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The Book is Better: Crime Novels of the 1930s.

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By Scott Daniels

It’s a decent bet that much of what you assume to be true about the hard-boiled noir crime dramas of The Era originates in the popular media of the time. Men and women spoke this way. They wore these things. They cracked wise with these phrases. They drank those cocktails. We get a lot of it from the movies, but films made under the Motion Picture Production Code were heavily censored and sanitized versions, watered down to meet the whitewashed sensibilities of the Hays Office.

As they say, the book is better, and if you want to immerse yourself in the popularized version of life in speakeasies, back alley brawls, casual sex, purple-tinted, swear laced air, and the occasional dip into drugs, you have to read the novels.

Depression-era crime stories are some of the best, grittiest reads to be found in any genre. Bonus: They’re generally short, and tend to be easily found in compendiums of an author’s work. You should be able to find any of these in later editions at any used bookstore for under $5.

The Thin Man
Dashiell Hammett
Knopf, 1934


First published in Redbook in 1933, The Thin Man appeared soon after in novel form. It was Hammett’s last published novel, though he lived on until 1961. Hammett is widely regarded as the finest author in the mystery genre, with quick-moving plots, well-crafted dialogue and tight stories.

The Thin Man introduces Nick and Nora Charles. Nick is a former detective who has sworn off sleuthing in favor of managing his lovely, witty wife’s fortune while drinking away the hours in speaks and hotel rooms. He finds himself reluctantly drawn into solving a murder mystery when the titular character turns up missing, then dead.

Later turned into a series of films starring William Powell and Myrna Loy, the dialogue between the two is even better in the book.

Nick: “I want a drink, please.”

Nora: “Why don’t you have some breakfast first?”

Nick: “It’s too early for breakfast.”

The Maltese Falcon
Dashiell Hammett
Knopf, 1930


Another well-known detective comes to life in this Hammett Novel: Samuel Spade. While Nick Charles is urbane, charming, and smooth, Sam Spade is tough, suspicious and street wise. That Hammett is able to so fully create very different characters in the same line of work speaks to his own experience as a real life detective and masterful skill as writer.

Spade’s partner, Miles Archer, is shot dead after the arrival of a damsel seeking their detective agency’s help. Spade is left to untangle a knotted web of intrigue, greed and smokescreens while capturing Archer’s murderer. The book is populated with memorable characters and surpasses the Bogart film in realism, though you’ll probably read it with the actors from the movie in mind.

The Postman Always Rings Twice
James M. Cain
Knopf, 1934


A drifter (Frank Chambers) looking for the easy score blows into a diner owned by a foolish Greek (Nick Papadakis) and his stunning, neglected wife Cora. Gaining the trust and admiration of the husband, Chambers takes a job at the diner, and is quickly having rough and tumble sex with Mrs. Papadakis while the Greek is away. Sharing both physical chemistry and a desire to find some stake money to start over someplace else, the elicit couple hatch a sinister plot with plenty of opportunities for derailment and trouble.

Double Indemnity
James M. Cain
Knopf, 1941


Published well past past Prohibition, on the tails of the Great Depression, and just before American entry into World War Two, Double Indemnity has an altogether different feel from Cain’s earlier work.

Walter Huff (Neff in the later film version) is a top selling insurance salesman who does things carefully and by the book. Then he meets Phyllis Nirdlinger, wife of a client who wants to get rid of her husband and cash in on the fat life insurance policy. Huff falls hard and is drawn into the plot against his own better judgment and instinctual decency.

Cain loosely based the story on the real life wife-boyfriend-dead husband-insurance fraud case of Ruth Snyder, which he covered as a journalist in 1927.

The Big Sleep
Raymond Chandler
Knopf, 1939

Big SleepChandler.jpeg

The Big Sleep works as a crime novel even though the thing is a complicated mess, with loose ends, red herrings, and unresolved plot elements. Chandler himself was unable to sort it all out and explain major parts of it after its successful publication. Chandler often cobbled previously published short stories into a single novel, and The Big Sleep reworks two dissimilar tales, “Killer in the Rain" (1935) and "The Curtain" (1936).

When the book was turned into a film, director Howard Hawks asked the key question, “Who killed the chauffeur?”

Chandler replied “I have no idea.”

The Big Sleep introduces the iconic detective Phillip Marlowe, who is hired to track down the blackmailer of wealthy old man General Sternwood’s wild daughter, Carmen. Marlowe follows a trail of drugs, pornography, corpses and booksellers in an ever expanding plot line which, despite its many twists, is engrossing for the reader.
About author
Aside from helping manage things around The Fedora Lounge, I'm a freelance writer and award winning food columnist. The foodie Insta is @weatewellandcheaply.


Cornell Woolrich is my favorite author of this or any genre. I recommend anything he wrote. Although mostly a short story writer for "pulp" magazines, he also wrote some great noir novels, including "I Married A Dead Man," "The Phantom Lady," and "The Bride Wore Black," all of which became movies. His short story, "It Had To Be Murder," is better known today by the title of the film it became — "Rear Window."
I have read all of Chandler's novels and short stories. Combine that with my familiarity with the Los Angeles region and it's the perfect combination. Chandler's language and dialog must be experienced first hand on he printed page. I've read the five best known of Hammetts' novels and thoroughly enjoyed them. The Black Lizard book of Pulps is a great anthology.
I write promotional articles for Palermo, Sicily at https://wearepalermo.com - there I'm Don Tano Bongiorno your unofficial host and guide to "the most conquered city in the world".
When I'm not doing that, I write semi-hard-boiled mysteries under my real name, C. M. Albrecht. If you don diving gear you can find them in the murky bottom of the Amazon.
I gotta tell you, in hot weather that fedora and trench coat get mighty hot, but hey - a private eye has to live up to his reputation.
I pack a Marley I picked up at Archie Goodwin's estate sale but I can't find any 11mm ammo.
Aside from a lovely Dobbs Twenty in the box, I think the best hats for the money today come from Akubra.
And, I'm not ashamed to say that I have a dandy Panama I picked up for five bucks at a Goodwill store. It may not be top of the line, but it's soft, pliable and came to me like new.
Finally, James M. Cain is my favorite all-time writer.
I own a copy of everything I've run across from Chandler. I appreciate the steer to others in the genre.
I've recognized Chandler's Marlowe in different cracking wise television P.I.s over the years, with Jim Rockford the most obvious modernization of the character.
I stumbled across some crime books w/ a twist at a now defunct used book shop. Since then, I've tracked down several of the author's other pieces.
The author is John Jay Chichester, his "Rogue" books are fantastic and his other titles are excellent reading also. All written back in the 1920's-30'a.
so glad I found this, I LOVE FILM NOIR!! And the hard boiled detective stories...
looking forward to smashing all of these, thanks!
After enjoying the Thin Man films, I finally read 'The Thin Man' this past summer, and it was great fun. Not as keen on most hard-boiled, but well worth revisiting.

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