Gangsters in Hats

Richard Mayne

  • Essays on Detective Fiction edited by Bernard Benstock
    Macmillan, 218 pp, £20.00, February 1984, ISBN 0 333 32195 2
  • Dashiell Hammett: A Life at the Edge by William Nolan
    Arthur Barker, 276 pp, £9.95, September 1983, ISBN 0 213 16886 3
  • The Life of Dashiell Hammett by Diane Johnson
    Chatto, 344 pp, £12.95, January 1984, ISBN 0 7011 2766 X
  • Hellman in Hollywood by Bernard Dick
    Associated University Presses, 183 pp, £14.95, September 1983, ISBN 0 8386 3140 1

One minor pleasure of growing up is being allowed to buy sweets ad lib. The same applies to thrillers and detective stories. But there’s a difference. Few dieticians or gourmets would recommend or gravely evaluate competing brands of candy: yet ‘popular culture’ – including comic strips, trash films, junk videos, and rock music – is reviewed and criticised nowadays alongside opera, chamber music, paintings, novels, poems and plays. The main reason is probably media hype. A second is nostalgic self-indulgence – finding pretexts not to put away childish things. A third, perhaps, is semantic slippage, eliding the difference between ‘a culture’, in the anthropological sense, and ‘culture’ tout court. When millions enjoy something, the interest it arouses need not be aesthetic. George Orwell saw propaganda in boys’ weeklies and ‘the worm’s-eye view of life’ in seaside postcards. He was hardly concerned with Frank Richards as a novelist or (despite his essay’s title) the art of Donald McGill.

A better reason for paying attention to humble work is to identify its virtues. At worst, this can become highbrow slumming – overpraising incompetence like an eager nursery teacher or a too-democratic exponent of ‘community arts’. Yet, when so many solemn novels are prolix, esoteric, or dispiriting, it’s a relief to read eventful tales of suspense, surprise, excitement, mystery and catharsis. E.M. Forster was wrong to deprecate the ‘story’. Shakespeare, Dickens and Dostoevsky had no such misgivings.

Does this mean ceasing to discriminate between literature and yarns? Professor James Naremore, in Professor Bernard Benstock’s symposium, seems to imply that it does. Dashiell Hammett, he writes, ‘challenges the easy distinctions between popular and high art, and the critical language that normally sustains those distinctions’. Implicitly, perhaps he did – although the evidence suggests that he thought his thrillers journeyman stuff. It was Raymond Chandler, in that famous piece of defensive expansionism, ‘The Simple Art of Murder’, who invoked ‘tragedy’ and ‘redemption’, proclaiming that ‘down these mean streets a man must go who is not himself mean, who is neither tarnished nor afraid.’

That sounded like infatuation. Chandler was much tougher when confronting the genteel concoctions of ‘golden age’ detective novelists. Three of them – Agatha Christie, Dorothy L. Sayers and Ngaio Marsh – come before members of Professor Benstock’s syndicate. Bibliographically, the results are useful: critically, they’re not. All are pleasant to read, like souvenir brochures; but all rely too much on remembered responses, wallowing in the past. None of them goes further than W.H. Auden’s notion of ‘the guilty vicarage’ – the charmed circle disrupted by crime, but closed again when the culprit’s unmasked and guilt expelled. None effectively answers Edmund Wilson’s query: ‘Who cares who killed Roger Ackroyd?’

There’s more dash and novelty, but little more analysis, in the treatment accorded P.D. James, Peter Lovesey, Nicholas Freeling, Simenon, Chandler and the husband-and-wife team of Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö. Only one of the essays seems really ambitious, and the effect, I’m afraid, is comic. Eric Mottram – an otherwise much respected old friend of mine – gets into full academic scuba-diving gear to paddle in the shallows of Ross Macdonald’s Lew Archer tales. Borges, Barthes, Lacan, Lévi-Strauss, Robbe-Grillet and Todorov are only some of the weights he clips on his wet suit: but he can dive no deeper than Archer’s facile psychologising. Reading him, even so, I got the bends.

As a collection, Essays on Detective Fiction endorses the now canonical contrast between corpse-in-the-library puzzles and blackjack-in-the-alley ‘realism’. Its treatment of Hammett ratifies the cardinal role which Chandler assigned to him – that he ‘gave murder back to the kind of people that commit it for reasons, not just to provide a corpse; and with the means at hand, not with handwrought duelling pistols, curare, and tropical fish’. Hammett’s novels, says Professor Naremore, ‘are a remarkable achievement, a moment when melodrama becomes indistinguishable from literature’.

