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Category Archives: Hard-Boiled

SALLY CLINE. Dashiell Hammett: Man of Mystery (2014).

Substantial books about Hammett’s life and work today far outnumber his own famously modest output of novels and story collections. This one beckons for attention because it’s short—the main text runs to 204 pages—and because it’s relatively recent: It holds the promise of distilling several decades’ worth of accumulated research and cumulative wisdom about a genius who essentially invented a branch of American literature. So it’s unfortunate that this unevenly written survey of a writer’s life doesn’t reward even a brief investment of reading time. Cline, to her credit, appears to have read most of the now-quite-large array of primary and secondary sources about her subject, and she makes especially thorough use of material unearthed in recent years about Hammett’s relationship with his wife and two daughters. Like other students of Hammett, she also gives close scrutiny to his protean relationship with the playwright Lillian Hellman. But the biography that emerges from these scholarly endeavors offers neither a clear overview of what Hammett did and what he wrote nor a sustained argument about the meaning of his actions and achievements. It’s a helter-skelter jaunt through a life that merits careful, analytically sophisticated study.

HammettManMystery.jpg Cline’s title holds real promise, even if the book fails to deliver on it. What, after all, is the core “mystery” of this man? One conventional, and not altogether wrong, formulation of the Hammett conundrum focuses on the question of why he essentially stopped writing after producing several dozen genre-defining short tales and five landmark novels between 1922 and 1933. Why did a writer who worked so diligently to reach the pinnacle of success all but give up on creating new, published work during the nearly three decades that remained of his life? The standard explanations seem valid enough: drink, politics, the sublimation of Hammett’s own productive energies in an effort to support Hellman’s career.

Yet perhaps the more salient mystery concerns his motivation for writing works such as The Maltese Falcon and The Glass Key in the first place. Cline presents glimpses of an explanation, including this oft-quoted passage from a letter that Hammett sent in 1928 to the publisher Blanche Knopf: “I’m one of the few—if there are any more—people moderately literate who take the detective story seriously. … Some day somebody’s going to make ‘literature’ of it, … and I’m selfish enough to have my hopes.” Of course Hammett wrote for money, and for fame, and there were brief periods when he applied to literary work the same stoic professionalism that the Continental Op applied to investigative work. Deep down, though, he aspired to create fiction that would transfigure the form of his chosen genre. In fact, he did so, and did it more than once. (Each of his five novels in effect launched a major subgenre—from Red Harvest, which inspired a slew of tales about a lone hero who battles an entire corrupt town, to The Thin Man, which became the template for countless books and movies that feature a wise-cracking, crime-solving couple.) Then, once Hammett had fully stretched his talents in this way, he appears to have lost interest in using them. One gets the sense that he saw no middle ground between generating a masterwork and generating hackwork. As this biography inadvertently demonstrates, he was not so much a “man of mystery” as he was a man of supreme (and ultimately spoiled) ambition.

 
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Posted by on March 14, 2019 in American, Hard-Boiled

 

RAYMOND CHANDLER. The Lady in the Lake (1943).

The search for a perfume executive’s missing wife takes Philip Marlowe away from his normal stomping ground in either seedy Hollywood or corrupt Bay City (Chandler’s stand-in for the corrupt Santa Monica of his time). The change of scene, though only temporary, does him good. As his Chrysler ascends the mountain roads that lead him north of Los Angeles and toward the lake cabin where the missing women was last seen, Marlowe feels his spirit lift as well. At one point, he stops at a rundown outpost and says, “It felt like paradise.” LadyLake.jpg This moment of unaccustomed exuberance doesn’t last: At the lake, he happens upon a dead body, and that discovery leads him inexorably back to the big, bad city. But the literally breath-taking effect of his alpine idyll lingers. Despite its improbable, cantilevered plot, the story seems subdued—relaxed, even. Similes and other narrative contrivances fly with less abandon here than in previous Marlowe tales, and both the detective and his creator display a greater-than-usual mastery of situation as they move from one burnt-out soul to another, and from one violent encounter to the next. A well-done puzzle and a sprinkling of references to the world war that is unfolding in the background heighten the book’s appeal.

