3. American Style: Hammett, Cain, Chandler

3. American Style: Hammett, Cain, Chandler

Patrick Anderson

Modern American crime fiction starts with these opening lines of Dashiell Hammett’s 1930 novel The Maltese Falcon:

“Samuel Spade’s jaw was long and bony, his chin a jutting v under the more flexible v of his mouth. His nostrils curved back to make another, smaller v. His yellow-grey eyes were horizontal. The v motif was picked up again by thickish brows rising outward from twin creases above a hooked nose, and his pale brown hair grew down – from high flat temples – in a point on his forehead. He looked rather pleasantly like a blond satan.”

This is the work of a supremely confident writer. He’s found his voice, he’s found his hero, and he knows you’re going to be as hooked as he is on this blond satan, this Sam Spade. Having introduced his hero, in prose as sardonic as Spade himself, Hammett wastes no time. In the next paragraph, Spade’s adoring secretary, Effie Perine, announces that a Miss Wonderly wants to see him. Miss Wonderly enters – a knockout, as Effie promised – all aflutter, another damsel in distress. Except she’s not. Her real name is Brigid O’Shaughnessy and she’s a con-artist, non-stop liar, and possible murderer. Spade suspects the worst but is happy to take her money. He assigns his partner, Miles Archer, to follow one Floyd Thursby whom Brigid says is leading her sister astray. There is of course no sister.

That night Archer is shot dead on the assignment. Soon Thursby too is dead. Thus begins the tale of the elusive, bejeweled Maltese Falcon that as novel and movie is a classic of hard-boiled crime fiction and film noir. The Maltese Falcon wasn’t Hammett’s first novel but it was his best and because of John Huston’s 1941 movie is by far his best known. It isn’t the greatest noir film – that would be Billy Wilder’s version of James M. Cain’s Double Indemnity – but the combination of Bogart’s snarling Spade, Sydney Greenstreet’s obsessive Falcon-hunter Kasper Gutman, Peter Lorre’s effete Joel Cairo, and Elisha Cook Jr. as Wilmer, the surly young gunsel, makes it irresistible.

I reread the novel, after several decades, to see how it held up and in particular to see if what I have long considered the major fault of the movie came from the book. That is the character of Brigid, as played by Mary Astor, an actress whose charms elude me. I can never believe that Bogart would give a damn about this woman, beyond the obligatory one-night stand. As a result, the dramatic ending of the movie, when he agonizes about his love for her, never worked for me. Even if she hadn’t killed his partner, I couldn’t believe that Bogart would fall for this creepy woman with the bizarre hairdo who lies endlessly. Contrast Astor’s Brigid with Barbara Stanwyck’s delicious Phyllis Dietrichson in Double Indemnity or the heartbreaking Gene Tierney in Otto Preminger’s Laura – dames any guy might play the sap for! 

The novel is written with economy, energy, and flair. The Hemingway-influenced dialogue is dazzling and the characterization of the cynical, calculating, violent, fiercely independent Spade is a marvel. (We will often see the influence of Hemingway in the decades ahead. Writers like Hammett and Cain knew they were influenced by him; today we have young writers who are influenced by him and don’t even know it.) Hammett’s talents, along with the romance and mystery of the centuries-old Falcon, and Gutman’s obsession with it, make The Maltese Falcon memorable. Yet I find many problems in the novel, faults we may overlook because we read it a long time ago or because we loved the movie or because we admire Hammett. Here, as elsewhere, nostalgia can cloud our minds.

It is basic to The Maltese Falcon that everyone is intimidated by Spade. The cops defer to him (one keeps saying, “Aw, be reasonable, Sam”) and even the local DA is speechless when Spade bawls him out. When Gutman and his gang are threatening him with death, he laughs and says he won’t be influenced by the guns they’re pointing at him, and he defies the gang to torture him. If men defer to Spade, women adore him – the long-suffering secretary Effie, Miles Archer’s widow, Iva, who fancies that Spade loves her, and even the duplicitous Brigid. He awes all these people not with his intellect, like Dupin or Holmes or Poirot, but with his physical prowess, his fearlessness, his moral superiority. Hammett had been a Pinkerton detective and he knew that private detectives do not often talk back to cops and keep their teeth. But he had also written for the pulp magazines and he knew that a cop-baiting private eye made great copy.

Years later, Ed McBain had his detective Frank Carella observe: “The last time Carella had met a private detective investigating a murder was never.” Hammett didn’t care. Poe, Doyle, and Christie had perfected the brilliant private investigator who could run circles about the lame-brained cops. Hammett made the detective a man of action, and as such he became the central hero of modern crime fiction. When Hammett started writing, America’s police were notoriously corrupt and brutal, and the incorruptible PI made a dramatic foil to them. Since then, police have become more professional and criminal investigations have come to stress science and technology. This is reflected in crime novels that increasingly feature cops, FBI agents, medical examiners, and others with official credentials. But Sam Spade ushered in a half-century in which the private-eye replaced the lone cowboy as the iconic American hero.