This begs too many questions. Even Chandler wasn’t quite sure that Hammett was il miglior fabbro. He learned from him, at least as much as Eliot learned from Pound: but he thought that the American language, in Hammett’s books, ‘had no overtones, left no echo, evoked no image beyond a distant hill’. One can agree, without applauding Chandler’s typically pat phrase. If the choice is between them, I prefer the best of Chandler: rococo invention, riotous similes, characters always individual and often memorable, a constant if sometimes overstated moral core. Hammett, more of a pioneer, was cruder: some would say ‘more authentic’. He also developed more – but from what to what?

Red Harvest (1929), the first of the books which Hammett’s British paperback publishers call ‘The Four Great Novels’, is the closest to the Black Mask pulp-magazine short stories with which he began. Terse and full of mayhem, it features the stocky, unglamorous, nearly middle-aged ‘Continental Op.’ The book’s been called ‘a Marxist novel’, because the Op. engineers group conflict in a corrupt capitalist town: but the adjective in its title refers to blood, not politics, and the mutual defeat of the baddies is a temporary surcease, not the withering-away of the state. What struck me on rereading it was how flat the characters seemed: ‘a slender woman in a dark coat and hat’, ‘a nice-looking blond youngster of twenty-five or so’ etc. Even the protagonists are feebly realised and hard to tell apart or remember, as if in a film script waiting to be fleshed out by actors. Their dialogue is fast and natural, but has little of Chandler’s bite or wit. All that stays in the mind is the glum portrait of Personville, nick-named ‘Poisonville’, the claustrophobic urban badland, with gangsters in hats and 1920s roadsters, spraying bullets the way blurb-writers spray praise.

The Dain Curse, from later the same year, looks like an implausible extravaganza. Originally published, like Red Harvest, as four separate Black Mask episodes, it’s far less adroitly cobbled together. Its crazy-mixed-up-kid heroine foreshadows Ross Macdonald; its pseudo-religious cult and hick-town skulduggery have become the clichés of countless TV thrillerettes. Hammett later dismissed The Dain Curse as ‘a silly story ... all style’. Perhaps: but the style has real energy, and the story concerns some striking characters – not least, one of Hammett’s many female villains. ‘There was warmth and there was beauty in her oval, olive-skinned face, but, except for the eyes, it was warmth and beauty that didn’t seem to have anything to do with reality. It was as if her face was not a face, but a mask that she had worn until it had almost become a face.’ The repetition, seemingly verbose, is incantatory, monotonous as the wax-like effigy it describes. The Op. himself, in this book, reveals more insight and emotion than the stubby automaton of Red Harvest, conceivably pointing the way to Hammett’s next book and Sam Spade.

The Maltese Falcon (1930) is now inescapably coloured by its third and definitive film version, with Humphrey Bogart as Spade and Sidney Greenstreet as the fat man, Casper Gutman. To reread the story is to realise how much they added to it. Most of the film’s dialogue was Hammett’s: but Bogart, snarl as he might, could never be as cold as the character on the page. In this case, Hammett adopted third-person narration, a mode he’d attempted earlier. He made it a distancing technique. The narrator observes the characters acting and speaking, as if behind glass or the bars of a zoo. Yet if Hammett, like Isherwood or Dos Passos, was aiming at objectivity, in The Maltese Falcon his camera eye was still sensitive to nuance and emotion – a ‘timid’ smile, a ‘vaguely polite’ gesture, an ‘uneasy’ glint.

In The Glass Key (1931) there are no subjective stage-directions. Some have hailed it as a nouveau roman before its time. Certainly, the narrator’s eye, as Perelman wrote parodying Chandler, is as dead as an iced catfish; and, for my money, the story (Perelman again) is as dead as vaudeville. The murderer stays offstage until the last moment: the investigator Ned Beaumont, modelled physically on Hammett, says he doesn’t believe in anything, and expresses all emotion by stroking his moustache. Mystery aside, the only spark in the book is mercenary camaraderie between Madvig, a more-or-less crooked city boss, and Beaumont, his barely more savoury sidekick. In this walking waxworks, Edmund Wilson’s question echoes again.

