For decades, the Los Angeles area has captivated writers of hardboiled detective fiction. In the last 100 years, we’ve read about the exploits of Sam Spade and Philip Marlowe, and we’ve watched a variety of actors play these detectives on the silver screen. Indeed, as an epicenter of film production, Hollywood has brought cinematic narratives of the quintessentially American hardboiled detective to viewers across the globe. Let’s take a look at the novels that introduced gritty Southern California to readers and the film adaptations that followed them.
Hardboiled Novels and the Rise of the Detective Narratives
In the 1920s, Dashiell Hammett — perhaps one of the best-known hardboiled writers of the 20th century — began writing fiction that centered around Southern California. His most famous work, The Maltese Falcon (1930), introduced readers to Sam Spade, the detective at the center of the novel. In the author’s introduction to the book, he described the character as “a dream man in the sense that he is what most private detectives . . . would like to have been and in their cockier moments thought they approached.”
As Hammett went on to explain, Sam Spade was unlike any other detective in literary history. The character was shaped by the ravages of mechanized warfare and the stark realities of the economy that pervaded daily life. For Hammett, Spade represented a new kind of detective in the American imaginary: “Your private detective does not . . . want to be an erudite solver of riddles in the Sherlock Holmes manner; he wants to be a hard and shifty fellow, able to take care of himself in any situation, able to get the best of anybody he comes in contact with, whether criminal, innocent bystander, or client.”
Hammett’s famous detective inspired Raymond Chandler as he drafted novels from the 1930s through the 1950s featuring another hardboiled detective, Philip Marlowe. Chandler’s famous detective appeared in The Big Sleep (1939), Farewell, My Lovely (1940), and The Long Goodbye (1953). And Raymond Chandler isn’t the only novelist who drew inspiration from Dashiell Hammett’s work. Decades later, James Ellroy revamped the genre of hardboiled fiction with novels also set in Los Angeles and the surrounding Hollywood Hills, such as The Black Dahlia (1987) and L.A. Confidential (1990).
Hardboiled Fiction on Film
Given the narrative connections between hardboiled detectives and Southern California, it’s no surprise that Hollywood soon introduced viewers to adaptations of several of the works we’ve mentioned. Humphrey Bogart became the face, in many ways, of the hardboiled detective in the years during and after World War II. During his tenure as both Sam Spade and Philip Marlowe, he worked with some of the most prominent names in Hollywood. In 1941, Bogart starred in John Huston’s version of The Maltese Falcon, playing the title role of Sam Spade. Five years later, he starred as Philip Marlowe in Howard Hawks’s The Big Sleep (1946), opposite Lauren Bacall.
Humphrey Bogart died only a few years after Chandler’s final novel featuring Philip Marlowe, The Long Goodbye, was published. It wasn’t made into a film until 1973, in an adaptation directed by Robert Altman. Elliot Gould took Bogart’s place, stepping into the shoes of the hardboiled, Los Angeles-based detective.
James Ellroy’s hardboiled fiction also reached audiences through Hollywood adaptations. Most notably, L.A. Confidential became a film of the same name in 1997. Starring Russell Crowe, Kevin Spacey, and Kim Basinger, the movie received nine Academy Award nominations and two wins.
The legacy of the hardboiled detective novel certainly didn’t come to an end as America emerged from the cultural shifts that brought about the famous characters in the first place. To be sure, works like Ellroy’s — as well as others we’ve left for you to discover on your own — emphasize that the hardboiled detective genre remains relevant even into the first two decades of the 21st century.