Friday, January 29, 2016

How Do You Like Your Detectives Mister, Hard or Soft-Boiled?


There are more subgenres in murder mysteries than you can wave a gun at: police procedurals, historical, comic, puzzle, legal, medical, cat and Christmas, and I’m sure there’s at least a dozen more. Then there’s the detective: police, amateur sleuth and private eye. But I would guess that there is more difference between fictional detectives than their real counterparts. Think Agatha Christie’s Poirot versus George Pelecanos’s Derek Strange. Mystery lovers label the differences between detectives as soft-boiled or hard-boiled. Why is that important? If you favor a beautiful countryside or a small village where everyone is pleasant to one another except—you know—the murderer, don’t read hard-boiled mysteries.

Hard-boiled mysteries typically take place in the city with a loner detective who is this side of broke. The hard-boiled detective will face getting assaulted, kidnapped or even murdered to achieve justice. Expect violence, gritty language and possibly graphic sex (some writers who are happy with gore pull the curtain when the romance gets too hot.)  Even though morality is ambiguous in a hard-boiled story, justice will prevail.

Not necessarily so with noir mysteries. Noir dwells at the far end of hard-boiled. The purest noir stories are told from the criminal’s point of view. Fate plays an important role, and there’s never a happy ending.

Soft-boiled mysteries are strictly small town. The reader won’t get a glimpse of the murder victim. If there’s violence beyond the murder (and often there isn’t) it will happen off-page. Soft-boiled characters don’t swear or use slang. When the characters have sex it’s so off the page, it happens in a different part of the library.

Just as noir stories dwell at the far end of hard-boiled stories, the cozy dwells at the far end of soft-boiled. The great aunt of the cozy is Miss Marple, and just as she had her knitting, the modern cozy sleuth has her cats, her catering business, or her ability to feng shui her solution to the murder.


Noir to cozy detectives exist on a spectrum with stories falling between hard-boiled and soft-boiled. Aren’t you a little curious what I write? Hard-boiled. Definitely.

Lily Gardner lives in Portland, Oregon with her husband, two corgis and several thousand books. Her second mystery in the Lennox Cooper series, "Betting Blind," is coming out March 29, 2016, published by Diversion Books. For some dandy reviews of film noir, check out her website lilygardner.net 

3 comments :

Sue Coletta said...

I loved this post, Lily. I'm more of a police procedural gal, myself, but I do enjoy hardboiled, too. Definitely not a cozy writer. There's too many things behind the police I like to expose.

Sue Coletta said...

Whoops. Fingers moving faster than my brain. LOL That should be "behind the police TAPE..."

Peter Hogenkamp said...

I like mine hard-boiled, Lily, bordering on Noir--just like you write em...