The Thin Man (1934), Hammett’s last completed novel, seemed briefly to herald recovery. Here, the camaraderie was conjugal. Nora and Nick Charles, based on Hammett and Lillian Hellman, joshed and drank their way through a murder mystery, and in the process launched a thousand scripts: films, radio and TV series, distant derivatives such as Hart to Hart. Impersonated by William Powell and Myrna Loy, the Charles pair embodied what Otis Ferguson called ‘the tanned leather of an equable married life rather than the friskier calf of boy-chases-girl’: but, like Bogart and company, they slightly embellished the original. Behind the repartee, the Charles’s daily routine looked pretty deadly: a round of parties and hangovers punctuated by thugs.

If such is the Hammett corpus, why the fuss? As Jacques Barzun pointed out, toughguy thrillers are as stylised as country-house whodunits:

A private detective, usually low in funds and repute, undertakes single-handed and often without fee the vindication of some unfortunate person – a man or woman with no other friends. The attempt pits the hero against a ruthless crime syndicate or against the whole corrupt government of the town, or both. During his search for evidence, he is threatened, slugged, drugged, shot at, kidnapped, tortured, but never downed for very long. In many of the variants of the genre, he drinks quantities of whisky neat and proves equally ready for fighting and fornication. None of this affects his work; he is guaranteed indestructible. Others’ bullets pass him by; his own – especially in the final scene of carnage – always find their mark. And despite the gruelling physical pace, he finds the time and the wit, without the aid of discussion or note-taking, to figure out the discrepancies that reveal the culprit and his motive.

In a word, schlock. So why should grown-up, educated people rate Hammett above Christie – or Mickey Spillane? Why, in recent years, should we have three Hammett biographies? Why should that tall, frail, cold and lonely figure still perplex and trouble us?

First, there’s the fact that he was once a detective himself. William Nolan’s brisk book repeats many reminiscences, reliable or not: how Hammett once traced a stolen Ferrari wheel, and once had to tell the man he was shadowing how to get back to town. Hammett enjoyed puncturing lay illusions about guns and fingerprints, not merely because it helped sell his books. He also regretted having served the bosses. His atonement affects the genre to this day.

Secondly, there’s his long silence. His only substantial piece of writing, between The Thin Man and his death 27 years later, was Tulip, a mere fragment of an abortive novel, seemingly about writer’s block. What blocked Hammett? Drink? In part: but why the drinking compulsion? He abandoned his wife and children, with cruel intermittent heartlessness well documented by Diane Johnson. Most of his life he was promiscuous, a dissatisfied solitary whose books made women killers. He had problems with his father. In The Glass Key – but not, pace Ms Johnson, in Red Harvest – a father kills his son. He was happiest in the army, and perhaps the Communist Party. A structured male environment may have been his deepest need.

The left-wing connection is a further facet of Hammett’s hold on our minds. Recently-opened FBI files are said to confirm that he was a CP member – although the laughable ineptitude of FBI agents and informers revealed by Ms Johnson may still raise doubts. Whatever his formal status, Hammett was undoubtedly what used to be called ‘a fellow traveller’, writing cheques, rallying supporters, making speeches and holding evening classes as required. Like Lillian Hellman, he fell foul of McCarthyism: unlike her, he went to jail. Did he need to be a martyr? Perhaps not: a tricksy lawyer might have got him off. But something stubborn in his make-up refused prevarication. He was a card-carrying member of the awkward squad. Maybe he welcomed punishment. He certainly liked testing himself. Was he, after all, a self-hating man?

Neither of the present biographers supplies a complete answer. Ms Johnson has had much co-operation from Hammett’s family and from Lillian Hellman, whose shifting memories have already deepened his portrait, and whose work in Hollywood, with his help, is dutifully chronicled by Professor Dick. Long, sensitive, and very slightly mushy, Ms Johnson’s book concentrates on what she might just have called ‘The Empty Years’. Nolan, a co-founder of the Dashiell Hammett Society of San Francisco, is better on the stories, but not exhaustively so.

Reading all these books consecutively, I felt I began to fathom Hammett’s long silence. No less than Raymond Chandler, he was very much a literary man. He knew the power, and the limitations, of his mythic genre. Having varied the archetype five times, and still more often in short stories, he saw no reason to repeat the formula yet again. Stylistic experiment attracted him: he discussed Eliot and tackled Proust. But there were more things in life than sitting at a desk. When you know you’re not a genius, why cover still more paper and consume more trees?