Golden Age to Hardboiled Detective: Searching for the Clue


Although detective fiction has only existed for less than two hundred years, the genre has evolved remarkably since Edgar Allen Poe wrote the first 'detective' story, The Murders in the Rue Morgue in 1841. The progression from Sir Arthur Conan Doyle to Dashiell Hammett to Raymond Chandler was quite a sudden one. In hindsight, however, the transition from the moral, revered, and often world-renowned detectives to the flawed noir investigators of the 1930's and 1940's was inevitable.

The golden age of detective fiction was defined by the impeccably mannered, intelligent, and moral detectives. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes notices the small inconsistencies that both his trite "sidekick," Dr. John Watson, and the reader overlook. In all his cases, Holmes maintains a composure that draws the other characters toward him in admiration. His collected nature reveals a man who is in control of his own fears and emotions, and more importantly, can manage the fears of those he interacts with. On the other side of the equation are the criminals these detectives seemingly always apprehend-mentally stable men and women driven by tangible motives such as wealth or love. The trouble they cause the detectives is more a puzzle than anything else-Sherlock Holmes in The Red-Headed League claims that he is "amply repaid by having had an experience which is in many ways unique, and by hearing the very remarkable narrative of The Red-Headed League" (Doyle, 10). Holmes is driven by the desire to help others, rather than by wealth or fame.

As World War I, and its aftermath, especially in the United States, drifted farther and farther into the rear-view mirror, that era became a more prevalent setting for the detective novel. But before we move on to the noir detective novel, we must first ask the following glaringly obvious question: Why were there no mentions of World War I in the golden age novels despite being written in the 1920's and early 1930's? Why did the authors address neither the war itself nor its aftermath? Agatha Christie, the world's best-selling author of all time and the brain behind the infamous Hercule Poirot, was one of the most prominent writers of the golden age, and she almost never mentioned or referenced indirectly the "war to end all wars." I believe the 1920's may have been a period of grief that attempted to conceal the confusion and hatred that existed subconsciously among most affected groups in the West. Families lost their children, survivors were permanently injured and disfigured, and there was a loss of trust among fellow citizens. Simply, the authors of the 1920's may have ignored that trauma specifically because of their proximity to the catastrophic events.

Eventually, the noir detective novel developed during the later stages of the interwar period, and only then began to reflect the impact World War I had on nations such as the United States and Great Britain. The criminals in these stories are much more intelligent and capable, and they brilliantly orchestrate larger plots than their golden age counterparts. The detectives must immerse themselves in these plots and turn out to have a convoluted sense of morality, often engaging in some form of criminal activity. Their form of justice does not involve doing what is right, or even following the law, but rather bringing a positive result to their client. Yet, this novel is so popular, because the reader can identify with this style of detective more than the immaculate Holmes or Poirot. Raymond Chandler championed the noir genre; his Philip Marlowe was the epitome of what is called the "hardboiled detective," a person who, as the name suggests, developed a cynical nature due to the repetitive cycle of violence he endured on the mean streets of a big city. In The Big Sleep, Philip Marlowe struggles to uphold the law and comes to the resolution that "knights have no meaning in [the] game" that he plays with his mysterious nemesis Eddie Mars (Chandler, 157). Marlowe not only dabbles in crime, but also finds himself entangled with women and monetary distractions, representing the antithesis of a Holmes or Poirot.

So how did these detectives devolve into such flawed characters so quickly? Much of it has to do with the authors themselves, and the impact the first World War had on their lives. Raymond Chandler for example suffered a brutal experience at the military conflict. As a member of the 7th Canadian Infantry, he was sent into the front line in the area of Vimy Ridge in the Arras region of northern France, where some of the bloodiest battles of the war took place. In total, he completed three tours, all on the front line. Chandler himself admitted the toll it took on his life, just two years before he died: "Once you have led a platoon of men into direct machine gun fire nothing is ever the same again" (Oxford, fol. 211).

With this new lens, we can analyze his creation of Philip Marlowe more closely. Just how impactful was the war on his novels? Firstly, an extraordinarily large number of his secondary characters are war veterans: General Sternwood, Mendy Menendez, Bill Chess, and Roger Wade to name a few. Additionally, Marlowe's Los Angeles is portrayed to be a warzone. Chandler removes the sun, beaches, the palm trees, and the positivity of the famous city and replaces it with rain, darkness, and strip clubs. His characters are slippery liars who hang out at Eddie Mars' Cypress Club, a pit of wealth and filth described as having "no direct lighting" (Chandler, 135). Marlowe provides us with a perfect description of the city when he complains that there is "nothing at all but fog" (Chandler, 140-141). There is nothing appealing about this type of life, and yet we are still drawn to it.

How is it possible that we might reject the Hercule Poirot stories for a novel where 'the good guy' commits several crimes? Because Raymond Chandler's society reflects the world we all live in. I believe the authors of the 1920's, such as Agatha Christie, sold so many copies because, at the time, people wanted to ignore the excruciating pain of the last decade. They sought refuge in the perfection of the golden age detectives, because they provided hope that there was still goodness in the world. However, as time passed, authors recognized the influence that World War I had on their lives, and no longer tried to hide it. They adapted their characters to reflect, in a way, who they themselves had become. Today, almost a century later, we can appreciate both styles, the golden age novel for its simplicity and perfection, and the hardboiled detective for his struggles and verisimilitude.


Allegretti, Joseph. "The Client Comes First, Unless He's Crooked: Legal and Professional Ethics in Raymond Chandler's The Big Sleep." Creighton Law Review, vol. 44, no. 3, 2010, pp. 581-596. Accessed April 26, 2020.

Chandler, Raymond. The Big Sleep. Random House Inc., New York, 1992.

Doyle, Sir Arthur Conan. The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes. Random House, Inc., New York, 2011.

Oxford, Bodleian Libraries "The Raymond Chandler Papers." Dep. Chandler 27, fol. 211. Accessed April 26, 2020.