One problem with The Maltese Falcon is its homophobia, although Hammett’s is not as blatant as Raymond Chandler’s a decade later. Perhaps it’s a holdover from writing for pulps, but it’s clear that both writers are doing it to amuse readers who want to laugh at these repellant creatures – or to watch them get roughed up or even killed. The main target in The Maltese Falcon is Joel Cairo. When Cairo first turns up in Spade’s office, Effie brings in his perfumed card and announces: “This guy is queer.” Then we are off to the races:

“Mr. Joel Cairo was a small-boned dark man of medium height…His black coat, cut tight to narrow shoulders, flared a little over slightly plump hips…He came towards Spade with short, mincing, bobbing steps. The fragrance of chypre came with him.”

Cairo’s effeminacy is remarked on throughout the novel and apparently he is the lover of Wilmer, whose “curling lashes” are frequently cited. Today, the problem is not only that the gay-baiting is repugnant but that it’s so dated. (What the hell is chypre?)

Gays aside, there are several scenes and plot twists in the novel that don’t make sense. For example, the scene in which Brigid and Cairo are in Spade’s apartment and the police come to the door. Spade won’t let them in, but then Brigid and Cairo get in a fight and he screams and the cops rush in, whereupon Spade concocts a ridiculous story that it was all a joke they put on to fool the police. If the scene has a point it is to show again how easily Spade can manipulate the dumb cops. It’s silly in print and silly on film – there’s nothing to be done with it.

Spade leads a charmed life. Wilmer and Cairo keep pointing guns at him but he only laughs and takes the guns away from them. Spade’s impassioned argument that he and Gutman had to give the police a fall guy – Wilmer – to blame for the murders is double-talk, since Wilmer would eagerly turn on them. Equally improbable is the revelation that Brigid killed Miles Archer. Her confession serves mainly to set up the high drama when Spade agonizes about his love for the woman who murdered his partner.

Where is the evidence of this love? The first hint of romance between Brigid and Spade comes while he is trying to get the truth about the Falcon out of her. “I have always been a liar,” she confesses. Spade laughed and said he’d make coffee, whereupon: “She put her hands up to Spade’s cheeks, put her open mouth hard against his mouth, her body flat against his body.” As Spade embraces her, “His eyes burned yellowly.” Thus ends Chapter 9. It’s not terribly romantic (his eyes burned yellowly?) but it serves to get them in bed, where we find them the next morning. As Brigid sleeps on, Spade dresses, takes her hotel key from her purse, and hurries to her hotel to search vainly for the Falcon. Then he buys some eggs, goes home, lies about where he’s been, ignores the gun in her hand, and makes breakfast. When he tries to question her again, she protests, “You can’t ask me to talk about that this morning of all mornings.”

That’s Brigid as a blushing bride, on her morning of mornings, and it’s about as romantic as it gets for these two. Nobody likes or trusts Brigid except Effie, who keeps going on about what a swell kid she is. There is a later scene with Spade, Brigid, Gutman, Cairo, and Wilmer when someone has stolen a thousand-dollar bill from Spade. Ever the gentleman, he takes Brigid into the bathroom and tells her to take her clothes off. She refuses. “All right,” he says, “We’ll go back to the other room and I’ll have them taken off.” She protests that he’ll be killing something.” “I don’t know anything about that,” Spade tells her. “Take them off.” She does.

After the Falcon has proved a fake and Gutman and his friends have fled, Brigid admits that she killed Miles and Spade tells her “I’m going to send you over.” He taunts her by saying that she’ll probably be out of prison in twenty years and he’ll wait for her. He says he didn’t give a damn about Archer but says that if your partner is killed, you’re supposed to do something about it. Spade admits that “maybe you love me and maybe I love you” but when she keeps babbling about love Spade tells her angrily “I won’t play the sap for you.” The police come and take her away.

High drama, but I don’t believe a word of it. Someone reading the book or seeing the movie for the first time, caught up in the story, might buy this moment of love and heartbreak, or not be bothered by the holes in the plot, but if you look closely it is hard to deny that the novel, so tough, so readable, so influential, is noir with plenty of smoke and mirrors.

Much of the enduring popularity of The Maltese Falcon is because of John Huston’s shrewd film adaptation. The dialogue in the movie is almost all from the novel, but Huston cut a great deal of weak or superfluous material. He shows a lot less of Ivy, Archer’s widow. He cut Gutman’s daughter, who turns up drugged in a pointless scene. He plays down the homophobia and drops the suggestion of a relationship between Cairo and Wilmer. Nor does he tell us at the end, as Hammett did, that Wilmer killed Gutman shortly before he was arrested. Huston understood that it was better to leave us thinking that Gutman might yet spend the rest of his life in a hopeless quest for the Falcon. It was Huston, too, who had Spade invoke Shakespeare to tell us that the Falcon was “the stuff that dreams are made of.” How much better to remember the movie in those terms, than to recall the novel’s final lines, when Effie tells Spade that the creepy widow Iva has come to see him and he “shivered” and said, “Well, send her in.” In these and other ways, Huston saved Hammett from himself.

