’s probably been broken a time or two as well.

But the truth is out there somewhere, and all his children are now out there playing his licks, still going down those mean streets, wherever they may be, still making other people’s troubles their business (not their hobby), knocking on doors and taking down names.

Happy birthday, ya old dick.

Respectfully submitted by Kevin Burton Smith. A slightly different version of this essay appeared in the Fall 2022 issue of Mystery Scene (#173), as “100 Years of the American Hard-boiled Private Eye.” Used with permission.

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