What it means: It usually describes the detective, but may describe the story or the setting as well; in every case, it means urban, gritty, corrupt but somehow untouchable.
How you can use it: To describe someone who is tough and untouched by the rotten things they see or deal with.
Raymond Chandler defined the hard-boiled detective, once and for all, in his essay "The Simple Art of Murder":
Down these mean streets a man must go who is not himself mean, who is neither tarnished nor afraid.... He is the hero, he is everything. He must be a complete man and a common man and yet an unusual man. He must be, to use a rather weathered phrase, a man of honor, by instinct, by inevitability, without thought of it, and certainly without saying it. He must be the best man in his world and a good enough man for any world.
Thanks to Pam LaMarca for suggesting this term; she and I both read a lot of hard-boiled fiction, and I'd put one of the books I read this week in that category. "Hard-boiled" is not at all the same as "noir," but we'll discuss that next week.
What I Read This Week
Sander A. Diamond, The Nazi Movement in the United States, 1924-1941. Watching the riots in Toledo begs the question: who are these people, and what could they possibly hope to achieve? Once upon a time in America, real Nazis lived among us; mostly recent immigrants, they had direct and indirect support from their home country, and the goal was to encourage mainstream American society to believe in the inevitability of the Third Reich. It all collapsed, though, because our American system is designed to break down overreaching, corruption, and totalitarian tendencies. Or at least it's supposed to be.
Mark Billingham, Lifeless. One of my more embarrassing fan-girl moments at this year’s Bouchercon was seeing the baffled expression on Mark Billingham’s face when I told him that his third book, Lazybones, was a brilliant satire on modern dating. In retrospect, however, I stand by that. It’s the nature of a work of art to include things even the artist doesn’t know are there. (Thomas Mann: “We work in the dark. We do what we can. The rest is the madness of art.”) Lifeless, in which Tom Thorne becomes one of the homeless and uncovers a 15-year-old Gulf War atrocity, is a compelling police procedural and a gripping psychological thriller, as we descend with Tom into his twilight existence. It’s also a meditation on the uniting and disconnecting powers of violence – very much in the same vein as David Cronenberg’s latest film, A History of Violence (which I saw last weekend). Billingham leaves Thorne, at the end of this book, wiser but no more stable than he was at the beginning, and perhaps no closer to the redemption he’d been seeking.
Kevin Wignall, Among the Dead. A group of five college students drive home after a night of drinking, and kill Emily Barratt, a fellow student who steps in front of their car. It was an accident -- she'd stepped in front of the car -- but the driver had been drinking, and the friends agree that no one will say anything about that night, ever. Ten years later, that night has made permanent changes in all of their lives -- and the people involved begin to die. Among the Dead is less a traditional mystery novel than a remarkably plausible ghost story, which shows us the haunting rather than the ghost itself. Among the Dead, shockingly, is not published in the United States, but you can order it from AmazonUK. (I scored my copy at the Crimespree magazine party at Bouchercon, and thanks again to Ruth & Jon Jordan.)