Huston also made changes in the relationship between Spade and Brigid, all intended to make the climactic “maybe I love you” exchange more believable. After they first spend the night together, Huston cuts the scene when he searches her apartment and she pulls a gun on him. He also cuts Spade’s telling Brigid to take off her clothes or he’ll have them taken off – pulp-magazine sadism that had no place in his movie.

After a recent viewing of the movie, I still think Brigid is a serious flaw, but I no longer blame Astor – the character is impossible. Still, Huston made a classic movie out of a fitfully brilliant novel, one that had been filmed twice previously with dismal results. Hammett’s reputation today rests in large part on the enduring popularity of the movie.

Hammett served in the First World War, was a Pinkerton detective for eight years, and in the mid-1920s began writing for the pulp magazine Black Mask. The best of Hammett’s novels are The Maltese Falcon and The Glass Key. The latter features Ned Beaumont, a gambler who becomes the close friend of a political boss. Beaumont is a tough and resourceful fellow, but he isn’t larger than life like Spade, nor does his involvement in corrupt politics and murder capture our imagination the way Spade, Gutman, and the Falcon do. Hammett’s last novel, The Thin Man, was his weakest, but its Nick and Nora Charles inspired a popular series of movies that starred William Powell and Myrna Loy as upscale crime-solvers.

When the Second World War began, Hammett enlisted, at the age of 48, and worked on an army newspaper in Alaska. He had for years been active in liberal causes, and after the war he was called before Congressional committees and questioned about his work with the Civil Rights Congress, which the FBI called a communist front. He refused to answer and served six months in a federal prison. After he was sentenced, the government moved to have his books removed from libraries that received federal funds and his publisher suspended publication of The Maltese Falcon to please the witch-hunters. After Hammett’s death, he was buried, as a veteran of two world wars, in Arlington National Cemetery.

I said to someone recently that Hammett was an admirable man. “Admirable?” this person shot back. “He was a drunk who quit writing and lived off Lillian Hellman the rest of his life.” It’s true that Hammett’s alcoholism and ill-health are probably why he never published another novel after The Thin Man in 1934. It’s also true that he lived with Hellman for many years. At first he had money coming in from book royalties and movie deals, but medical and legal bills chewed it up and by his death in 1961 he owed Hellman a lot of money. In time, as his posthumous sales burgeoned, she was more than repaid.

I’ll stick to my guns: The Maltese Falcon is an original, compelling, highly influential, but flawed novel, and Hammett’s achievement was cut short because of his ill-health, alcoholism, and demons beyond our understanding. But he was an admirable man


James M. Cain didn’t invent a genre, like Hammett, nor was he as skilled a writer as Raymond Chandler, but between Hammett’s last novel and Chandler’s first he published two bestsellers, The Postman Always Rings Twice (1934), and Double Indemnity (1936), that were flawed classics and live on as notable movies. Cain was an insurance salesman after college and then a reporter in Baltimore; both pursuits contribute to his fiction. In 1924, in his early thirties, he joined the New York World. He wrote a play that closed quickly but gave him credentials for screenwriting and he went to Los Angeles in 1931 to write for Paramount. He had little success as a screenwriter, both because he didn’t like the movie business and because he drank too much, so he decided to write a novel.

Cain had been fascinated by the 1927 trial of Ruth Snyder who, along with her salesman lover, Judd Gray, was convicted, then executed, for murdering her husband. Several details stuck in Cain’s mind, including the fact that Snyder had taken out a double-indemnity policy on her husband and that she arranged for the postman to ring twice when he delivered payment coupons. Also that the murder was poorly planned (the dumbbell murder, it was called) and that both Snyder and Gray blamed the other in the end. As a novelist, Cain mined the case for two titles, a theme, and many details. He was further inspired when, driving outside Los Angeles, he met a sexy young woman who ran a gas station with her husband and later read that she had been charged with killing him.

The Postman Always Rings Twice and Double Indemnity are short novels, not much over a hundred pages, and both have the same basic story. A cocky, good-looking young man meets a married woman he can’t resist. They become lovers and decide to murder the husband, disguise it as an accident, and collect his double-indemnity insurance policy. Although the murders are poorly planned, they get away with them, but turn on one another and finally are punished.

Cain could repeat his plot because he put his two sets of lovers in different worlds. In Postman, Frank is a drifter and small-time hustler. In its famous opening line he tells us: “They threw me off the hay truck about noon.” He stops at the Twin Oaks Tavern, a filling station and sandwich joint, and meets Nick, its Greek owner, who offers him a job. Frank gets a glimpse of Nick’s wife, Cora, and takes the job. Frank is dumb but thinks he’s smart. Cora is so dumb she agrees. They become lovers, decide to kill Nick, and bungle the first attempt. Then Frank kills Nick with a wrench and they fake an auto accident. The police know what has happened but a slick lawyer named Katz gets them off. The lovers fear each other, consider murder, and then decide they’re in love, whereupon fate intervenes. There is no postman in the novel, unless the title is taken to mean death, like the iceman in Eugene O’Neill’s The Iceman Cometh. That postman does ring twice.

