Writing the Hardboiled Detective – Where Did Sully Come From?

Unlike the nosy neighbor who snoops into everyone’s business or the ultra observant detective who knows endless amounts of minutia, the hardboiled detective doesn’t usually solve cases with nothing more than his wits. To be sure, sleuthing is involved, but unlike the aforementioned crime busters, the cynical detective is willing to get his hands dirty.

Less concerned with the law and more concerned with justice, the hardboiled detective doesn’t live in a cozy house or in an estate manor. The detective lives in the city, often in the underbelly where crime and violence are a part of daily life. He might frequent nice parts of town and often does when the sordid events of urban life pay visit to those less familiar with the pain these events bring with them.

Life has been the detective’s most valuable teacher. Events have taught the detective life is neither fair nor just and it most certainly has damaged him in profound ways. But life has not broken him and nor will it. He spends his days risking his life to bring justice to those who cannot find it any other way.

Unlike the puzzle-solving investigator of cozy mysteries and cerebral detective stories written the British style, the hardboiled detective lives life in a very real way. His haunts include dirty city streets where the lowly people live, dive bars, seedy hotels, and the industrial district. He knows people in low places as well as the upper crust of society. His acquaintances include bar keeps, prostitutes, petty criminals, and corrupt politicians. Friends are few in number and having them comes with a high price.

Writing hardboiled crime fiction, often known as crime noir, requires a different perspective than required to write other styles of mystery fiction. Violence is ugly. It knows no limitations, visiting the poor and the rich alike, shattering lives. This very ugliness is part of the appeal of hardboiled detective stories. The story is real life in all of its sordid ugliness.

In his essay, The Simple Art of Murder, Raymond Chandler writes at some length about writing mysteries and the differences the author must cope with when writing the hardboiled detective. The likes of Sam Spade, Philip Marlowe, and the Continental Op are a different breed of man. So much so, Chandler felt it necessary to write about the qualities of such fictional men.

In everything that can be called art there is a quality of redemption. It may be pure tragedy, if it is high tragedy, and it may be pity and irony, and it may be the raucous laughter of the strong man. 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 this man’s 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. If there were enough like him, the world would be a very safe place to live in, without becoming too dull to be worth living in (Chandler).

My own Inspector Sullivan possesses many of the qualities Chandler believes to be essential in the hardboiled detective. It is unlikely, authors of such caliber as Chandler and Hammett could foresee things like a cybernetic eye and hand or crime on an alien planet. Nonetheless, Sully, were he an Earthbound detective, should fit easily into the cities where Spade and Marlowe practiced their craft.

It is good to have something to aim for. One of my own goals as an author is for my stories somehow to approach the quality of Hammett and Chandler, two of my literary heroes. For that to happen, Sully must bear some resemblance to Spade, Marlowe, and the Operative.

Chandler, Raymond. The Simple Art of Murder (Kindle Locations 262-276). Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

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