There is a time, when you are young and a reader, where you range widely, dipping into a genre here and another there. Long long ago I dipped into Agatha Christie, then saw The Mousetrap in London, and ranged over the English detective literature. I didn’t go back, really, but did so recently for one Agatha Christie, which I read in an hour or so and thought quite thin. C. P. Snow, about whose novels I wrote some time ago, did quite a good one, A Coat of Varnish (1978), where both the protagonist and the detective at the end know who did it, but cannot prove it. Back in the 1950s or early 1960s, someone gave me a copy of The Maltese Falcon, and I found a real detective story. Its hero, Sam Spade, wasn’t very nice, but he had his own standards. When video cassettes came out I managed to acquire the Humphrey Bogart version. I thought Bogart was perfect in the role, as he was also in Casablanca, almost my favourite film.
Hammett’s California was the San Francisco of 1929. Spade was far distant from Christie’s Poirot or Miss Marples. He was tough, unsentimental, deeply suspicious of just about everyone, and committed to a code of honour that was his own. He was a revelation to me. Hammett’s other detective novels don’t live in my memory at all, although I read them. Above all, the California he portrayed was grimy, riven with violence and discord, and altogether a place to avoid.
Hammett had an unhappy life, and lived from 1894 to 1961, the last decade or so in real and painful ill-health. Raymond Chandler, who admired Hammett’s work, was almost an exact contemporary (1888 to 1959), and published his first piece of thriller-writing in Black Mask, the same magazine that gave Hammett his start. His novels feature another California detective, Phillip Marlowe, this time in Los Angeles. Marlowe is, I think, an altogether more complex character than Sam Spade, and the writing is better. Some of his novels are thought to be pieces of literature, and all but one have been filmed. I re-read them all from time to time, and enjoy them even though I know the plots.
As with Hammett, the California he summons up is a pretty nasty place except for those with lots of money, and they don’t seem to have happy lives. I wouldn’t say I know California remarkably well, and my chiefest acquaintance, as he might have written, is with university campuses, and salubrious neighbourhoods like Pasadena and La Jolla. Quite a few of the police in Chandler’s novels are crooked, and some of the women are no better. Marlowe, like Spade, is a loner. He does enjoy occasional encounters with women, but these affairs are brief. His last unfinished novel has Marlowe married to a woman he first met in another novel. You wonder whether the marriage would last, or whether Chandler intended it to last. Chandler wrote well about the thriller genre too, and his letters, which I have also read, are entertaining and insightful. I have no favourites among his novels, but The Big Sleep, Farewell My Lovely and The Little Sister are the ones I most recently re-read. Oh, and The Lady in the Lake. Humphrey Bogart is the quintessential Marlowe in the film version of The Big Sleep, the plot, alas, having been fiddled with by Hollywood. The Robert Mitchum Phillip Marlowes of the same story and of Farewell My Lovely are also excellent.
Chandler was followed by Ross Macdonald (1915-1983), who couldn’t go past the Hammett and Chandler models for his Lew Archer series. Macdonald was born in Canada, educated at the University of Michigan, where I worked in the 1960s for a while, and where he earned a PhD. Indeed, Sam Spade’s side-kick in The Maltese Falcon is called Miles Archer. Macdonald to me is the master of the genre. His novels are not only well written, but they have a depth of characterisation and psychological perception that the others don’t possess. What is more they have a historical depth as well, by which I mean that Archer is often finding tendrils of a past cover-up, or crime, hasty concealed at the time, that finally emerge to contemporary light and discovery. Archer’s finding the source of the mystery, through patient probing and some imaginative leaps, gives his stories a special flavour.
Archer is also a more sympathetic character than either of his predecessors. He is no less tough, and many of his stories have fist-fights that go on for some time (he always wins). Archer was once a policeman, and has some support within officialdom, though he pushes his luck too often. I once thought I would note down every fight and every slugging he had over the course of his career. He would be a prime candidate for the concussion unit at today’s NRL games. He never marries, but usually finds a woman for some traditional comfort, the woman often having a major role in the story. There is no reference in later novels to the women in earlier ones. Like Spade and Marlowe, he seems to live on the edge of poverty, and though offered large amounts of money, he never accepts any of it, and sometimes manages to pass it on to a more deserving candidate. He too has his code of honour.
Why are these novels important to me? First of all they are good stories in themselves, and I like good stories. Second, because I do know something about California, have been there several times and driven around parts of it, I recognise some of what you find in the stories. Chandler was writing about ‘eighteen-wheelers” (B-double trucks) in the 1950s, and long-distance trucks are to the fore in Macdonald’s stories, one of which is built around a particular truck and its cargo. Macdonald invented the communities of Santa Theresa (probably Santa Barbara) and Pacific Point (probably La Jolla), both somewhere between Los Angeles and San Diego, so that he was free to write without the liability of damage suits. They do become real environments, for which Macdonald provides a kind of social geography: the railroad tracks provide the boundary line, the poor parts of town close by, along with the blacks and the Mexicans, the greater the wealth the further up the hills to get the view and the breeze. The sand and scrub of the littoral, the adjacent shoreline and the sea itself are familiar parts of most stories.
Finally, all three authors are writing about good and evil, about the full spectrum of Californian society, and about the unsatisfactory nature of life for many people, rich and poor. The stories have verisimilitude, power and endings that are plausible. None of Macdonald’s stories has done well on film, in my view, and I would hardly know where to begin in ranking them. The Blue Hammer, the last he wrote, was the first I read, and I was hooked at once. The Galton Case is a beauty, and The Drowning Pool another that pushes the reader into an ever-deepening past. The film version of the latter has Paul Newman as Archer, but a mangled plot as well. Macdonald died of Alzheimer’s disease, which gives me a poignant link to him. He published nothing is his last seven years, and I can imagine why.
Peter Corris has done some similar work on New South Wales in his Cliff Hardy novels, for those who want an Australian reference. But Hammett in the 1920s and 1930s, Chandler in the 1930s and 1940s, and Macdonald in the 1950s and 1960s have created a hero-figure whose life and work illuminate what is after all one of the largest economies in the world, and the nature of good and evil as well.