The novel was considered scandalous, although it is tame by today’s standards. Cora likes it when he bites her. The novel’s sexiest moment comes just after the lovers are freed from jail:

“I ripped all her clothes off. She twisted and turned, slow, so they would slip out from under her. Then she closed her eyes and lay back on the pillow. Her hair was falling over her shoulders in snaky curls. Her eye was all black, and her breasts weren’t drawn up and pointing up at me, but soft and spread out in two big pink splotches. She looked like the great-grandmother of every whore in the world. The devil got his money’s worth that night.”

Hot stuff in 1934.

In Double Indemnity, the characters are middle-class and more polished if not much smarter. Walter is a 34-year-old insurance salesman. He falls for Phyllis and they agree to kill her husband. They do, by faking an accident – a fall from the back of a slow-moving train -- and Walter thinks he’s committed the perfect crime. The only one to suspect murder is his boss, Keyes, a student of insurance fraud. Walter and Phyllis beat the rap but face another kind of justice.

Cain, like Hammett, was well served by the people who put Double Indemnity onto film: director Billy Wilder and Raymond Chandler, working on his first screenplay. Their movie version opens and closes with brilliant noir scenes, neither of which is in the novel. In the new opening, amid the shadows of L.A. at night, the dying Walter staggers from his car into his office to confess his crimes into a recorder. Probably to defer criticism, Wilder and Chandler thus made clear at the outset that crime doesn’t pay. Then they return to the novel’s opening, when Walter goes to a client’s house and meets his wife, Phyllis, played by Barbara Stanwyck, who is as sexy as she is scary. Wilder and Chandler cooked up suggestive dialogue that sneaked around the censorship of the era.

But they couldn’t get around the major flaw in the novel, which is Walter’s perfect crime. As Keyes points out, men who fall off the back of slow-moving trains don’t often die, as the husband supposedly did. But the brilliance of the directing, the dialogue, the photography, and the acting of Fred MacMurray, Barbara Stanwyck, and Edward G. Robinson sweeps us past the weak spots. In Chandler and Wilder’s ending, Walter goes to Phyllis’s home. She wears white silk. They talk in the shadows. The dreamy ballad “Tangerine” plays in the distance. She shoots and wounds him. She admits she never loved him, that she’s rotten, but she won’t shoot him again. He takes the gun and shoots her. Then he goes back to his office to confess and die.

The Wilder-Chandler ending is inspired, particularly when compared with the truly dreadful ending of the novel. There, Walter and Phyllis are freed and put on a ship bound for Mexico. Both are so overcome by guilt that they agree to jump into the ocean, where a shark awaits them. Perhaps Cain, reacting to the controversy that greeted Postman, thought justice-by-shark was the price he had to pay for his amoral novel. Chandler and Wilder had the good sense to dispense with the shark and have Phyllis die at Walter’s hand – and in his arms – in the most beautiful scene in all film noir.

Pulp Writer and Poet

I’m going to spend more time than I should on Raymond Chandler because he troubles me. He is everywhere hailed as the master of the crime novel. He was praised by the likes of T.S. Eliot and W.H. Auden – although I suspect that when Evelyn Waugh called Chandler “the best writer in America,” he was having a bit of sport with fellows named Hemingway and Faulkner. Despite all the praise, and despite his obvious strengths and historical importance, Chandler strikes me as an uneven, overrated writer. I say this having reread his three most admired novels, The Big Sleep, Farewell, My Lovely, and The Long Goodbye and found it an often agonizing experience.

Chandler was intelligent, well-read, and talented, but he was in many ways a bitter, insecure man. He was scornful of foreigners, blacks, homosexuals, rich people, and women, among others, and it is no accident that in these three novels, the villain always turns out to be a rich woman. It is generally agreed that Chandler’s plots are convoluted at best and incomprehensible at worst, but his admirers say that his virtues compensate for the confusion. For me, the plots are only the start of the problem. Chandler was capable of colorful, inventive, lyrical prose, but he was also a woefully self-indulgent writer who junked-up his books with cruel asides and inane similes. He was in urgent need of a good editor, but he couldn’t tolerate criticism and once fired his agent because an assistant in his office, after reading the first draft of The Long Goodbye, told the author, not unreasonably, that his beloved Philip Marlowe was becoming “too Christlike.”

Chandler was born in Chicago in 1888. After his father deserted the family, he and his mother wound up in London, living off the charity of rich relatives. His uncle staked him to a taste of college, then he was obliged to take a civil service job. Unhappy there, he tried free-lance writing and then went to America. He settled in California, soon followed by his mother, and lived there until his wartime service in the Canadian army. He returned to California, where he became part of a rich, artistic crowd, and in 1919 he fell in love with an attractive, sophisticated woman named Cissy Pascal. Their romance was complicated not only by her marriage but by the fact that he was thirty-one and she was a good bit older. Cissy divorced her husband, but marriage was not possible as long as his mother was alive.

