Murders and Missives 

Hardboiled bards' lives in letters

It's tempting to contemplate what it must mean that collections of the letters of the two great pioneers of hardboiled detective literature--Dashiell Hammett (1894-1961) and Raymond Chandler (1888-1959)--were just published a week apart, last month. It's tempting to pontificate about the need for a savvy and principled operative to sort out all this monkey business with hanging chads and rolling blackouts. But all that's bunk, as Sam Spade or Philip Marlowe or any private dick worth his salt could tell you. Hammett and Chandler may not have been the most modern sort of fellows--the one a wit and gentleman drunk and the other a bit of an intellectual snob steeped in the classics--but they wrote the most modern and vital, gut-level prose, and it'd be a disservice to (as is so often done) reduce them to objects of nostalgia. That precious nostalgia for the sort of life men never lived had no place in their reinvention of the genre.Each man was born in the 19th century but helped, in a modest way, to define the 20th. Both were soldiers in WWI, sometime drunks, and voracious readers who, when the writing bug took hold, moved from pulp magazines to detective novels to Hollywood screenplays. And they both revolutionized what had been a stodgy and formulaic genre.

A former Pinkerton detective, Samuel Dashiell Hammett took time off from the agency to join the Army during WWI, only to contract tuberculosis at his Maryland camp. He took up with nurse Josephine Dolan, later his wife, while on the mend in Tacoma, Washington, and started writing pulp detective stories after moving to San Francisco and discovering that his health was too poor to continue detective work. With his archetypal fictional detectives the Continental Op (Red Harvest, The Dain Curse), Sam Spade (The Maltese Falcon), and Nick and Nora Charles (The Thin Man), Hammett took murder out of the drawing room and tossed it into the street where it belonged. As Chandler wrote in his 1944 Atlantic Monthly essay "The Simple Art of Murder," "Hammett gave murder back to the kind of people who do it for a reason, not just to provide a corpse; and with the means at hand, not with handwrought dueling pistols, curare, and tropical fish. He put these people down on paper as they are, and he made them talk and think in the language they customarily used for these purposes...."

What's more, Hammett provided a glimmer that work within the detective genre could transcend it. In a 1928 letter to Blanche Knopf, editor at her husband Alfred's firm, Hammett wrote, "I'm one of the few--if there are any more--people moderately literate who take the detective story seriously. I don't mean that I necessarily take my own or anybody else's seriously--but the detective story as a form. Some day somebody's going to make 'literature' out of it ... and I'm selfish enough to have my hopes, however slight the evident justification may be. I have a long speech I usually make on the subject, all about the ground not having been scratched yet, and so on, but I won't bore you with it now."

A still more literary type, British-bred Chandler's lush descriptions, snappy dialogue, and florid similes in his Philip Marlowe stories became, in the clumsy hands of countless imitators, not just a standard but a joke of the genre. "It makes a writer self-conscious about his own work," Chandler complained in a 1948 letter to fellow detective writer Cleve Adams; "an example of this is a radio program which ran the use of extravagant similes (I think I rather invented this trick) into the ground, to the point where I am myself inhibited from writing the way I used to." But, he says, "one must bear in mind that they can't steal your style, if you have one. They can only as a rule steal your faults." Interestingly, though contemporaries, the two great hardboiled writers weren't really writing at the same time--in fact the one stopped almost the moment the other began. Chandler started writing for Black Mask, the magazine through which Hammett had made a name for himself, in 1933, the year in which Hammett put out his last novel, The Thin Man. Chandler's first novel, The Big Sleep, didn't come along until 1939. Though less than prolific after 1943, he (unlike Hammett) continued to write; his last novel, Playback, was published in 1958, the year before his death. In the aforementioned letter to Adams, Chandler says outright, "I did not invent the hardboiled murder story and I have never made any secret of my opinion that Hammett deserves most of the credit."It could be said that Hammett got a raw deal in life: fast living, poor health, and a generous spirit ate up most of the money he made in what would have to be called his "productive years," because in the last quarter-century of his life he scarcely produced anything, but helped his lover Lillian Hellman on plays and screenplays, raised money for progressive causes, edited an Alaskan Army newsletter during WWII, and wrote a great many letters. These last scribblings are assembled in the new Selected Letters of Dashiell Hammett, a collection of correspondence written from 1921 to 1960, the bulk of it during the '40s. And "bulk" is the operative word.

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