[ADDENDUM: Jacques Barzun and Wendell Hertig Taylor identified this work as “Chandler’s masterpiece” and selected it for their “Fifty Classics of Crime 1900–1950series. They also labeled it an instance of “true detection” and argued that “Marlowe makes a greater use of physical clues and ratiocination in this exploit than in any other.” That lofty assessment aligns with my memory of The Lady in the Lake. (It’s a somewhat dim memory, to be sure: I read the book and jotted this brief review several years ago.) So I was intrigued to note that one Chandler enthusiast—Stephen Mertz, writing in The Mystery Fancier back in 1979—panned the novel in fairly blunt terms. “[F]or the most part the verve and spark of Chandler’s best work are sadly lacking,” Mertz wrote. He added: “The plotting, never Chandler’s strong point, is slipshod. … The solution itself makes not an iota of sense, raising far more questions than it answers.”

Perhaps these clashing views are not, ultimately, in contradiction. What Mertz disliked about the tale seems to match what Barzun and Taylor liked about it—namely, its use of structural elements that depart from the standard approach to plotting hardboiled private-eye stories. Michael Grost notes that The Lady in the Lake, “find[s] Chandler in Golden Age, puzzle plot territory, unraveling an intricately conceived, ingenious crime” that recalls the criminal schemes found in the work of Freeman Wills Crofts. (In his landmark essayThe Simple Art of Murder,Chandler called Crofts “the soundest builder of them all when he doesn’t get too fancy.”) Grost, after criticizing the way that Chandler managed the book’s puzzle plot, suggests that the author “showed a good deal of entertaining ingenuity in the attempt” and praises him for “working a vein different from much of his regular style.”]

 
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Posted by on January 31, 2019 in American, Hard-Boiled, Novel, Puzzle

 

ROSS MACDONALD. The Moving Target (1949).

A strong ending caps what is otherwise a diffuse and disappointing tale of misspent love, runaway greed, and multiple murder. Lew Archer, in his debut appearance, signs up to look for a missing millionaire named Ralph Sampson, and in tracking that quarry he travels through a Southern California version of Dante’s Inferno—a realm where lost souls writhe under a hot, unforgiving sun. Moving Target.jpg This world, of course, will be familiar to readers of Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler, Macdonald’s Virgilian predecessors. Among its denizens are Sampson’s emotionally and physically crippled young wife, his alluring but aimless daughter, a cult leader who half-believes his own doggerel, an aging screen star who turns to astrology when her beauty starts to fade, a golden-boy war hero who can’t quite fit into a peacetime role, a honky-tonk piano player who can’t catch a break (and who doesn’t deserve to), and several others. The characters are incisively drawn, but there are too many of them, each with a sad and convoluted story to tell. As a result, the plot fails to yield a dense weave of meaning of the kind that would mark the later Archer novels. Macdonald’s prose misfires here as well, throwing off empty similes and leaden turns of phrase; it would improve greatly in subsequent books. In sum, The Moving Target is a rough sketch of much finer things to come.

[ADDENDUM: While scanning the Web for material on The Moving Target, I learned that J. Kingston Pierce—all-around mystery fiction maven and chief chronicler at the wonderful Rap Sheet blog—had written a brief remembrance of his initial encounter with the book. As it happens, the maiden Lew Archer adventure was the first detective novel that Pierce read, and it seems to have left him with a taste for gritty, gut-punching fare. The book stood out as being “a vigorous, thoughtful, often compassionate tale of love and greed with an ending that questioned whether anyone was truly trustworthy,” he writes. Pierce was a better, more mature young reader than I was. My introduction to the detective genre came via the adventures of Encyclopedia Brown (boy detective!) and the Three Investigators, and it was quite a few years before my reading expanded much beyond formal puzzle tales in the tradition of Agatha Christie.]

 
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Posted by on December 6, 2018 in American, Hard-Boiled, Novel

 

RAOUL WHITFIELD. Death in a Bowl (1931).

An early product of the tough-guy school of crime writing, this tale of greed, ambition, and murder in Tinseltown exhibits a besetting flaw of its type: It mistakes brute action for dramatic tension, and offers mere confusion in place of genuine mystery. The basic riddle that private eye Ben Jardinn must crack—Why and how did someone shoot musical conductor Hans Reiner during a concert at the Hollywood Bowl?—has merit both in its setup and in its solution. But the path that Whitfield carves between his crisp, provocative opening and his intriguing conclusion is strewn with narrative non-sequiturs. DeathBowl.jpg In dialogue, characters throw comments at one another that are either random or opaque. At the level of plot, scenes of violence, revelation, or reversal occur with no discernible connection to the scenes that precede or follow them. (One chapter, for example, starts with Jardinn entering a hospital where a key suspect, whom readers had last seen being put under arrest, will soon die. There is no narrative preparation for this event—no explanation of how the suspect arrived in that parlous state—nor any effort to link this plot turn to the story as a whole. It just happens.)

