Over the past couple of months, I have indulged myself in the world of detective fiction. I’ve partaken in the pleasure of solving the complexities of the amateur detective genre (also known as the puzzle book genre) and I’ve admired and gained respect for the tough and cynical investigators of the hard boiled genre. After reading several stories from both genres, I’ve noticed that these they have many noticeable differences. Three of these differences are the financial statuses of the detectives, the use and presentations of violence, and the construction of the plots.
The first noticeable difference in the two genres is the financial statuses of the detectives. The amateur fiction genre often involves, as the name suggests, amateurs to the investigation world, meaning that they have some other job or means of income. This could be in the form of a doctor, lawyer, carpenter, or even a housewife. They often stumble upon a case by accident, some form of personal involvement, or sometimes by mere curiosity. This is very different from the hard-boiled genre, where the private investigators actually make a living by being hired to solving cases. Because of this difference, the amateur detectives have to be financially stable or well-off as some like to say or they wouldn’t be able to take the time to investigate. In Silver Blaze, the sleuth Sherlock Holmes and his sidekick Watson demonstrate their financial stability: “And so it happened an hour or so later I found myself in the corner of a first-class carriage, flying along, en route for Exeter, while Sherlock Holmes, with his sharp, eager face framed in his ear-flapped traveling-cap, dipped rapidly into the bundle of fresh papers which he had procured at Paddington” (83). Holmes demonstrates his financial status again when he indicates that he attends function of the rich and prominent members of society when he talks to Mrs. Straker: “Surely I met you in Plymouth, at a garden party, some little time ago, Mrs. Straker” (91). Although the amateur detective may not receive monetary compensation, they are usually satisfied with the recognition of their superior wits to that of the police.
In the hard-boiled sub-division, the financial status of the detective is often the complete opposite of the detective from amateur fiction. They are usually of the working class, if not outright poor. Raymond Chandler, an author of hard boiled fiction, states in his essay The Simple Art of Murder, “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,” (219). A good example of a financially needy detective in hardboiled fiction is detective Phillip Marlowe from Chandler’s story Trouble is My Business, when he is being hired to do a job, “I started to get up from my chair, then remembered that business had been bad for a month and that I needed the money” (255). Although the private investigator of hardboiled fiction does relish in his victory upon solving a case, he/she is primarily involved for the monetary compensation.
The second noticeable difference in the two genres is the authors’ use and presentations of violence. In the amateur sleuth genre, violence is often something that has already happened before the story began, and if any confrontations ensue, it is usually mild in nature, such as a simple threat of action. This gives the reader a ‘safe’ and comforting feeling that everything is okay and the world isn’t really bad. It also stifles the imagination. An example of this is found in Silver Blaze: “I’ll show you how we serve them in King’s Pyland. He sprang up and rushed across the stable to unloose the dog” (86). This is a lighter form of violence than using a gun or knife, which would be the likely case in hardboiled fiction. This lighter form is also used again in the story when Holmes confronts the trainer, Silas Brown, at the Capleton stables and Brown threatens to unleash a dog on him. If violence does happen in amateur fiction, it’s not very hardcore as in hardboiled. In Silver Blaze, Holmes had to get tough with the trainer of the Capleton stables, but instead of the author giving a description of Holmes giving the strong-arm, he writes, “It was quite twenty minutes, and the reds had all faded into greys before Holmes and the trainer reappeared. Never have I seen such a change as had been brought about in Silas Brown in that short time. His face was ashy pale, beads of perspiration shone upon his brow, and his hands shook until the hunting-crop wagged like a branch in the wind” (94). The author writes the violence “behind a curtain” as if writing for a PG-13 audience.
In the hardboiled genre, violence is not only descriptive, but is used very often throughout the stories. The detective, as well as many of the supporting characters, is often a victim of being punched, shot, double-teamed, stabbed, and even killed, and the author spares no details in the descriptions of the scenes. The use of such mentally stimulating descriptions impresses upon the reader that there is danger lurking around every corner. In Trouble is My Business, Chandler writes, “That was a mistake. He was wild, probably, but he could still hit a wall that didn’t jump. He hit me while I was looking back over my shoulder. It hurts to be hit that way. He hit me plenty hard, on the back end of the jawbone” (265). With this description, the reader can imagine a fist coming fast at someone’s jaw. Another descriptive example is when Chandler wrote, “I brought the Luger up and started to squeeze the trigger, but a shot crashed beside me—George” (270) and then, “There was something dark on his face that spread. His gun bounded along the concrete. His little legs buckled and he plunged sideways and rolled and then, very suddenly, became still” (271). These vivid descriptions allow the reader to imagine the murder being committed, almost making the reader feel as if they are a witness to the crime.
The third difference is construction of the plots. The amateur fiction genre usually starts out with a crime, preferably murder. This is important in this genre, since the detectives are amateurs who are usually employed in everything except investigation. If the story did not start with a crime of some sort, the story would simply have to start in the daily lives of the amateur detective. This would slow down the pace of the story and cause the reader to have to wait for the mental stimulation to begin. In the hard boiled genre, since the detective is a private investigator, it wouldn’t make sense for the story to start with a crime. Someone has to hire the investigator first, and quite often the job isn’t dealing with any type of crime, but more of a “surveillance” type situation. Because of the nature of the job of the private investigator, a crime or many crimes will be committed during the course of the story. This type of plotting is what gives the hard boiled genre it’s excitement at the “turn of every page”. Although these rules aren’t set in stone, the construction plots of the two genres usually display this difference.
Out of the numerous differences between the amateur fiction genre and the hardboiled genre, these three differences, the financial statuses of the detectives, the use and presentation of violence, and the construction of the plots, are some of the most noticeable. Using the knowledge of these differences properly can help a reader to clearly distinguish between the two genres without being told which division they are reading. Both serve as effective ways to write a detective fiction story and with either genre, the reader is sure to be mentally stimulated.
Chandler, Raymond. "Trouble is My Business." Mansfield-Kelley 254-294.
Doyle, Arthur Conan. "Silver Blaze." Mansfield-Kelley 83-101.
Mansfield-Kelley, Deane., ed. The Longman Anthology of Detective Fiction. Pearson Education Inc., 2005.
Clips from The Big Sleep Film Adaption, Original Story By Raymond Chandler featuring Detective Phillip Marlowe
Dani Alicia (author) from Florence, SC on April 24, 2013:
They are very interesting. I'm in a class right now: English 214 - Fiction and we're specifically studying detective fiction. I'd never read any detective fiction before this class, so I was introduced to this new genre this semester and I like it.
Marcy Goodfleisch from Planet Earth on April 24, 2013:
This is an interesting comparison - I agree with your points here. Maybe I should go buy a detective novel . . .