The Art of the Hard-Boiled Simile

Hard-boiled fictional detectives are famous for, among other things:

  1. Getting double-crossed
  2. Having a rather gray moral code
  3. Dames. It’s always the dames.
  4. Sassy one-liners

There are varying degrees of all of the above in any given example (Sam Spade, Philip Marlowe, Hammett’s nameless Continental Op), but the language of hard-boiled detecting — dryly colorful, like a desert sunset, and chock full of similes — is perhaps one of the most wonderfully distinctive features of these stories.

One of my favorite examples of a writing and acting team that clearly spent hours of every day coming up with weird similes is the combo of Jack Webb (of Dragnet fame) and Richard L. Breen, who created my favorite episodes of a little radio broadcast called Pat Novak for Hire. The show (running in the mid-to late 1940s in two different incarnations) features the title character doing all of the hard-boiled stuff, hanging with his drunk ex-doctor pal Jocko Madigan and trying to keep Police Inspector Hellman (played by Raymond Burr, AKA Perry Mason) from locking him up for every crime in San Francisco. All the while, Pat is dropping some of the craziest one-liners, and it’s brilliant — it nearly verges on a parody of detective fiction, although one doesn’t get the impression that it’s supposed to. That the same Jack Webb who gave us no-nonsense, naturalistic Joe Friday could have done this show is both baffling and marvelous.

If you want a taste of how this stuff goes, have a look at some of the choice bits from a 1949 episode called “Sam Tolliver” (link goes to a podcast presentation of the program, via the Great Detectives of Old-Time Radio:

Pat: You get trouble, tax-free. It’s like leukemia — there’s nothing you can do about it. There’s no way to duck it. You might as well try to start a conga line in a cathedral.

Sam: And you couldn’t get hurt, honest.
Pat: Nobody gets hurt honest. It’s the other way I’m worried about.

Sam: You’d be doing me a real favor, and you wouldn’t get hurt. 
Pat: That’s what Henry used to tell his wives.

Pat: There’s nothing wrong with old friends, Sam, except sometimes they wear out on you.

Pat: You start with trouble and it never stops. It’s like offering to buy aspirin for a two-headed boy.

Pat: It was a broken-down old barge, so old I expected to find Noah hiding out in the bilges.

Pat: He was about as smooth as a bag of fingernails.

Pat: When he hit me, I dropped down to the floor like a piece of hard-working lint. The last thing I remember was Sam Tolliver sending me out to this boat. I knew then I had no more business here than second trumpet in a string quartet.

Pat: She had a figure like a shot of brandy on a winter night.

Ellen: I’m sorry about that. It was a mistake.
Pat: That’s what they told Marie Antoinette. By that time, her head was forty feet down the street.

Pat: Well, you’ve got brains after all. Sorry. I thought they were all in your fists.
Captain: [punches Novak]
Pat: You’re still smart.

Pat: The water was as quiet as a drowsy caterpillar.

Pat: It was like trying to give nose drops to a herd of elephants.

Pat: There was nothing to do but sit on my hands. It was like taking your niece to a nightclub.

This is just a small sample of what goes on in the Pat Novak episodes, and I didn’t even give you the Jocko monologue, a regular feature involving quips about booze and improving Pat’s life, always ending with “lover.” One could make an entire book of homespun alcoholic sayings out of Jocko Madigan’s monologues. Perhaps I’ll embroider some of them on a sampler. With a gun on it.

ETA: I don’t usually listen to the Great Detectives podcasts past the end of the episode (which is when the host, Adam, comments on what happened and responds to listener comments). I recently had another listen to the “Sam Tolliver” episode and listened further along — it turns out great minds think alike. :) He had pretty much the same stuff to say about this show that I did!

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About L. M. Bernhardt

For a good long while (15 years or so), I taught philosophy at a little private university in northwest IA, and occasionally branched out into playing music, dabbling in photography, experimenting with food, and writing nonsense on my blog. The philosophy teaching part ended in 2017 (program elimination via prioritization), but never fear! I've just finished my MLIS at San Jose State University, and I'm currently on the market looking for new adventures in either philosophy or LIS. Otherwise, I labor to support my dogs in the lavish manner to which they've become accustomed.
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