In 1920, Chandler was hired by a small oil company and became a well-paid executive. He lived with his mother and supported both women until 1924 when, soon after his mother’s death, the lovers married. They seem to have been happy at first, although she had deceived him about her age. When they married, he was thirty-five and she was fifty-three, not the forty-three she had claimed. By the late 1920s both were drinking heavily and he had at least one affair at his office. They periodically separated, with Chandler moving into hotels to drink alone.

In 1932, Chandler was fired because of his drinking. Fortunately, he had savings to draw on, and at age forty-four Chandler made a bold decision. He would be a writer. Chandler admired Hammett’s work and decided to try to write for Black Mask. He spent five months on “Blackmailers Don’t Shoot” and Black Mask bought the story, which his biographer Tom Hiney says “has an almost completely indecipherable plot.” But Chandler wrote richer, more colorful prose than any other Black Mask contributor and before the decade was over he published twenty-one stories there, earning $300 to $400 for most of them. He became the best pulp writer in America because the quality of his writing transcended the magazine’s formula of sex, sadism, and violence. In 1938, an agent showed his stories to publisher Alfred Knopf, who asked for a novel. Chandler quickly wrote The Big Sleep (i.e., death) that summer. He wove in characters and scenes from several of his Black Mask stories, which helped account for its disjointed plot.

At the outset, as Philip Marlowe goes to meet a rich new client, he tells us proudly that “I was neat, clean, shaved and sober, and I didn’t care who knew it. I was everything the well-dressed private detective ought to be. I was calling on four million dollars.”

Chandler, like Hammett before him, had found his voice and his man. The writing is precise in its descriptions and sardonic in its tone. Marlowe is modeled on Sam Spade but different too. He’s better dressed. He speaks in the first person. And his clients are rich, unlike the gang of crooks Spade came up against.

In the novel’s second paragraph, Chandler tells us that the front door of the Sternwood mansion “would have let in a troop of Indian elephants,” which is typical of the overstatements he gloried in, and he also tells us about the stained-glass panel “showing a knight in dark armour rescuing a lady who was tied to a tree and didn’t have any clothes on.” He fantasizes about helping the knight save the damsel. That is the first hint that we are to regard Marlowe not simply as a private eye but as a knight in shining armour. The opening chapters also feature Marlowe’s fiery independence. He is approached by Carmen Sternwood, who is twenty or so and has “sharp predatory” teeth. She giggles, sucks her thumb (she does that a lot), and falls into his arms, explaining, “You’re cute.”

He escapes from Carmen and goes to see her father, in the celebrated greenhouse scene. General Sternwood is a wonderful old man, who declares that neither of his daughters has any more moral sense than a cat. They get to business: An art dealer named Geiger, who is really a pornographer, is asking Sternwood to pay Carmen’s gambling debts, in what sounds like blackmail. Marlowe boasts that he’ll handle the matter so that Geiger will think a bridge fell on him. There is also talk of a Joe Brody whom the General had paid $5000 and of the Irish bootlegger Rusty Regan, who is the third husband of Sternwood’s older daughter, Vivian, but has been missing for several weeks. The General calls Vivian spoiled and ruthless. In the movie, which stars Bogart as Marlowe, Vivian is played by Lauren Bacall, and she is toned down to allow for Bogart-Bacall flirtation. The scene with Sternwood, like much of the novel, is as readable as it is confusing, particularly as to the roles of Geiger, Brody, and Regan – and Eddie Mars is soon added to the mix.

Marlowe is summoned to meet Vivian. They banter and she declares she doesn’t like his manners, to which he replies that he’s not crazy about hers either, but he likes her legs. Soon she says admiringly, “My God, you big dark handsome brute. I ought to throw a Buick at you.” Despite Marlowe’s arrogance, haughty rich girls throw themselves (and sometimes Buicks) at him and old millionaires love him like a son.

I won’t try to summarize the plot of The Big Sleep. I’m not sure I could. There is a well-known story that when Howard Hawks was filming the novel, neither he nor his screenwriters could figure out who had killed the Sternwood chauffeur. Hawks cabled Chandler for an explanation and he cabled back: “NO IDEA.” In truth, it doesn’t matter who killed the chauffeur. He existed only so we could learn that Vivian once had him arrested under the Mann Act for running off with Carmen, but dropped charges when she realized that thumb-sucking Carmen cooked up the trip.

Near the end of the novel, Marlowe drives to an isolated house where he thinks Eddie Mars’ missing wife is being held. Two men overpower him and he winds up in the house with his hands cuffed behind his back. His hostess is Eddie Mars’ elusive wife, whom he calls Silver Wig because she’s wearing one. Although a gangster is coming to kill him, Marlowe continues to emit snappy dialogue. She asks how he feels. Great, he says. “Like someone built a filling station on my jaw.”

