“I poured out a couple of hookers of gin…She went into the kitchen for another siphon and more ice.”
“There was a desert wind blowing that night. It was one of those hot dry Santa Anas that come down through the mountain passes and curl your hair and make your nerves jump and your skin itch. On nights like that every booze party ends in a fight. Meek little wives feel the edge of the carving knife and study their husbands’ necks. Anything can happen.”
-Raymond Chandler’s Red Wind
Anything can happen in noir, from the highly improbable, as Cornell Woolrich demonstrated to the paranoid low-down loser schizoid descent seen in David Goodis; but whatever the trajectory noir discussions continue to return to Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler.
Set aside the fact that “noir” is a term owing more to cinema than it does to “pulp fiction.” At face value Chandler and Hammett are at opposite ends of the spectrum. Think about it. Hammett’s style is what most accomplished writers become: spare and transparent. It is ruthless distillation of language to an essence of expression. Hemingway refracted through Hemingway would be like reading water. Forget the subject and look at the mechanics of language. Case in point: read Papa’s “The Killers.” Yet, I will admit my own bias: I think “Red Wind” is one of the best short stories in the English language.
I know all that sounds like a digression, but let us look at it from the other end of the telescope. Writers do not evolve towards the ornate and convoluted. Before you yell out “William Faulkner,” I’ll point you to Faulkner’s The Reivers. That is evidence of a writer who modulates his style to the subject.
Come full circle to Hammett and Chandler. Both men were craftsmen and both men were beyond well-read. Both men were loners. Dash wrote crime with sand left in your shoes. Chandler wrote poetry and left you with nostalgia. Chandler is probably the more memorable of the two writers. Why? People remember simile and metaphors; it’s more vivid. Readers remember wise-ass retorts and deadpan humor. Chandler’s weakness as a writer is that his plot meanders and disappears and you don’t give a damn because you’ve surrendered to the intoxicating spell of language. Chandler also captured place and made the City of Angels a character, a time capsule. Hammett characterizes time and place but it is not a specific place. Therein is the rub. Hammett is the more sinister, and cynical writer, not weary but pragmatic and ready to duke it out and light the next cigarette and knock back the next drink; and that could happen in Any Town, U.S.A. The Continental Op or Sam Spade won’t philosophize and debate you as to whether you spell “whiskey” with or without a ‘y.’ Marlowe might give you the pro and con of a particular chess move and how best to save your Queen on the board. In short, Chandler was prissy, according to the letters and recollections of others. Hammett was principled and stoical. Both men might appear misogynistic in print but not in their real lives. Dashiell seemed to labor on line-editing whereas Chandler practiced structural editing.
Reading over the facts of these men’s lives — Hammett and Chandler — I think it is fair to say that Hammett had seen some unpleasant things in life. He served in two World Wars and he had worked for the Pinkertons, who were not nice men or at all concerned with justice. They were often thugs, often hired union-breakers. Hammett came from a genteel family that had lost its money. Hammett was fiercely anti-authoritarian all his life, yet loved Army life, where he had despised officers and had championed enlisted men. He knew and was sure of his talent but never lorded it over anyone.
Chandler had been born American, but raised British. He was a classmate of P.G. Wodehouse and probably had more in common with T.S. Eliot than he did with the writers of Middle America. I’ve read here and there that Chandler might have been a closeted gay man. It might explain the homophobic sneers here and there – or he could’ve been a man of his generation. Joel Cairo in The Maltese Falcon is Hammett’s implied gay character. Chandler had had a dysfunctional relationship with his wife, but he had remained devoted to her until the day she died. He gave money away and tried to “rescue” women. Chandler would die and be buried outside of San Diego, a city that he detested. Chandler had ended up a bitter writer, done with writing at a certain age, confessing that he had “cannibalized” almost all of his novels from his short stories. One apocryphal story had it that when The Big Sleep was being filmed and the director Howard Hawks wanted to know who killed a certain character, he called Chandler. The writer is reported to have said that he didn’t know. Another similarity – both Chandler and Hammett had difficult relationships with Hollywood, as it seems that both had lost their souls in the sunshine.
Hammett? Dash was done as a writer by the early 1930s. He had lived large, squandered his fortune, and swum in drink as if he was born with gills that could breathe in gin. He smoked, even though he had a virulent form of TB. He swaggered from periods of monastic seclusion, writing in a hotel room when the TB would hit his lungs and he didn’t want to infect his family, to fall-down days-long drinking. The man was a contradiction. While he is known for the Maltese Falcon, I think Red Harvest is his most critical book as it is a non-stop panoramic spree of violence and systemic corruption in a town called Personville. The novel would influence the Coen Brothers’s film “Miller’s Crossing.” Hammett had written Red Harvest on the brink of the Depression; it is a commentary on America that John Steinbeck did not write and Orson Welles did not film in Citizen Kane. Ray Chandler smoked a pipe. Dash smoked cigarettes. Both men knew each other and the record suggests that they respected each other.
We’re still reading them decades later not because noir is about the schmeil who had woken up and realized that he was screwed and no better off than four years ago (it’s political season and I couldn’t resist), for had that been the case noir would be Kafka, who wrote about the grotesque, the ironic, and the comedic with a certain ethnic disposition. Chandler is, in my opinion, never completely American – however you might define it – whereas Hammett was the guy who could sit next to you at the bar and put your teeth back in after he took them out. Spade’d do it with a certain charm. Marlowe’d do it with panache.