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.

The book jacket proudly proclaims this voluminous volume–weighing in at 650 pages–to be “the first-ever selection from the letters of Dashiell Hammett, the onetime private detective who, in five astonishing books written between 1927 and 1933, invented the modern American crime novel.” And if you desire proof that this is indeed “the first-ever selection,” you need look only to the fact that the editors (Richard Layman, author of Shadow Man: The Life of Dashiell Hammett, with Julie M. Rivett, Hammett’s granddaughter) seem to have selected every letter they could get their hands on, every note accompanying an alimony check, every telegram to his publishers asking for money, every gossipy note to a girlfriend.

There’s much that could be seen as inspiring in Hammett’s life: the patriot might admire his quixotic determination to join the Army in WWII despite being a codger of 48 on a disability pension from WWI; the aspiring bounder might smile at his easy way with the ladies; and those whose politics are a little pink might admire the famous anecdote in which Senator Joseph McCarthy grilled Hammett as to whether he would want the public reading communist authors if he were in charge of fighting communism: the elderly and infirm author replied, “If I were fighting communism I don’t think I would do it by giving people any books at all.” It’s heartbreaking to contemplate his long decline in health, money, reputation, and literary output. “As to talking about Hammett in the past tense, I did it myself in that essay,” Raymond Chandler writes in a 1945 letter to Charles Morton. “I hope he is not to be so spoken of. As far as I know he is alive and well, but he has gone so long without writing–unless you count a couple of screenplay jobs which, rumor says, La Hellman really did for him that I wonder…. It was a great pity that he stopped writing. I’ve never known why. I suppose he may have come to the end of his resources in a certain style and have lacked the intellectual depth to compensate for that by trying something else. But I’m not sure. …I have read so much of this kind of writing that the gulf between Hammett and the merely tough boys seems to me vast.” But if you’re looking for any of that pride and pathos in these pages you can pretty much forget it. Hammett is too much the old-fashioned gentleman to smear his heart all over the page. His letters are filled with wit and flirtatious niceties, pleas for money, and updates on what this fellow is doing or that columnist just claimed. He writes a great deal about what he’s reading (Faulkner, for instance, “has a nice taste in the morbid and gruesome, but doesn’t seem to do much with it”), to such an extent that the editors have provided an appendix listing all the books Hammett said he was reading in his letters. There are some fascinating explanations of international politics written to his daughter Mary (“I’ll give you a political rule though: be in favor of what’s good for the workers and against what isn’t. Follow that, and you may not be the most brilliant person in the world, but you’ll at least be able to hold your head up when you look at yourself in the mirror”). There are even a few–very few–tidbits for mystery junkies: in a 1924 letter to the editor of Black Mask, Hammett explains, “a detective may shadow a man for days and in the end have but the haziest idea of the man’s features. Tricks of carriage, ways of wearing clothes, general outline, individual mannerisms–all as seen from the rear–are much more important to the shadow than faces. They can be recognized at a greater distance, and do not necessitate his getting in front of his subject at any time.” But of course, Hammett wasn’t a mystery writer very long. What he was the rest of the time comes out in fits and starts and chapter introductions, but the curious reader might be better served with a biography for that. Hammett’s stiff-upper-lip attitude ensures that his letters from the Army in World War II, where he was pleased as punch to be, read much the same as his letters from jail in 1951, where he was thrown after refusing to testify in a red-baiting investigation of the Civil Rights Congress: in the latter letters to his daughter Josephine (he was only allowed to mail one relation during his imprisonment) he relays gossip, comments on photos of his granddaughter, gives updates on his health and his reading and the state of his appeals, and asks for news on his outside affairs–but never gets down to the nitty and the gritty of his jail experience, nor the indignity of being thrown in the clink for his politics.

What can easily be gleaned here is the author’s self-effacing humor: “I should stop this and go to work on some changes in my charming fable of how Nick loved Nora and Nora loved Nick and everything was just one big laugh in the midst of other people’s trials and tribulations. Maybe there are better writers in the world, but nobody ever invented a more insufferably smug pair of characters. They can’t take that away from me….” And of course, there’s a great deal about his love for Hellman and his two daughters, though one gets the impression of an entirely absentee papa. That’s partly the nature of the form, to be sure: one seldom sends letters to someone who’s in the room. But since these letters were assembled with the help of his daughter (Josephine Hammett Marshall, who wrote the introduction) and granddaughter, it’s hard to know what might have been left out of the picture.

