PULP PI, part 2 – Chandler and Hammett

21 Feb

What is seldom mentioned in any criticism or writing on Raymond Chandler is the rather nebulous position he occupies in genre terms. Whilst he is famously, of course, the creator of ‘hard-boiled’ detective noir fiction, the style of his novels and stories—coupled with the contributions he made to the world of movie scriptwriting—place him in the Pulp genre but also on the nearby peripheries of ‘real’ literature. When literary critics were barely getting their teeth into modernism, sitting (let us imagine) in smoky 1940s salons discussing just what the hell Joyce was on about so that the Times could proscribe a solution, Chandler was already dissecting and intersplicing his writing in an almost post-modern way. And the post-modern cut up world is, to a large extent, what PULPable is about. 

But Chandler never claimed to be the inventor of the genre he populised. That accolade was, in any interview or article, verbally presented to his contemporary Dashiell Hammett (1894—1961), whose New York Times obituary deemed him “the dean of the… ‘hard-boiled’ school of detective fiction”. Six years Chandler’s junior, Hammett was nonetheless very influential on Chandler’s fiction. In the interests of presenting a more enjoyable Chandler than the depressive alcoholic of my last post, I want to emphasise another important Pulp element—enjoyment. And where Hammett invented much of the tone and tropes of detective noir, it was Chandler who made it hugely enjoyable.

As a young man, Hammett had, like Chandler, signed up for service during World War I; unlike Chandler, however, he re-enlisted (despite serious illness) during World War II and had also spent several years as an operative for the Pinkerton Detective Agency. He turned eventually to writing, and defined what later became known as ‘hardboiled’ detective noir. In Chandler’s The Simple Art of Murder he praises Hammett:

 
“Hammett was the ace performer… He was spare, frugal, hard-boiled, but he did over and over again what only the best writers can ever do at all. He wrote scenes that seemed never to have been written before.”

 

But where Hammett’s experience brought an actual realism to his protagonists—the Continental Op, Nick Charles, and Samuel Spade (Spade even bearing Dashiell’s own real first name)—that often gets in the way of the elements that elevate Chandler’s writing. Chandler was a synthesiser of high and low, presenting the glamour as well as the underworld of LA (and by extension, the two halves of his characters), but he also wrote with a distinct voice which Hammett often lacks. In another section of The Simple Art of Murder, he describes what Hammett does best, in witty, overblown, and simply amusing language that even Dashiell never mustered when he was doing it:

 

“He took murder out of the Venetian vase and dropped it into the alley… gave murder back to the kind of people who do it for a reason, not just to provide a corpse; and with means at hand, not with handwrought dueling pistols, curare, and tropical fish.”

 

There is no such florid language in Hammett’s descriptive passages. Though Chandler’s style is often described as ‘spare’ too, it’s a far cry from his contemporary’s, which has more of the Hemingway about it.  One of his earliest novels, Red Harvest (1929), almost dispenses with description which does not apply directly to action and dialogue. The characters are already noir wiseacres, but the Op’s cracks are few and far between, and restricted to dialogue rather than internal monologue:

 

“What’s the rumpus?”

 “Don Willsson’s gone to sit on the right hand of God, if God don’t mind looking at bullet holes.”

“Who shot him?”

“Somebody with a gun.”  (Chapter 1)

 

The Thin Man (1934) maintains a similar tone, but grounds Greek-American Nick Charles firmly in a reality that Chandler would never quite emulate. Nick is an ex-private investigator, like Hammett, and is married. Though set in New York, the action takes place within Nick’s circle of knowledge, and the domesticity of marriage, pets, and retirement from the PI world ground things in reality, but also ground the story, making it unable to reach the levels of psychological and spatial evocation that Chandler reaches.

 

The grey and dull, yet steely and sharp-edged corners of the modern city come through in Chandler’s voice, as do the wit and pathological honesty of his letter-writing. “The streets were dark with something more than night,” begins one paragraph in Farewell, My Lovely. It is a verbal conceit, but it is one which expresses something we have all felt: walking home in the dark through those streets that we would not venture down even during the day. In The High Window, he offers this description, beautiful and yet dislocating in its imagery, grounded in the reality of nouns and adjectives:

 

“The wind had risen and had a dry taut feeling, tossing the tops of trees, and making the swung arc light up the side street cast shadows like crawling lava.”

 

Where Hammett was actually spare, tight, realistic in writing style, Chandler drew on the ridiculous simile and the self-knowing winks to the reader regarding Hollywood or the film industry he worked in. When Hammett’s The Maltese Falcon (1930) was made into a movie it was Humphrey Bogart—the silver screen’s later Philip Marlowe—who put his fedora on to play Sam Spade. Without Bogart’s performance there, it is unlikely that we would have had quite the same template for Marlowe in both story and film form.

 

Chandler synthesised both the novels and the movies of the hardboiled genre, dissecting them and reconstructing narrative out of elements of both, injecting it with his own poetic wit, cutting up and splicing his own life into Marlowe’s, and lifting the shadows from the plodding realism of a Pulp genre to create a truly modernist American literary form. And if you don’t believe that Chandler is a modernist author? Just try reading The Big Sleep and working out exactly who killed whom, and for what reasons—it’s almost as confusing as Finnegans Wake.

DLR 21.02.08

 

Advertisements

One Response to “PULP PI, part 2 – Chandler and Hammett”

  1. Indy February 21, 2008 at 9:23 pm #

    Glad you’ve read/been reading Red Harvest. I hope it was good… looked it, anyway. Intersection between film and text is fascinating in Chandler. Are his books also filmic? I like how you’re being filmic with Ray Delaney this time around. Have you thought about writing screenplays? I could get a job at UCLA and you could take me to all your film premieres. That would rock.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: