Chandler and Hammett

The traditional murder mystery doesn’t rule the roost like it used to. What do I mean by the traditional murder mystery? You know the conventions: a country house, a victim, a list of suspects, each of whom turns out to have had a motive, and an amateur sleuth who solves the crime, usually through his or her knowledge of obscure South American poisons. This type of ‘puzzle’ crime was enormously popular in Western parlours through the twenties and into the thirties.

But during the twenties a new type of crime writing gained popularity. This format wasn’t dedicated to the unravelling of a puzzle – but instead looked at the people who committed the crimes and wondered about them, and moreover about the society that had created them.

In Raymond Chandler’s essay, The Simple Art of Murder, first published in 1944, he tore apart the traditional murder mystery, as typically practised by British writers. He explained that the real world required writers of crime fiction to address that reality. He refers to an essay written by the crime writer Dorothy L Sayers, where she suggested that detective stories could never be great literature:

I think what was really gnawing at Miss Sayers' mind was the slow realization that her kind of detective story was an arid formula which could not even satisfy its own implications. It was second-grade literature because it was not about the things that could make first-grade literature. If it started out to be about real people, they must very soon do unreal things in order to form the artificial pattern required by the plot. When they did unreal things, they ceased to be real themselves. They became puppets and cardboard lovers and papier-mâché  villains and detectives of exquisite and impossible gentility.
Chandler’s view of crime writing, then, was that it had to reflect the world in which its audience lived:
It is not a fragrant world, but it is the world you live in, and certain writers with tough minds and a cool spirit of detachment can make very interesting and even amusing patterns out of it.... But down these mean streets a man must go who is not himself mean, who is neither tarnished nor afraid. The detective in this kind of story must be such a man. He is the hero; he is everything.
Of course, like many writers who write criticisms of others, Chandler was surreptitiously creating the environment – or pretext – for the kind of book that he had found himself writing. And that certainly wasn’t a tightly-plotted puzzle leading to the exposure of the wicked villain. All orchestrated by a clever amateur with great powers of deduction and a stupid sidekick.

But if the Private I isn’t mean, tarnished or afraid, or even particularly ‘clever’, what sort of man is he? To answer that question, we have to look at a particular writer and the context in which he was writing.

The person most credited with creating the modern fictional PI is Dashiell Hammett. He had an advantage over most writers in the genre in that he’d worked as an investigator for Pinkerton’s, America’s largest investigation agency. He started writing short stories in the early 1920s and put together his five crime novels in the period between 1929 and 1934.

These novels were game changers. Hammett was trying to do something different with his writing. He came to describe his style as ‘objective’ – that is, an attempt to see his characters from the outside. As readers we’re given little or no insight into their actions. The culmination of this style came relatively early, in The Maltese Falcon of 1930, where our hero is Sam Spade, operating out of San Francisco. Interestingly, Hammett frequently describes Spade as looking like a blond Satan, and his face is described in terms of a collection of V’s that work together to make his features – his chin, his mouth, the set of his eyebrows. This has a very depersonalising and – with the satanic references – alienating effect. More often than not we’re given descriptions of what his face looks like without any insight into what he’s thinking, or what his motives might be:
Spade, propped on an elbow on the sofa, looked at and listened to them impartially. In the comfortable slackness of his body, in the easy stillness of his features, there was no indication of either curiosity or impatience.
Spade sat on the corner of his desk beside the telephone and rolled a cigarette. His mouth was a hard complacent v. His eyes, watching his fingers make the cigarette, smoldered over lower lids drawn up straight.
This is all description of Spade from the outside, without any motives or emotions being associated with his actions.

And what’s the result of prose that presents this external viewpoint? Well for one thing we’re invited simply to witness the actions of both the villains and the hero. There is almost no taking sides. The actions just are, and as a result the world just is. There is no real resolution to the corruption and greed that the detectives witness. They existed before the events of the book and will continue to exist afterwards. In addition, we’re taught that people’s motives are unreadable and usually base; that a detective shouldn’t get emotionally involved with their cases; and above all, that to be a detective you must have your own code, because if you look to society for one, you won’t find it there.

And this leads us to another perspective on what’s going on in these books – failing any viable morality in the social environment, PIs must create their own.

In 1950 a famous social critique was published in America. It was called The Lonely Crowd, written by David Riesman and a couple of colleagues. In it they suggested that there had been three stages in the development of American culture. They called these stages Tradition-Directed, Inner-Directed and Other-Directed.

In the Tradition-Directed stage, the American personality was based on pre-existing values, a set of stable social norms founded on the idea that America was naturally a theocracy – that is, its values had been handed down by God via the infallible means of the Bible.