It doesn’t help that the footnotes, though numerous, are too slim and basic to really add to the picture of the people he mentions. I was pleased to discover that some of the many folks identified as “unidentified” in the footnotes had been uncovered between the bound galleys and the final published version, but even that revelation made the research seem last-minute and slapdash. There’s a gratuitous explanation of the classic 1941 John Huston movie when Hammett asks his ex-wife, “Have you seen The Maltese Falcon yet? They made a pretty good picture of it this time, for a change.” But the editors neglect to explain Hammett’s actual point–that there were two previous movies made from the same book (The Maltese Falcon or Dangerous Female in 1931 and Satan Met a Lady in 1936), neither nearly as good.

But the main problem with the Hammett book is that it’s immense. That is, of course, also its strength–as useful primary-source material for future study–but it makes one wonder, if these are the Selected Letters, what the Collected Letters would be like. At least when what Hammett says is interesting, there’s no temptation to credit the editors rather than the author.Edited by biographers Tom Hiney and Frank MacShane, The Raymond Chandler Papers offer more bang for your buck, simply by leaving out the non-banging stuff. A svelte volume of 267 pages subtitled Selected Letters and Nonfiction, 1909-1959, it deftly strings together excerpts of letters, essays, even early poems, in a way that sometimes gives the impression of an FBI file with whole pages obscured by thick black marker. But even when it only prints two or three sentences of a letter, the Chandler collection is more satisfying because what’s left is about something–glimpses into the mind of the author, to be sure, but not merely that. We get Chandler’s thoughts on writing, genre, the excesses of the movie industry, and his contemporaries; the explanatory notes are better, if still brief; and the asides about people we don’t know are simply omitted. Unlike the Hammett collection, it’s not the first of its kind; 1962’s similar Raymond Chandler Speaking, edited by Dorothy Gardiner and Kathrine Sorley Walker, belongs right beside it on the shelf. (Berkeley’s ever-obliging University of California Press reprinted it in 1997.) Chandler’s Selected Letters, edited by MacShane (who also edited Chandler’s notebooks for Ecco Press), were published by Columbia University Press in 1981. But this latest volume is simply a better read. Raymond Chandler Speaking was sorted by subject matter in a way that was often jarring; if chronological order is good enough for reality, it’s good enough for the reader.

And of course, it gives us a better sense of the author to peek at his stilted early poems and essays, pooh-poohing realism and mocking free verse, and similarly snooty notes on American style (as opposed to English) as late as 1943. It’s especially rewarding to find it acknowledged later through Chandler’s own marvelous self-awareness: “I’m an intellectual snob who happens to have a fondness for the American vernacular, largely because I grew up on Latin and Greek. I had to learn American just like a foreign language….”

As might be expected, Hammett comes up a number of times, particularly in the first half of the book. (The only time Chandler is mentioned in Hammett’s letters is when he says nice things about the nice things Chandler said about him in “The Simple Art of Murder.”) But we also get Chandler chafing at comparisons to James Cain, whose Double Indemnity Chandler was later to help translate to the screen: “But James Cain–faugh! Everything he touches smells like a billygoat. He is every kind of writer I detest, a faux naif, a Proust in greasy overalls, a dirty little boy with a piece of chalk and a board fence and nobody looking. Such people are the offal to literature, not because they write about dirty things, but because they do it in a dirty way.” And later on we read a nice little note to Cain which, after this rant, seems like an impeccably practical exercise in sucking up.

Unlike Hammett, Chandler is far from a political animal, and seems to think that communists like Hammett have made their own bed by being uncooperative. But, he writes in 1948, “What a wonderful thing it would be if the Motion Pictures Producers Association had said … ‘Sure, I guess we have Communists in Hollywood. We don’t know who they are. How would you expect us to? We’re not the F.B.I. But even if we did know, there’s an Attorney General in this country. He hasn’t accused these men of any crime. Congress hasn’t legislated anything that would cause their present or future membership in the Communist party to be a crime, and until it does we propose to treat them just exactly as we treat anyone else.’ You know what would happen if the producers had the guts to say anything like that? They would start making good pictures because that takes guts too. Very much the same kind of guts.”

And it takes guts to write the way Hammett and Chandler did. There’s a lot more keeping their work alive today than just the former’s genius for characters, the latter’s way around a simile, or shared custody of Humphrey Bogart’s mug. There’s a real art to making the romance of the gun seem so unromantic and real. Long before either did what he did, in an early-1912 essay roundly condemning “realist” literature, Chandler writes, “To those who say that there are artists, called realists, who produce work which is neither ugly nor dull nor painful, any man who has walked down a commonplace city street at twilight, just as the lamps are lit, can reply that such artists are not realists, but the most courageous of idealists, for they exalt the sordid to a vision of magic, and create pure beauty out of plaster and vile dust.”

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