Silver Wig cuts loose the ropes that bind him and explains that Canino, the gangster who is coming, has the key to the handcuffs. Despite the handcuffs, they kiss and then he flees. Marlowe gets his gun out of his car and, after Canino arrives, survives a shootout with his hands handcuffed behind his back, a first in the extensive literature of gunfights. Marlowe escapes death because Silver Wig has risked her life for him. Handcuffed, seemingly a goner, Marlowe survives because he is both Don Juan and Deadeye Dick.

The novel’s final revelation is that it was that poor sex-crazed Carmen who shot Regan, because he spurned her advances. Then, having pinned the crime on Carmen, Chandler waffles. He reveals that she suffers from epileptic fits, raising the possibility that illness, not sheer rich-bitch malice, caused her to plug her amiable Irish brother-in-law.

In case we fail to grasp this knight-errant’s nobility, Chandler has Vivian offer Marlowe money to keep quiet, whereupon he responds with a long speech declaring that he’d risked his life for $25 a day and now she’s insulting his honor. The book would have been stronger without this self-serving pronouncement but Chandler loved his hero too much to cut it.

Chandler’s second novel, Farewell, My Lovely, opens with what I can only call a malicious minstrel show. Marlowe is at work in a black neighborhood when he notices a man who was “not more than six feet five inches tall and not wider than a beer truck.” This giant, garishly dressed, enters a Negro bar and throws a young man out into the street: “It landed on its hands and knees and made a high keening noise like a cornered rat.” Marlowe explains that “it” was “a thin, narrow-shouldered brown youth in a lilac-colored suit and a carnation. It had slick black hair. It kept its mouth open and whined for a moment.” There’s more about “it.”

“A dinge,” the big man explains. He introduces himself as Moose Malloy and insists that Marlowe accompany him while he looks for his ex-girlfriend, Velma. It becomes clear that Velma sang in this club when it was a white club but now it is a black club, and Malloy can’t quite grasp that concept. The club has a bouncer who laughs at Malloy. The big man tosses him across the room. The bartender is a thin, worried-looking Negro who moves as if his feet hurt. When Malloy questions him about Velma, “his Adam’s apple flopped around like a headless chicken” and he starts “rolling the whites of his eyes.” When Malloy goes into the manager’s office, the man tries to pull a gun, whereupon Malloy breaks his neck.

Malloy departs but Marlowe stays to explain things to the police. The detective sighs and says, “Another shine killing.” He waxes nostalgic: “One time there was five smokes carved Harlem sunsets on each other down on East Eighty-four.” Harlem sunsets? One doesn’t know if that lovely phrase emerged from the streets or from Chandler’s exquisite imagination.

All this, while eye-catching, is a throwaway. Malloy is not central to the story and soon disappears. The scene exists to give Farewell, My Lovely an opening that would be irresistible to readers who like to laugh at black people. 
Chandler has equal scorn for one Lindsay Marriott, who asks the detective to come to his house to discuss a job. Marriott lives by the ocean, and as Marlowe nears his home we get this description:

“I got down to Montemar Vista as the light began to fade, but there was still a fine sparkle on the water and the surf was breaking far out in long smooth curves. A group of pelicans was flying bomber formations just under the creaming lip of the waves. A lonely yacht was tacking in toward the yacht harbor at Bay City. Beyond it the huge emptiness of the Pacific was purple-grey.”

That’s nice and harder than it looks. Much of Chandler’s best writing involves nature. He likes the sky, sunsets, trees, rain, mountains, and the sea far more than he does people.

Few of Chandler’s characters are less attractive than Lindsay Marriott. We are told that he is tall and blond and wearing white flannel suit and a violet satin scarf around his “thick, soft brown neck, like the neck of a strong woman…”

Marlowe enters the man’s house and tells us he smelled perfume on his host and describes Marriott’s artworks in scornful detail. He declares that it was the kind of room where people sit with their feet in their laps and sip absinthe through lumps of sugar “and talk with high affected voices and sometimes just squeak.” When Marlowe glances at an odd-looking artwork, Marriott says it is Asta Dial’s Spirit of Dawn. Marlowe replies, “I thought it was Klopstein’s Two Warts on a Fanny.”

Marlowe has it both ways: he insults Marriott but still persuades him he needs his help. They proceed to the job, which is to drive to a nearby beach where Marriott is to give money to some men in return for stolen jewels. The mission is a failure: When they arrive at the beach, someone sneaks up on the detective and knocks him out. When he wakes, a young woman is pointing a gun at him. Marlowe laughs at her gun but is impressed by her toughness, particularly when she tells him his client’s fate: “He’s dead all right. With his brains on his face.”

Chandler has gone to great lengths to ridicule a gay man, only to kill him off and tell us, with apparent delight, that he has his brains on his face. He likes that line so much he uses it again. What is the matter with this man? Is he simply homophobic? Does he think nastiness will sell books? Did he pick up bad habits writing for the pulps and find himself unable to break them? His books abound with references to pansies and fags and niggers and shines. Elsewhere, in Farewell, My Lovely we get a “dirty wop,” someone “sneering…the way Jap gardeners do” and a chapter that begins “The Indian smelled.”

