But actually, a lot of people do. As this is posted, yesterday would have been Humphrey Bogart’s 119th birthday. As you’ll know, he was famous for playing ‘tough guys’ who were also smart and had layers to their characters. Whether you remember him as Rick Blaine from Casablanca, as Charlie Allnut from The African Queen, or as Sam Spade from The Maltese Falcon, his characters are no-nonsense and tough, but at the same time nuanced. That’s not easy to do.
There are a lot of ‘tough guys.’ Some of them have more depth than others, but all of them add a hard edge to the genre. The best ones have layers to their characters, and they’ve made for some very interesting fictional characters.
And Dashiell Hammett’s The Maltese Falcon is a really clear example. In that novel, we meet San Francisco PI Sam Spade, and his partner Miles Archer. They’re hired by a woman who calls herself ‘Miss Wonderly’ to follow a man named Floyd Thursby, who ran off with Miss Wonderly’s sister. When Archer is shot, Spade ends up getting involved in a web of intrigue involving multiple murders, theft, and an elusive, and very valuable, black statuette. This is the only Sam Spade novel that Hammett wrote, but, as you’ll know, he’s become an iconic ‘tough guy’ character. In fact, he’s mentioned in several other crime novels (I’m thinking, for instance of James W. Fuerst’s Huge.).
John D. MacDonald’s Travis McGee is another fictional ‘tough guy.’ A war veteran, he now lives on a boat called The Busted Flush that’s housed at a marina in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. He refers to himself as a ‘salvage consultant,’ but really, he does what amounts to private investigation. When people have been bilked, and have nowhere else to go, he helps them recover their property or money. His price? Half of the value of what he recovers. And his clients see his help as very much worth the money, since without it, they wouldn’t get anything back. On the one hand, McGee is tough. He’s not easily taken in, he’s seen combat, he’s not afraid to get into a fight if matters come to that. But he’s also not mindless; in fact, he’s somewhat philosophical. He also has a compassionate side to his nature and a soft spot for those who’ve been wronged and can’t get justice on their own.
Mickey Spillane’s Mike Hammer is also famous for being tough. He’s a no-nonsense New York private detective whose main goal and concern is justice. One the one hand, he is rough, sometimes violent, and not afraid to flout the law. In fact, he often thinks that the law gets in the way of doing the right thing. He is very much the vigilante. On the other, he champions the ‘underdog,’ and he’ll take up the cause of the ‘down and out.’ In that sense, he’s not at all an elitist. He has a warmer side, but he’s not the philosopher that, say, Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe is.
Robert Crais’ Joe Pike is a former member of the Special Forces, and a former police officer. He’s got his own past ‘baggage;’ and, although he doesn’t wallow in it, he is impacted by it. Pike is a person of few words, but he’s smart, resourceful, and loyal. He’s an effective PI partner for Los Angeles PI Elvis Cole. Pike is definitely a ‘tough guy;’ he’s not afraid of a fight, and he’s skilled at using weapons. In fact, he has a gun shop, and almost always carries some weapons with him. But he has depths to his character, and he isn’t violent unless he has to be. He has a compassionate side, too. For instance, he’s the only one who can interact with the feral cat that lives with Cole. Even Cole hasn’t really established a relationship with the cat, but Pike has bonded with it. And he can be protective of those he’s trying to help. There is definitely more to Pike than just a man with quick fists and weapons.
The same is true of Lee Child’s Jack Reacher. In many of the novels that feature him, Reacher is a tough, ‘lone wolf’ character. He doesn’t stay in one place for very long, and he doesn’t have a lot of permanent attachments. A former military police officer, he isn’t afraid to use violence if it’s necessary, either. But at the same time, he has a thoughtful side to him. He’s reluctant to get violent if he doesn’t have to do so, and there are people he cares about in the various novels. One the one hand, as the saying goes, you don’t want to mess with him. On the other, he’s not mindless.
Not all ‘tough guy’ characters are appealing. But those that are, combine courage and, well, toughness with some layers and nuances. Certainly, Bogart was able to portray those traits. Which fictional ‘tough guys’ have you liked?
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from REO Speedwagon’s Tough Guys.