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April 27, 2011 / C.T. Henry

20 Must Read Hard Boiled Classics – Part 1 of 4

Like your mysteries hard-boiled?  Can’t get enough of smoky gin joints, leggy dames, and guys getting knocked unconscious?  To be a real aficionado, you need to read the classics.

Born in America during the 1920s, hard-boiled fiction owes its enduring literary style to three writers: Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler, and James M. Cain.  In their timeless stories, a tough-talking hero strives to root out corruption and bring a small measure of justice to a dark, urban landscape. However, noir fiction is also a subset of the hard-boiled style.  While the lead character in most hard-boiled stories is a streetwise detective, noir fiction usually focuses on a victim, suspect, or the actual criminal.  The central themes in noir fiction emphasize the self-destructive qualities of the characters and a sense of fatalism, where the world is indifferent to injustice and suffering.  Cornell Woolrich once wrote: “I had that trapped feeling, like some sort of poor insect that you’ve put inside a downturned glass, and it tries to climb up the sides, and it can’t, and it can’t, and it can’t.”

The following list is a great start for those who want to read the classic hard-boiled stories that have defined the genre.

Red Harvest by Dashiell Hammett (1929)


When the last honest citizen of Poisonville was murdered, the Continental Op stayed on to punish the guilty–even if that meant taking on an entire town.  Red Harvest is more than a superb crime novel: it is a classic exploration of corruption and violence in the American grain.




The Maltese Falcon by Dashiell Hammett (1930)


Sam Spade is hired by the fragrant Miss Wonderley to track down her sister, who has eloped with a louse called Floyd Thursby. But Miss Wonderley is in fact the beautiful and treacherous Brigid O’Shaughnessy, and when Spade’s partner Miles Archer is shot while on Thursby’s trail, Spade finds himself both hunter and hunted: can he track down the jewel-encrusted bird, a treasure worth killing for, before the Fat Man finds him?


The Postman Always Rings Twice by James M. Cain (1934)


First published in 1934, The Postman Always Rings Twice, caused a scandal with its explosive mix of violence and sex. The torrid story of Frank Chambers, the amoral drifter, Cora, the sullen and brooding wife, and Nick Papadakis, the amiable but inconvenient husband, has become a classic of its kind, and established Cain as a major novelist with a spare and vital prose style and a bleak vision of America.



Double Indemnity by James M. Cain (1943)


Walter Huff is an insurance investigator like any other until the day he meets the beautiful and dangerous Phyllis Nirdlinger and falls under her spell. Together they plot to kill her husband and split the insurance. It’ll be the perfect murder…



The Big Sleep by Raymond Chandler (1939)


When a dying millionaire hires Philip Marlowe to handle the blackmailer of one of his two troublesome daughters, Marlowe finds himself involved with more than extortion. Kidnapping, pornography, seduction, and murder are just a few of the complications he gets caught up in.



The Long Goodbye by Raymond Chandler (1953)


Down-and-out drunk Terry Lennox has a problem: his millionaire wife is dead and he needs to get out of LA fast. So he turns to his only friend in the world: Philip Marlowe, Private Investigator. He’s willing to help a man down on his luck, but later, Lennox commits suicide in Mexico and things start to turn nasty. Marlowe finds himself drawn into a sordid crowd of adulterers and alcoholics in LA’s Idle Valley, where the rich are suffering one big suntanned hangover. Marlowe is sure Lennox didn’t kill his wife, but how many more stiffs will turn up before he gets to the truth?

Next post: 20 Must Read Hard-Boiled Classics – Part 2


Leave a Comment
  1. John Sheridan / Apr 28 2011 8:39 pm

    Have the Chandler books waiting to be read for the last few years, usual problem of too many books and not enough time, looking forward to seeing what else is included in the next instalments

  2. John Sheridan / Jul 16 2012 7:28 am

    Reblogged this on The Mystery Bookshelf.

  3. Keishon / Jul 27 2012 10:35 pm

    For some reason I can’t get into Raymond Chandler which is surprising but I will give it another shot. Maybe it’s my mood. At any rate, I’ve read four books on this list already and enjoyed them.

  4. Matthew / Nov 21 2013 9:04 pm

    Hey I’m just getting started with a blog about Hard-Boiled Fiction and am looking for reviews and advice.Its interesting to see the similarities and disparities between our blogs. You can check it out here:


  1. 20 Must Read Hard Boiled Classics – Part 2 of 4 « The Mystery Bookshelf

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