Books that have been important to me #5 The California detective: Hammett, Chandler, Macdonald

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.


Join the discussion 27 Comments

  • Bryan Roberts says:

    Coincidentally with Don’s post, I have decided to ‘slim down’ and in the process, have been forced to have a critical look at the collection. I have been a long-time devotee of crime and adventure fiction, and my perception of the genre is that much, and yet little, has changed. Poirot, I think, is immortal, not because of the character, but because the stories are so beautifully crafted that they can be read again and again. I have much of the ‘California’ type, including all of Macdonald, but re-reading them is a labour, not of love, and they will probably go. They cannot help being dated, but the stories do not stand the test of time. Why do we remain involved with ‘The Moonstone’, and not with Bulldog Drummond?

    Much detective fiction revolves around a central character, usually eccentric in some way. From Christie to Lee Child, brains versus brawn. The intellectual chess game, of which I cannot readily find examples in today’s literature, versus the tough, indestructible, misanthropist exemplified by Child’s hero. Interestingly, I find both Poirot and Reacher appealing because both are shown to be flawed as people. I doubt that anybody would want to be friends with either of them, but they are undoubtedly fascinating as characters. But this is not the full story – a story has to be told. Child is a story-teller, and a good one. So were Dick Francis and Desmond Bagley, but in this regard, I suspect Christie was unique, because there was no story. There was just a puzzle

  • NH says:

    The Maltese Falcon is Hammett’s best known novel, but not his best. That would be Red Harvest. The detective is fat, anonymous and makes mistakes. He mainly proceeds by stirring up trouble and seeing if that produces a good result. If he solves the case it seems to be by accident. Dinah Brand is the bad and beautiful woman, and I can remember her even though I read the book 30 years ago. This book was unlike anything that had come before, and Chandler said that Hammett seemed to write things that had never been written before.

    Some of his short stories are even better. But the Maltese Falcon seems to me a conventional detective story where Sam Spade is merely clever, tough and utterly unbeatable. He always has the last word, and he is always several steps ahead of everyone else. Edmund Wilson thought that he was really a cartoon character, maybe like Dick Tracey.

    I agree entirely about Chandler. There is most of Hammett in him, but also much more. He had atmosphere and detail and fear and humor. “On my right the great, fat solid Pacific Ocean trudged in to shore like a scrub woman going home”. 6 of his novels are available read by Ray Porter, and somehow this is even more enjoyable than reading. Porter is wonderful, he can sound like a sexy blonde while still seeming to speak with his normal male voice.

    I could go on for hours about Chandler, but I have noticed that not everyone wants to hear this. I will only say something about his last and by far his worst novel, Poodle Springs. This was written in alcoholic decrepitude and is silly really. He only completed about three chapters before he died, which is probably a good thing. However, another detective writer, Robert Parker, later “completed” it. The thing is, years later, I can’t remember anything of Robert Parker’s 200 pages, but can remember all of Chandler’s 30 pages of rubbish.

    I tried Ross MacDonald hoping to find another Chandler, but only found another Parker.

  • margaret says:

    Farewell, my Lovely had its moments but didn’t entice me sufficiently to read Chandler’s complete works.

  • Ross says:

    ‘Crime and Punishment’, by some Russkie bloke.
    Not an easy read, but worth a look.

    • Bryan Roberts says:

      The “Russian bloke” was Feodor Dostoyeveky.

    • Bryan Roberts says:

      You might also like:

      The Brothers Karamazov
      Quiet Flows the Don
      The Master and Margarita
      The Heart of a Dog
      Anna Karenina
      War and Peace
      Proust (yes, I’ve read it)

      Ross, you’re such a pretentious idiot

      • Ross says:

        Feodor Dostoyeveky?
        Really Bryan? Don’t think I know him.
        Fyodor Dostoyevsky however, was a real beaut.
        Try some of his shorter pieces.
        The Double and A Nasty Story being particularly good.

        You’ve ‘read’ Proust? Goodo. That’s what it’s there for, you unpretentious thing you.
        What did you do with the other books you mentioned?

      • Ross says:

        But were they crime novels, Bryan?

      • margaret says:

        Pot kettle black

        • margaret says:

          Bryan … I found those Dick Francis books for you, stop being grumpy and ‘read’ another one.

      • David says:

        …and this comming from you Bryan.

