The Hard-Boiled Voice

It’s bad business to plug your client. Sometimes my line of work calls for it.


Pardon the ego, but I thunk that one up all on my own. Ain’t it a pip? That line’s hard-boiled all over. Goes all the way back to the second yarn in my series. A whole eighteen months old as I write this. Almost. Fifty-one adventures later, it remains one of my favorites. And not so easy to come by.

I hope they don't hang you, precious, by that sweet neck.

I hope they don’t hang you, precious, by that sweet neck.

That’s a funny one, the hard-boiled voice. Sometimes it threatens to run right over the voice of the author. Always real, frank. Real frank until it approaches brutal. So much so, on occasion, it’s downright humorous. But never sentimental. It’s got to be plain, straight talking prose with the kind of punch that doesn’t take any prisoners.

Part of the trick’s keeping it simple without letting it go limp. Simple’s one thing, plain’s another. Plain’s weak, dull. Plain’s not the stuff that dreams are made of. Pairing down the length of clauses ain’t necessarily the easiest task. Let alone pairing down the length of long sentences. Or making shorter sentences even shorter.

Did Paul Cain take the form too far? The guy dropped subjects and added more harsh clauses than Agatha Christie had red herrings. And he did it back in the 1930s. Maybe Cain’s too thick for some tastes, but you can’t disagree that his narrative had impact. If you can pull that off, slicing and dicing and otherwise mangling sentence structure, you can drive your prose off the page like drilling through a banana. All it takes is the wit to write dialogue like this: “You want a glass or a funnel?”


It was a blonde. A blonde to make a bishop kick a hole in a stained-glass window.
—Raymond Chandler, Farewell My Lovely


One of the best. And one of the best known from Chandler. The king of simile. And doesn’t it play a tad better than That blonde was a real looker? You want simple? You want brutal? All in the same bite? How’s about I felt like an amputated leg. That from Chandler’s “Trouble is My Business.”

Something to spin on, all right. Achieving the hard-boiled voice. Doing it well is a challenge and a half. Doing it well and putting your own stamp on it—that sounds like an other post altogether. Sure.

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