The Inner-Directed culture developed after the settling of the United States but before the Industrial Revolution. The great trek westward across the plains towards California meant that people learned to trust their inner gyroscope as to what was right and wrong. There was no stable set of values – or social laws – to determine morality.

The final culture type, Other-Directed, came about as a result of the growth of a middle-class after the Industrial Revolution. Now large corporations needed people who could ‘fit in’ with others, who wouldn’t cause trouble to the smooth running of processes and procedures, and would agree in general terms with the mores of their colleagues and society at large. In other words, they took their sense of morality or ethics from those others around them.

Riesman and his colleagues suggested that by 1940, Inner-Directedness – the inner gyroscope of values – was being replaced by Other-Directedness as the prevailing norm. That’s to say, rather than individuality being the aspiration, it was now seen as good citizenship to ‘fit in.’ This perception is particularly interesting for us, as students of the crime novel, because you can see that the detectives of that time are essentially Inner-Directed – with their own codes of behaviour – and constantly clash with a growing Other-Directed society. Often symbolised by lazy, stupid or venal cops worried about what their boss might think.

The books of Agatha Christie and Dorothy L Sayers were often set in the Big House, where an amateur who is often a representative of society anyway – whether it’s Lord Peter Wimsey or Miss Marple – puts the world back to rights by solving the puzzle of whodunit. In the books of Hammett, Chandler and others, the world isn’t put to rights – instead, another level of its awfulness is discovered, operating beneath the world we thought we knew. There is no real order to which the social world can return. In UK crime writing, the ‘tradition’ holds fast and reasserts itself; in the US, it’s stressed time after time that you have to create and stick to your own morality – viable traditions don’t exist, or if they do, they don’t help.

And that brings us back again to Chandler and his view of crime writing. Chandler was educated at Dulwich Grammar school in Britain, like PG Wodehouse, and retained somewhat of an outsider’s view of American society. He produced seven novels featuring Philip Marlowe, all of which were set on the West Coast. Marlowe – whose name echoes Conrad’s narrator in The Heart of Darkness, not by accident – is a development of all of Hammett’s heroes:

-         He works alone
-         He’s both emotionally and physically tough
-         He has a sardonic sense of humour
-         He has no apparent relationships and spurns advances from clients – usually
-         He’s homophobic and mildly racist
Like Sam Spade and Hammett’s other main character, the Continental Op, Marlowe also often finds that the case presented to him is not the case that he winds up solving. Unlike the traditional murder mystery, what Marlowe becomes involved in is an investigation of the culture of which he’s an amused observer. Dead bodies are like punctuation marks – they keep the story on track, but you’re not really reading to find out whodunit. You’re there to find out why it matters that it was dun. He even becomes quite postmodern at times, commenting on the very form in which he’s being written:
"All right," [Murdock] said wearily. "Get on with it. I have a feeling you are going to be very brilliant. Remorseless flow of logic and intuition and all that rot. Just like a detective in a book."
"Sure. [Marlowe replies] Taking the evidence piece by piece, putting it all together in a neat pattern, sneaking in an odd bit I had on my hip here and there, analyzing the motives and characters and making them out to be quite different from what anybody - or I myself for that matter - thought them to be up to this golden moment - and finally making a sort of world-weary pounce on the least promising suspect."
Another aspect of the genre that Chandler developed to an art was the use of metaphor or simile. Here are some examples:

‘the mascara was so thick on her eyelashes that they looked like miniature iron railings’
‘The wet air was as cold as the ashes of love.’
‘The eighty-five cent dinner tasted like a discarded mail bag’
‘Her breath was as delicate as the eyes of a fawn.’
‘Blood began to move around in me, like a prospective tenant looking over a house.’
What’s so unusual about his use of simile is that often the two things that are likened to each other don’t inhabit the same context. So for example, rather than saying that the wet air was as cold as the arctic in winter, he says it was as cold as the ashes of love ... almost a non sequitur. This is obviously more striking and makes you work harder to make sense of it. But we make the effort to understand the similarity because the image is intriguing and, more often than not, powerfully evocative. Whereas Hammett describes what is there, and nothing else, Chandler evokes other emotions, a different range of possibilities. I think one of the reasons that Chandler is still popular is that his imagery is very compelling and provides a depth to the writing, and to Marlowe as our narrator. We know we’re in the hands of someone who has a poet’s soul and isn’t just a thug. Marlowe himself hints at this in The High Window, where he says to a policeman:
‘Until you guys own your own souls you don’t own mine ... I have a right to listen to my conscience, and protect my client the best way I can.’
We’re happy to have Marlowe as our guide through this underworld – this heart of darkness – because we can trust his instincts and his motives. He wants to do good, being neither tarnished nor afraid.

