Advancing through my Alphabet of Crime, I pause at the E’s to share a couple of the best hardboiled mystery writers around: Loren Estleman and James Ellroy.
The use of the term “hard-boiled” to describe fiction – borrowed from an early 20th-century expression for experienced tough guys – may date from February 17, 1929 when the New York Times described the nameless hero of Dashiell Hammett’s Red Harvest as “a detective as ruthless, as hard-boiled as the criminals he pursues.” From that day to this, hard-boiled crime fiction has been staking its claim to the mean streets, depicting crime in all its sordid, squalid anti-grandeur.
A prolific writer with over 70 mysteries, westerns and historical novels to his name, Loren Estleman is probably best known for his series featuring sardonic gumshoe Amos Walker beating the mean streets — or boulevards of broken dreams — of Detroit. Walker has seen it all and disapproves of most of it, according to a personal code of honor that some may call old-fashioned, but not to his face. Estleman’s series has sharp dialogue, swift action, and that great old Raymond Chandleresque world-weariness as bracing, smoky and smooth as a shot of whiskey. There are over twenty of these; try American Detective, 19th in the series, in which Walker races the police to find a murdered heiress’s supposed killer. Or if you’re commitment phobic, take Walker for a test drive in the newly published Amos Walker: the complete story collection. (I suspect some of these stories will wind up in Thrilling Tales some day soon).
From whiskey to battery acid; if Loren Estleman works in the foggy grays of classic hardboiled detective fiction, than James Ellroy paints it pitch black. Often referred to as “the mad dog” of American crime fiction, Ellroy pulls no punches in his exceedingly dark prose, an acknowledged product of his own difficult childhood. When he was ten, Ellroy’s own mother was strangled and dumped by an unknown killer; while plenty of hardboiled novels show a detective exorcising their personal demons, things get a bit more intense when it is the author’s own demons coming out on the page. Not for the faint of heart, Ellroy is nevertheless a truly great crime writer who uses his prose like a hammer (and maybe a few other implements) to give his fictional murders the same horrifying and disturbing impact that they have in in real life, fulfilling the original naturalistic intent of hardboiled fiction to show that homicide was not a matter of butlers, drawing rooms and tidy denouments. Try The Black Dahlia, first of a quartet of Los Angeles books (the others are The Big Nowhere, L.A. Confidential, and White Jazz), inspired by the ghastly 1947 unsolved murder that shocked the nation – and obsessed young Ellroy.