Thematically, too, the novel makes broad leaps but lands nowhere in particular. Are women, even the best among them, duplicitous by nature? Do clients always lie? Is there something inherently problematic about having a “business partner”—a fellow who operates as neither a true colleague nor an open competitor? And if the answer to all of these questions is “yes,” then how can a fellow trust anyone but himself? In this respect, as in others, Whitfield bulldozes across essentially the same terrain that Dashiell Hammett explores in The Maltese Falcon. Unlike Hammett, he charts a course that seems arbitrary rather than inevitable.

 
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Posted by on October 11, 2018 in American, Golden Age, Hard-Boiled, Novel

 

WALTER MOSLEY. Devil in a Blue Dress (1990).

In his début work, Mosley embraces many of the stylistic trappings and plot devices that define the Southern California private-eye adventure. And he adds a decisive twist: His hero, Easy Rawlins, is black. The case starts when a white man named DeWitt Albright—a slippery fellow whose motives are dubious but whose cash is quite real—hires Rawlins to locate a woman named Daphne Monet. She’s a white woman, Albright explains, but she “has a predilection for the company of Negroes.” DevilBlueDress.jpg Little by little, an apparently straightforward skip-trace job draws Rawlins into a vast whirlpool of corruption, and he will need to work fast and smart in order to escape the ordeal with his life, and with a remnant of his dignity. Broadly speaking, then, Rawlins confronts practical and existential challenges that would be familiar to any number of fictional gumshoes. Yet he isn’t just another lone knight on the model of Philip Marlowe or Lew Archer. Along with his dark skin, Rawlins bears a dark outlook that reflects his position in American society. He has meaner streets to ply than his white counterparts do, and the dangerous women who cross his path are all the more dangerous because they (most of them, at any rate) are on the other side of the color line from him. Rawlins had known violence and tasted freedom during the Second World War—the action takes place in 1948—and he has come home to find that in postwar Los Angeles violence is all too common and freedom is all too rare. By offering a stark glimpse into the mind and spirit of Rawlins as he carves out a life in that time and that place, Mosley elevates the tale above most works that follow in the vein of Raymond Chandler and Ross Macdonald

The plot, however, exhibits the kinds of defects that often mar the hard-boiled form: It’s ridiculously complex, and it relies more on frenetic action than on thoughtful detection. As if to obscure the lack of clues that he provides, Mosley serves up a half-dozen corpses; in effect, he substitutes a process of elimination for one of investigation. As a result, in a reversal of what the best detective novels offer, the buildup proves more compelling than the payoff.

 
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Posted by on October 4, 2018 in American, Hard-Boiled, Novel

 

HOWARD BROWNE. Halo for Satan (1948).

Self-referentiality—the tendency to make knowing nods to the fictive nature of fiction—is endemic to the detective genre. The habit goes back at least as far as the gibes made by Sherlock Holmes to Dr. Watson about the latter’s published chronicles of the former’s exploits. It can be a charming tic, now and again, but it can also test a reader’s capacity for suspending disbelief. Practitioners of the private-eye form often seem especially self-conscious about the highly constructed myth that lies beneath their works’ aura of gritty realism. Perhaps in that spirit, Browne peppers this tale about the Chicago-based shamus Paul Pine with references to other authors who specialize in mean-streets fare. At one point, he makes Pine interrupt his sleuthing chores to read a novel by William T. McGivern. A good guess here is that Browne knew McGivern from his work as editor of the pulp magazine Mammoth Detective. In any event, the shout-out comes across as a clunky bit of log-rolling. Such moves disrupt, ever so slightly, the spell of enchantment that this kind of story requires. Pine’s literary forebears knew better than to give up the game in that way: One struggles to imagine Sam Spade kicking back to peruse a copy of Black Mask while he waited for the black bird to turn up.