  • Dave Walter says:

    De gustibus … and all, but I agree with NH and Don seems to have missed a good deal of fine literature in Hammett’s other works. ‘Red Harvest’ is shockingly good, brutally vital, and probably the inspiration via the Continental Op with no name for all those ‘Man with no name’ spaghetti westerns including Sergio Leone’s seminal ‘Fist Full of Dollars’ – via Kurosawa’s ‘Yojimbo’, generally regarded as one of his best films. Kurosawa apparently was inspired by both ‘Red Harvest’ and another Hammett great ‘The Glass Key’. The latter was filmed at least twice that I know of – in 1935 and in 1942 – and also served as the primary inspiration for the Coen brothers’ ‘Miller’s Crossing’, an homage or burlesque or both of film noir. Then there was the ‘Thin Man’ and the series of mostly witty and entertaining MGM films with William Powell and Myrna Loy bantering their way through increasingly silly scripts. That leaves only ‘The Dain Curse’ without cinematic exposure, but if Don likes Ross Macdonald’s Lew Archer series, then I submit that Mr Millar may have acquired his deadly dysfunctional California family trope directly from ‘The Dain Curse’ – it has all the elements of an Archer novel and is a lot more fun.

    I reread the Hammett and the Chandler novels every 5-10 years or so and recently finished my fourth cycle. Both are excellent writers. Hammett is most impressive because each of his five novels were so very different – even the two Continental Op novels couldn’t be more different from each other. Chandler I find much more of a monotone – few of the plots are especially well developed and it mostly his “down these mean streets a man must go who is not himself mean” wanders with a bashing on the head every few pages – but his eye for detail is extraordinary. With little effort I can recall scenes with Marlowe watching a beetle fall off a cop’s desk and land on its back, legs wriggling; approaching a house framed by a red climbing rose and a hummingbird prodding the garden sweet peas; the oppressive heat, humidity, the cloying stench of orchids, and plants with nasty meaty leaves and stalks like the washed fingers of dead men in the General’s glasshouse; and so much more. Some of Chandler’s short stories are excellent too.

    I reread Macdonald/Millar’s novels too I’m about a third through my third cycle. The earliest ones are rather pulpy (not that I mind) and then he hit his stride with some great ones, but then they seem to get increasingly dreary. I doubt I’ll make it through my third go. I agree that Archer has gotten short shrift in Hollywood compared to Chandler or Hammett. Sad too, because he wrote more novels than both of them put together and they would probably make good movies.

  • margaret says:

    Chandler in Farewell, My Lovely – I did enjoy his descriptions …

    “he looked about as inconspicuous as a tarantula on a slice of angel food cake”

    • NH says:

      Yes, the metaphors are pretty good, although even he admitted they were sometimes over the top. “The air in my office was as flat and stale as a football interview” is a typical one. The one you mentioned is about Moose Malloy and occurs on about page 3. In my case I would have kept reading and probably finished the book.
      As mentioned above it is the details that give his books an uncanny immediacy. Somewhere or other Marlowe has to meet a police detective, and he gives him his business card. The policeman takes the card and absent-mindedly puts it on edge and scrapes it across the glass top of the desk. It makes a squeak like a baby mouse. This doesn’t advance the plot at all, and isn’t a clue. It just makes the reader feel like being in the room. This happens all the time, and is hard to explain. It means to me that nearly all of it can be read again and again without getting boring. If you are reading to find out whodunnit then Chandler probably isn’t for you.
      Chandler wrote on cards, maybe a scene to a card, and said he tied to get some magic onto each card. May be that is part of the explanation.
      William Faulkner’s “Sanctuary” is a crime novel nearly good as Chandler’s. I was always puzzled how Faulkner, whom I had regarded as unreadable and tedious, could have contributed anything useful to the screenplay of “The Big Sleep”, but after reading “Sanctuary” I can see it.
      Another crime novel that was surprisingly enjoyable was “No Orchids for Miss Blandish” by James Hadley Chase. This book is mostly famous because George Orwell thought it was crap, and wrote an essay proving that it was “a header into a cesspit”. After reading Orwell’s essay I was prepared to hate it, but found it was pretty well done for an Englishman who had never been to America.

      I must say I find the atmosphere of this discussion far better than the vicious invective that seems to fill the air on any discussion of climate change.

      • margaret says:

        Yes, the moments that don’t advance the plot – I like them, whether they are about character or landscape they transport you and you feel you’re there.
        I liked the part of that novel where Marlowe boards the gambling ship – memorable for me.

    • CDavis says:

      The 1978 television movie/miniseries version of The Dain Curse is pretty good for a television film of the time. In particular, James Coburn’s Continental Op/Hamilton Nash is nearly perfect, in my mind’s eye. I even like the name they came up with for him. (shrug) The ‘free’ versions I’ve seen streaming on the internet are missing, at least, part of one of the three segments, so it’s probably best, for many reasons, to find a legitimate viewing source.

  • BJ says:

    testing comments here

  • beththeserf says:

    Losing yourself in a book you love, in my case not one book but 22 , the Master and Commander
    Series by Patrick O’Brien. the sea adventures of Captain Jack Aubrey and ship surgeon and naturalist,
    Stephen Maturin during the Napoleonic Wars. Based on meticulous research of Admiralty Records,
    suspenseful battles, life on board ship, and on shore, food, rituals, friendships, – someone called the
    Master and Commander novels Jane Austin at sea, you – are – there!

    Wrote a blog post on the series – I love it so. 🙂

Leave a Reply