I don’t know how people can read Chandler today without his misogyny lessening their pleasure in his work. It isn’t enough to say that Chandler reflected the prejudices of his day. You can find scenes in Hemingway, Fitzgerald, and Faulkner that reflect those prejudices, but they didn’t savage blacks and gays, didn’t batter them, wipe the floor with them, and then laugh at them, as Chandler so gleefully does. The point isn’t political correctness, just basic decency. Chandler ridicules people who have done nothing to him and can’t fight back. He could write gorgeous prose but he could also write like a sick, sadistic son of a bitch.

Chandler’s portrayal of Marlowe and sex is monumentally weird. Women cannot resist this handsome brute and yet Marlowe is forever rejecting them. At the start of The Big Sleep, Carmen literally throws herself at him and the thrice-wed Vivian is just as adoring. Later, after Marlowe has rescued Vivian from a gunman outside a gambling club they are alone in his car. “Hold me close, you beast,” she commands. They kiss and she tells him to take her to his place. Whereupon he announces that her father didn’t hire him to sleep with her. (Has this man never heard of fringe benefits?) She curses him and eventually takes out her handkerchief and slowly tears it to pieces with her teeth.

Marlowe gets rid of her and goes home, only to find that sly little Carmen has talked her way past his landlord and is waiting in his bed. She giggles and sucks her thumb and throws back the covers to reveal herself “naked and glistening as a pearl.” He tells her that he’s rejecting the offer because he’s working for her father, and notes smugly that it’s hard for women to realize that their bodies are not irresistible. And yet, after he gets rid of Carmen and sees the imprint of her “small, corrupt body” on his sheets, he “tore the bed to pieces savagely.” It’s been a bad night for handkerchiefs, sheets, and heterosexuality in general.

In The Long Goodbye, a rich, beautiful woman summons Marlowe to her bed. She “thrashed around and moaned” and Marlowe admits “I was as erotic as a stallion. I was losing control.” Then, Candy, the Hispanic houseboy, appears at the door and “saves” him. Marlowe rushes after the man. When he returns, the woman is still moaning for him. Marlowe hurries downstairs and starts swigging from a bottle of Scotch “until the flames reached my brain.”

What is going on here? Chandler seems determined to deny sex to Marlowe in these tortured, bed-destroying, Scotch-swigging scenes. Most fellows, if they’re as erotic as a stallion and an eager filly is at hand, tend not to go off and suck on a bottle of Scotch. In my experience, if a novelist is having an enjoyable sex life, he’s forever looking for ways to translate it into print – and forever finding original sex scenes damnably hard to write. Chandler, far from celebrating sex, keeps having Marlowe scorn it. Candy saved him? Saved him from what? A romp with a woman who is rich, beautiful, and eager? It would seem that Chandler had serious frustrations. He was in his fifties when he started publishing novels and in his mid-sixties when he wrote The Long Goodbye. Alcoholism may have diminished his capacity for sex, and his wife was eighteen years older and in poor health. He cared for her lovingly in her old age but there is every reason to think he was a frustrated man. After she died, he lived in London for a time and was notorious for making drunken passes at women who were trying to befriend him at a time when he was widely thought to be suicidal.

Most good writers have a personal mythology that underlies their work. Chandler’s seems based on his hatred of the rich relatives whose charity he was obliged to accept as a child and of domineering women who threatened his manhood. This mythology was reflected, in the three novels discussed here, in that the killer, when finally revealed, is always a rich, decadent woman. I mentioned minstrel shows. In a minstrel show, fake black people act ridiculous for the amusement of white people. In Chandler’s novels, rich women are presented as murderous, drugged-out whores who debase themselves for our amusement. It’s entertainment, but of a most odd and perverse kind.

Chandler’s first two novels, The Big Sleep and Farewell, My Lovely, sold poorly. He didn’t achieve much attention until two things happened. After his and Billy Wilder’s film of Double Indemnity was a hit, Chandler suddenly had his pick of top-dollar film jobs, although he never had another success equal to the first one. His other break came when Knopf finally published his novels in mass market editions, and they were highly successful.

Chandler produced weak novels for the better part of a decade and then scored a comeback with The Long Goodbye in 1953. I was stunned when I started reading this last of his major novels. It isn’t just that there are no minstrel shows or gay-bashings or sex-crazed women in the opening chapters – the writing is gorgeous, glittering. It suggests a tougher, more cynical Scott Fitzgerald. The plot in this longest of Chandler’s novels becomes mind-bogglingly complex and there are predatory women and loathsome gays ahead, but it is here that Chandler most fully realizes his potential.

When Chandler is at his best, as he is here, the writing is what matters. He once told Charles Morton, editor of The Atlantic Monthly, “The only fiction of any moment in any age is that which does magic with words.” At his best that is what Chandler did. The plots and the bigotry are maddening but if you are going to like him it is because he can write sublimely. Of course, just what is his best writing is open to question. He gloried in one-liners like these: 
“He looked a lot more like a dead man than most dead men look.”

