I think most critics of crime fiction would argue that the hardboiled offers the most potential for "literary" merit. Those whose names are spoken with the most reverence (e.g., Michael Connelly, Andrew Vachss, Minette Walters) are often those writing in the hardboiled subgenre, perhaps because the hardboiled is willing to look at the truly seamy side of life, and serves as a sort of lurid tabloid for those who would look down their noses at People magazine.
It's tough to bring off the hardboiled well, because I don't think they're ever an easy sell at the checkout counter. Some hardboiled writers have compensated for this by developing series characters, and I don't think that's a bad idea. But more than any of the other subgenres, the hardboiled requires a delicate balancing act. Herewith today's tips on writing the hardboiled well.
1. GO TO AN UGLY PLACE. We all know murder is ugly, but that fact is effectively obscured in cozies and books featuring amateur sleuths. People pick up a hardboiled because they want to be challenged. A good hardboiled is a ten-car pileup on the expressway: People don't want to look for fear of what they'll see, but they feel compelled to look (i.e., keep reading). I think the car wreck analogy works for other reasons as well: When we pass that accident, we want to know how it happened, what caused it; the same is true for the crimes in the hardboiled. And we slow down to look as a sort of cautionary tale. We know that could happen to us if we're not careful, and we're looking to learn something from it.
2. WALK THE LINE BETWEEN DISTURBING AND GRUESOME. While many of the crimes/sins/peccadilloes/parts of human nature that disturbed earlier generations (out-of-wedlock births, embezzlement, extramarital affairs, homosexuality) are now seen as no big deal, there are still some taboos: pedophilia, child abuse, sex slaving, rape, and so on. The hardboiled writer has to find a way to tell a story about something disturbing without getting into the grisly. I firmly believe that even the hardest of hardboiled readers does not want grisly scenes depicting torture (which seem to have become, sad to say, a staple in today's thrillers). An effective hardboiled depicts such scenes in broad strokes, which is more effective because imagined horrors are much worse than anything shown in living color (just ask Edgar Allan Poe and H.P. Lovecraft). As an editor I'm open minded, but I don't want any manuscripts that are the equivalent of the torture porn in today's horror movies.
3. HAVE A MORAL CENTER. A book of bad people doing bad things to one another doesn't make for very interesting reading if at least one character doesn't have some sort of moral center, some sense of right and wrong. Now, this moral center may be warped or misguided, but it's important to have a character the reader can root for (unless you're writing satire, which is another discussion entirely). This is why there's something so viscerally effective about a revenge tale. If you're the parent of a murdered child and you go about systematically exterminating everyone involved in her death, you may be out of your mind with grief but you're sympathetic.
4. COME UP FOR AIR. Some of the hardboiled manuscripts I read are so relentlessly dark that I feel as though I'm trapped in the well with that poor kidnapped girl from The Silence of the Lambs. It's true that there are those who live in a world completely void of laughter, but it's too much of a human need for people to do without it for long. I'm not saying to add scenes of comedic genius to your tale of a brutalized spouse; I'm saying to please consider your readers and give them a break from the gloom every so often, so that they don't grimace each time they pick up your book. I think of the film Precious and how well this was accomplished; each time the protagonist encounters brutality, she goes to a place in her head of happiness and joy, where she's the lead singer for a rockband, where she has a handsome boyfriend, and so forth.
5. DON'T MAKE A TWISTED FREAK YOUR HERO. Dexter notwithstanding, it is a really bad idea to ask your readers to root for a psychopath with no redeeming values. This was a terrible sin committed by Thomas Harris in Hannibal, which asks the reader to root for Hannibal himself in his duel with another sick piece of human filth. You really shouldn't do this to your readers, who (if they read crime fiction) are likely to have at least a sense of justice and/or moral outrage.
6. GET JUSTICE SERVED. This is an important need in most crime fiction, but I would argue that it's particularly important in the hardboiled. The easy way to mete out justice is to have your villain get killed in the final confrontation with the good guy. This is certainly cathartic, for who hasn't cheered when a real baddie has been blown away with a shotgun? But there are other ways to dole out justice that are even more poetic; and let's not forget the moral development occurs when a protag makes the decision not to kill someone.
7. DO YOUR RESEARCH. It's pretty easy to get away with a lack of research in a cozy or amateur detective book, but I think the hardboiled does require a bit more research into the underworld, statistics, the psychology of crime, and the sociology of the urban setting where so many of these books take place. You probably don't have to visit a crackhouse to describe one properly, but you should certainly watch news clips and documentaries about them. An interesting but bleak study of urban environments--a non-fiction hardboiled about families in a poor section of the Bronx--is Random Family by Adrian LeBlanc.
8. WORK WITH CONTRASTS. We know something only by its opposite, so the best way to put the brutality of the hardboiled in relief is to put it alongside its opposite. Think of the TV series Oz, which threw an upper-middle-class white man into a prison filled with hardened criminals. Having a naive, sheltered, or moral character come up against those who are without morals or ethics is extremely effective in print; so too is having a worldview shaken up by a brush with the seamier side.