Rick Ollerman and the Second Coming of Hard-Boiled Fiction

Rick Ollerman remembers the spinning racks of paperback novels and their vivid painted covers. Men with chins like fists and fists like bludgeons, and always a gun in somebody’s hand. And the titles! Time Enough to Die​; Devil on Two Sticks​; One for Hell​.

“I was drawn to them because they were colorful,” Ollerman says now. “You picked one up knowing there would be energy, action. Something was going to happen.” They haven’t released their hold on him. He’s written four novels in the hard-boiled style, all of them published by Stark House Press, a small indie publisher devoted to hard-boiled and noir fiction, and the books carry their own raw titles: Truth Always Kills​, for example, and Shallow Secrets​.

Ollerman also writes approachable, insightful introductions for Stark House’s reprints of old-time classics in the hard-boiled and noir molds. He’s editor of the year-old Down & Out magazine, which publishes old as well as just-written examples of the forms, and he’s recently published a collection of his Stark House intros and other essays entitled Hardboiled, Noir and Gold Medals: Essays on Crime Fiction Writers from the ‘50s through the ‘90s​.

Gold Medal was a line of original crime-fiction paperbacks offered by Fawcett Publications from the 1950s through the ‘90s, but the heyday of the imprint was definitely the ‘50s, when John D. MacDonald joined the roster of authors. Hard-boiled fiction, of course, was being written in the 1930s and ‘40s, when it became associated most notably with Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler. “Hard-boiled,” Ollerman explains, “is a style: it’s the way a book is written. Short sentences, active, alive, nonreflective. The tone can be downbeat, but in the end, the hero comes out ahead. The Maltese Falcon ends with the woman in jail, the murder solved, Sam Spade’s standing with the cops restored. That’s as much of a happy ending as you’re going to get.”

Men with chins like fists and fists like bludgeons, and always a gun in somebody’s hand.

Noir, he says, never has an upbeat ending; the protagonist is not going to live happily ever after: “He starts out screwed, and ends up screwder.” In one of the essays in his book, Ollerman suggests that reading James M. Cain’s The Postman Always Rings Twice would be an instructive exercise for anyone seeking to understand the meaning of noir. Or watch the movie version (the original, released in 1946): “Lana Turner will make you a believer.” Ollerman goes on to explain that “in traditional noir, violence comes out of the blue. It’s like, ‘Before I knew what I was doing, I’d hit her on the head.’ Not many people write true noir nowadays. When they do, they go for more visual effects with more violent imagery. They turn the page into an imitation movie screen, with imitation movie violence as opposed to character reaction.”

Rick Ollerman

Today’s readers and writers are, “in a way, being censored,” Ollerman believes. “Walk into a chain bookstore, and you get the same authors by the same big five publishing companies, all more of the same. It’s not exciting. You can’t go into a big store and ask, ‘Where’s your hard-boiled section? Your noir section?’ There won’t be any. You have to be internet savvy to find these books online, or you have to know somebody, or find an independent bookstore.”

And yet Ollerman sees evidence that these classic genres are making a comeback. He notes, for example, the popularity of the traditional PI novel in Ireland, with the rise of such writers as Declan Hughes, Adrian McKinty, and Ken Bruen. “They took their inspiration from the Americans and began writing after our hard-boiled heyday, at a time when we had passed into the Michael Connelly period.”

Ollerman also points to the success of Stark House and to the growth of his own magazine. “I’m getting submissions from writers who are well-credentialed,” Ollerman says. “They’re getting published in literary magazines, but now they’re looking for an entrance into this other world. That tells me I’m getting attention from a new generation of hard-boiled writers.”

This article originally appeared in Booklist Online.

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About the Author:

Don Crinklaw is a former university teacher currently working as a reporter for the Tribune Company in Fort Lauderdale. He's written reviews for Booklist, Commonweal, National Review, South Florida Sun-Sentinel and the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.

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