“The green stone in his stickpin was not quite as large as an apple.” 
“A blonde to make a bishop kick a hole in a stained-glass window.”
“I was as hollow and empty as the spaces between the stars.”

Such lines, and there are hundreds of them, are central to Chandler’s style. At best they are poetry (“The sunlight was so bright that it danced”); at worst they are shtick (“The sunshine was as empty as a headwaiter’s smile”). I wish he’d used fewer because the weak ones detract from the best. There is some wonderful writing near the end of The Long Goodbye when Marlowe catches a ride on a speedboat out to a gambling ship. I particularly liked the line, “A faint music came over the water and music over the water can never be anything but lovely.” But lines like that didn’t make him famous; lines like “I felt like an amputated leg” did.

Having praised the writing in The Long Goodbye, I won’t try to deal with its plot. It is enough to say that Chandler’s novels raise the question of how much plot matters in heavily atmospheric crime novels. Biographer Hiney says that when Chandler started writing for the pulps, he decided that “the best way to stop the reader guessing the end of a story…was not to know how it ended yourself.” Whether this was a strategy or a rationalization is debatable. Hiney also quotes director Howard Hawks as saying, after the filming of The Big Sleep, “I never figured out what was going on, but I thought that the basic thing had great scenes and was good entertainment. After that I said, ‘I’m never going to worry about being logical again.’” Hawks and his screenwriters (William Faulkner, Jules Furthman, and Leigh Brackett), may have given up on logic, but the New York Times’ reviewer, Bosley Crowther, cursed with a literal mind, called the film “a web of utter bafflement.”

Among other things, The Long Goodbye is a hymn to drinking. There are gorgeous scenes in elegant bars with somber discussions of the virtues of this cocktail versus that one. But the hymn grows dark. Chandler had a serious problem and Marlowe drinks more or less constantly but rarely suffers more than a manly hangover. In this novel, however, two other characters reflect the realities of alcoholism. In the novel’s first sentence Marlowe sees Terry Lennox drunk in a Rolls-Royce Silver Wraith outside a club called the Dancers. He takes Lennox home to sober up and the two become drinking friends. Lennox flees the country after his rich wife is beaten to death. Marlowe is then hired to find an alcoholic writer named Roger Wade. Wade eventually dies, a possible suicide, and leaves a long, anguished note behind. A typical line says: “The worms in my solar plexus crawl and crawl and crawl.” There’s more, even more scary. After Wade is dead, Marlowe says of him, “He was a bit of a bastard and maybe a bit of a genius too…He was an egotistical drunk and he hated his own guts.” It’s not a pretty portrait, particularly if we take it as a self-portrait.

Chandler’s best writing often recalls Fitzgerald’s, never more so than in The Long Goodbye. Even its plot echoes The Great Gatsby, with a doomed wartime romance that ends with the woman married to another man. Chandler was surely aware of his debt to Fitzgerald and it is a shock to come across a barbed reference to him in the novel. Marlowe has been seeking Eileen Wade’s missing husband and she shows him a note the writer left behind:

“I do not care to be in love with myself and there is no longer anyone else for me to be in love with. 
Signed: Roger (F. Scott Fitzgerald) Wade. P.S. This is why I never finished The Last Tycoon.”

Marlowe asks the woman what the note means. She replies that her husband was fan of Fitzgerald and that he considered Fitzgerald “the best drunken writer since Coleridge, who took dope.” This passage can only be read as a gratuitous insult to a writer who is 1) far more talented than Chandler and 2) dead. It is yet another example of the mean-spiritedness that afflicts even Chandler’s best work. The Long Goodbye has a nice scene near the end when Marlowe surrenders to Eros. Her name is Linda and she is rich and beautiful and has a black chauffeur named Amos who admires T.S. Eliot. Linda comes to Marlowe’s apartment and pours champagne and she says she wants to go to bed. He asks how much money she has, she says eight million dollars, and he quips that he’s decided to accept her offer. The sex must have been as good as the banter because an hour later she suggests marriage. Marlowe says it wouldn’t last six months. She calls him a fool and cries. The next morning, Marlowe muses, “To say goodbye is to die a little.” We get the impression he wouldn’t mind another romp with Linda. This is progress.

As promised, I have gone on too long about Chandler, but it is “I do not care to be in love with myself and there is no longer anyone else for me to be in love with. 
Signed: Roger (F. Scott Fitzgerald) Wade. P.S. This is why I never finished The Last Tycoon.”hard to think of another writer whose mingled gifts and weaknesses are so extreme. He was a strange hybrid of poet and pulp writer, and his novels were both brilliant and maddeningly flawed. Chandler had a right to be Chandler, but we have a right to wish he’d had discipline equal to his talent. Of course, if he had, he might never have written anything, for his extremes, good and bad, were reflections of the reckless way he lived his life.

Patrick Anderson. The Triumph of the Thriller: How Cops, Crooks, and Cannibals Captured Popular Fiction. Random House, 2007. 
Chapter 3. American style: Hammett, Cain, Chandler