So how did Chandler and Hammett between them create a style of crime writing that persists today and, as a by-product, more or less killed off the puzzle form of the British detective story?

Given that this particular format started when it did, as the Other-Directed culture began to replace Inner-Direction, I think it’s fair to say that the Private Investigator was a modern version of an archetype that had been popular in American life for about 100 years by then. In other words, the Private Investigator was in fact a modern Cowboy. Why cowboy? Look at the facts ...

-         They ride alone
-         They need to make decisions without reference to anyone else, out in the hard country
-         They live by their own code
-         They help control a wild, unruly element of society so that it can continue to function smoothly
-         They’re massively Inner Directed, knowing what’s right and wrong just because they do.
Cowboys, as we know, are a Western American phenomenon. These men – and some women – became iconic figures in American culture for their spirit and individuality. If we look back to the East Coast of Walt Whitman, his song was, ‘I am large, I contain multitudes,’ meaning that his experience was equivalent to the experience of all others. Whereas the Western cowboy was above all an individual, containing only himself – and a fair amount of chewing tobacco.

Thus it might be argued that the Private Investigator in fiction took on some aspects of the role of the cowboy in American culture. An outsider who was self-sufficient, could tell right from wrong, lived by his wits and needed little in the way of a social support system. This figure stayed popular on television and in the movies into the sixties, but has gradually been replaced by the detective and the policeman. I would argue that the Private I genre, epitomised by Hammett and Chandler, built on the ethos of the Inner-Directed, confident, courageous lone cowboy. Sam Spade and Philip Marlowe are beholden to no one but themselves. They have little to do with ‘normal’ society, are not sophisticated or have their heads turned by those dilettantes ‘back East’. Their world is the West Coast, the furthest extension of America’s spread westward as it followed its Manifest Destiny to build that ‘shining city on a hill’, as the phrase was.

American crime fiction – and its West Coast version in particular – reproduces the cultural values which helped form it: individuality, confidence, self-reliance and sheer obstinacy. It sprang into life very quickly between about 1928 and 1939, when Hammett and Chandler were publishing their first novels. Its traditions were carried on by Ross Macdonald in his Lew Archer series in the 1950s, and later by Robert Crais with his detective Elvis Cole. Of course there are others. The detectives that these writers created are concerned not just with finding solutions to the puzzles that confront them. They realise that there are no real solutions – that society is just too complex and people just too unpredictable to hope for a return to order. All you can do is heed your own conscience, look after people who can’t help themselves and try not to make too many compromises. After all, in the end you can only rely on yourself.


  1. Nice piece. Have you read Hammett's The Tenth Clew? For me that was almost a manifesto of his intent.

    I think the key difference between noir and hardboiled is the presence of the inner moral code. In hardboiled the PI is Lancelot, Galahad, the world may be fallen but they create their own order, their own justice. Even Mike Hammer, a very different sort of creation, brings a personal moral sense to his cases in part because the world fails to provide one.

    In noir by contrast the protagonist is no more moral than anyone else, thus the world's darkness is revealed. Both are forms of existentialist fiction, but with the Hammett/Chandler tradition the detective creates meaning in a world which lacks it. When they leave though the meaning leaves with them, and there is simply what happened.

    I quite like your summation of that tradition/inner/other concept and how it maps on to the replacement of the lone PI with the more group orientated cop (though a shadow of the PI remains in the endless maverick cops we see in TV and film).

  2. Thanks, Max - I'll look out The Tenth Clew. I agree with your differentiation between noir and hardboiled, and it's interesting that they both came to wide prominence in the 1940s, particularly in film. I wonder if the impact of WWII put into question the whole notion of 'morality' and even 'meaning'. Was it possible for the world to have meaning when it had gone to hell in a handbasket? There do seem to be two traditions here ... in hardboiled, the soldier carries his own morality around with him (inner-directed). In noir, it's every man/woman for himself because you'd be foolish to think differently to anyone else (essentially other-directed - and a core message of Catch-22, incidentally). As society has become even more fragmented since the 40s, does that mean we're more in need of white knights to establish some kind of morality for us? (Hence the 'mavericks' on TV and film, who have their own core values to live by?) Or does it mean that there's space for all sorts of different levels of morality - so that the ambivalent good guys/bad guys of Elmore Leonard and George Pelecanos, among others, actually represent us more accurately?