This is the fifth instalment of my blog which I am struggling personfully to keep up fairly regularly. It’s mainly about writing, or has been so far. After writing the previous one about violence, things have kept popping into my brain about other writers with something like experience and I feel a bit shamefaced that I didn’t include Dashiell Hammett, one of my great literary models, in the “experienced” writer category. Hammett didn’t murder anyone, so far as I know anyway. But he was a detective (for Pinkerton) and may very well have killed some one, though I’ve never read that he did. Certainly his long-time partner Lillian Hellman said he often put people he had met as a detective into his stories as characters, along with the language of the underworld of his time. “Gunsel”, she said, was slang for a gay, and Hammett was very proud of having smuggled the word past the editorial censors of his publishers.
Hellman’s testimony is always suspect but perhaps can believed on this score.What is useful for the “experience” motif I’m trying to explore here however is the contrast between Hammett and his “follower” Raymond Chandler. Chandler was educated in England but spent most of his adult life in California and came to writing late, after a career in the oil industry. Unemployed in the 1930s he came on a copy of Black Mask, the magazine devoted to the so-called “hard boiled” school of detective fiction where Hammett was something of a king, and began his career. Chandler’s Philip Marlowe became the model for many other detectives in later years (most notably Ross Macdonald’s [Kenneth Millar’s] Lew Archer). More significantly for what I want to get at here, Chandler’s style of “hard-boiled” and “wise-cracking” became the model for the early work of English espionage fiction writer Len Deighton, whose first novels (The Ipcress File, Funeral in Berlin) owe a very great deal to Chandler and Hammett.
Chandler paid homage to Hammett in a famous essay, “The Simple of Art of Murder”, an attack on the puzzle school of mystery writing exemplified by Agatha Christie, using an A A Milne novel The Red House Mystery, as his foil. Chandler was unaware that this best-seller was a satire, but then neither was the vast mass of readers who bought and devoured it. His larger point was the Hammett was aware of police methods and the reality of murder (he wrote that Hammett gave murder back to people who committed it “for reasons, not just to provide a corpse”).
Yet despite Chandler’s homage, he was considered by many critics to be a better writer than Hammett. I don’t think that is fair. Any open-minded reader who reads both writers carefully – and there are not so many novels by the two combined, nor are they so long – will come to see Hammett’s spare style refreshing alongside the cloying romanticism of his “pupil” (the two were not friends and met just once, at a Black Mask dinner).
And ultimately, I think the inferiority of Chandler derives, as I think he knew, from Hammett’s genuine experience of crime and its aftermath. Chandler could write, without doubt, and Philip Marlowe was vastly more influential that any of Hammett’s characters apart from “Nick and Nora Charles” of the last novel, The Thin Man, who became parodies of themselves on film and in television.
For this writer, however, Hammett remains the master. There is a terseness and a feeling of reality underlying Hammett’s prose that I wish I could emulate successfully. There are other models for my work (Celine and Shakespeare for example), and I would not wish to put Hammett as a man on any more of a pedestal than he deserves – the destruction of his reputation since Hellman tried to make him a Lion King has been all too thorough. The contrast between his writing and Chandler’s, though, is nonetheless a useful example how how real life knowledge can trump imagined reality.
Perhaps this is best seen through the prism of film. Not just The Thin Man and its spinoffs, but The Maltese Falcon were classic films of their time – the latter still able to pull in the crowds – while none of Chandler’s novels was ever really successful as a film, though there have been several attempts. I reckon the reason for this is the mushiness at the heart of Chandler’s work, while the toughness of mind that Hammett brought to his writing gives his work an edge.
To return to my original theme, most writers have no hope of having the experience that enabled a writer like Hammett to write “what he knew”, and must use their “imaginative understanding” to visualise and create the scenes that will give their work verisimilitude. But given a real-life expert like Hammett on a plate – you can just go out and buy his books and eat them up – who can resist taking up a knife and fork?
Ah, a novel in its own right! If you are here reading this, put eight stars into your kit bag; you deserve them!
Published on June 28, 2012 13:23 • 21 views • Tags: a-a-milne,agatha-christie, black-mask, celine, dashiell-hammett, hard-boiled,lew-archer, lillian-hellman, maltese-falcon, philip-marlowe, raymond-chandler, red-house-mystery, ross-macdonald, the-thin-man