Browne’s novel, as it happens, follows the template that Dashiell Hammett created in The Maltese Falcon—a narrative framework that was, in turn, a clear tribute to mythic stories about knights in search of the Holy Grail. HaloSatan.jpg The quarry in this case is as fantastic as can be: a manuscript purportedly written by the hand of Jesus of Nazareth. As in the Hammett novel, the hero searches for clues and jockeys for position amid a cast of characters who all yearn for the same elusive object. The adventure starts with Pine going on a call to visit Bishop McManus, whose flock includes all of the Catholic souls in Chicago and who has an obvious professional interest in securing the manuscript. Thereafter, Pine tussles (and occasionally collaborates) with a pair of fetching women, Lola North and Constance Benbrook, either of whom might pass an audition for the femme-fatale role; with Frank Tinney, a homicide cop who is no fonder of private investigators than he should be; with Louis Antuni, a big-time mobster whose heyday was during the Prohibition era; and with a few other tough cookies. Topping off the confection is the looming presence of a mysterious master criminal named Jafar Baijan. (Both the spectral nature of the character and the ethnically indistinct name appear to prefigure Keyser Soze, the ostensibly invisible villain who haunts the 1995 film The Usual Suspects. Presumably it’s a coincidence. Or maybe the film’s creators had read this mid-century thriller.)

Although the plot borrows chiefly from Hammett, the tone and ambience of Halo for Satan point to a more profound influence: Browne, by virtue of this book and others in the Paul Pine series, was arguably the best of many would-be successors to Raymond Chandler. By transporting the Chandleresque tale and its tropes—the offbeat similes and the on-target social observation, the vision of an urban jungle in which upper-crust types mix with underworld figures—to a Midwestern metropolis, Browne shows that the formula could deliver its magic even in the absence of Southern California glamour. At the same time, he exerts tighter control over his characters and his plot than Chandler was typically able to muster. Through the sheer excellence of his craft, Browne achieves something that goes beyond mere pastiche. (It’s too bad that, instead of letting the craft speak for itself, he occasionally tries to get cute.)

 
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Posted by on September 20, 2018 in American, Hard-Boiled, Novel, Puzzle

 

RAYMOND CHANDLER. The Long Goodbye (1953).

This is quite a long book, as detective novels go—longer than it needs to be, but not longer than it should be. Viewed from the perspective of narrative economy, it contains a great deal of waste. There are scenes that extend for a beat or two (or three or four) more than is necessary, and scenes that hardly seem necessary at all. It’s a loose and shaggy affair, with a generous supply of Chandleresque lyricism but without the staccato narrative drive that marks the author’s best earlier tales (and, interestingly, with fewer dazzling similes than his most devoted readers might expect). It is, of course, a lavish bid by Chandler to combine a standard private-eye caper with a straight literary novel. As a detective novel, it’s much less tightly woven than it could have been. As a study of mood, of character, of modern social life, it lacks a clear sense of focus. Unlike The Big Sleep, this work doesn’t create a template that other writers could (and did) eagerly follow. It’s a one-off accomplishment. Yet, even so, it’s a real accomplishment.

LongGoodbye.jpgAs in a traditional detective story, specific problems that involve concrete events are what drive the investigative action. What happened in the guesthouse of the Encino estate where the heiress Sylvia Lennox joined the ranks of the naked and the dead? (She was found there without clothes and with her face smashed in by a bronze statuette.) What happened in the hotel room in Otatoclán, a remote Mexican town, where Terry Lennox passed his final days? What happened in the writer’s den of the Idle Valley house where Roger Wade died of an apparently self-inflicted gunshot on a lazy, lonely Southern California afternoon? Philip Marlowe arrives at answers to these questions—but only after following a convoluted series of deductions (some accurate, some not) and confessions (some true, some false),

Marlowe also explores a murkier problem: What makes people tick? And what sometimes causes a spring to snap inside them? Many scenes in the book appear to exist only to cast light—sometimes harsh and sometime mellow—on Marlowe’s relationships with the Lennoxes, the Wades, and a few others in the same upscale social set. Chandler indicates that Marlowe is 42 years old when the events here take place, but he confers on his otherwise robust hero an outlook that’s typical of late middle age. (When he wrote the book, Chandler was past 60.) The tone is one of dyspepsia and disappointment, and the perspective is that of a man who has seen the bottom of too many glasses of whiskey. For Chandler, a craving for booze is both the most predictable cause and the most telling symptom of a human spirit that has gone sour. In The Long Goodbye, he manages the rare feat of making alcoholism (a very dull subject, in the main) a convincingly integral trait of two superbly drawn characters. By implication, he sketches an effective portrait of another alcoholic man: himself.

 
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Posted by on August 29, 2018 in American, Hard-Boiled, Novel, Puzzle