Robert Pimm

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Hard boiled: Chandler, Spillane and Hammett

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All I saw was the dame standing there in the glare of the headlights waving her arms like a huge puppet and the curse I spit out filled the car and my own ears. I wrenched the wheel over, felt the rear end start to slide, brought it out with a splash of power and almost ran up the side of the cliff as the car fishtailed.  

My 1960 Signet edition of “Kiss Me, Deadly”, swapped on a Greek ferry*

The opening lines of Mickey Spillane’s 1952 Kiss Me, Deadly are arresting.  So is the blurb: “Mike Hammer swears to avenge the killing of a satin-skinned blonde and rips into the vicious Mafia mob to run down her murderer”.  

When I first read Kiss Me, Deadly in the ’80s, I was shocked by the casual violence and sexism.  A few pages in, Hammer and the “satin-skinned blonde” are attacked.  Hammer awakes to witness thugs torturing the woman to death, naked, in detail too graphic to include here.

In fact, the book is a festival of violence from beginning to end.  I can see why a critic referred to Spillane as “a dangerous paranoid, sadist and masochist”.  Spillane is said to have responded “You can sell a lot more peanuts than caviar”.

I read the book at a sitting.  The opening scenes have stayed with me.  But would I recommend Spillane?  Not really, except as a study of the genre.

I was reminded of Kiss Me, Deadly when I recently read a chunky Raymond Chandler collection, Trouble is My Business, containing 11 novellas and a short story.

The elegant cover of my Folio Society edition of “Trouble is My Business”

Most of Chandler’s stories date from the 1930s.  Nearly all feature private eye Philip Marlowe; a femme fatale; Marlowe consuming (in Chandler-speak, “using”) pints of whiskey at every juncture, often simply to pass the time; shootings; coshings – Marlowe spends a lot of time unconscious and is knocked out no less than three times in the 48 pages of “Mandarin’s Jade”; and, finally, a resolution by Marlowe of a fabulously complex puzzle.

In fact, Marlowe’s ability to piece together instantly the most convoluted of circumstances verges on parody, reminding me of no-one more than Sherlock Holmes (opium, anyone?)  Marlowe’s relationship with Lieutenant “Violets” M’Gee, “a homicide dick in the sheriff’s office”, is reminiscent of that of Holmes with Inspector Lestrade.  Unlike Holmes, however, Marlowe thinks nothing of gunning people down; and many stories are violent – a scene of police abuse in Bay City Blues had me flicking on to the next page, although it turned out that the brutality was itself a clue to resolving the plot.

Unlike Spillane, Chandler enjoyed critical acclaim, with novels such as The Big Sleep, Farewell, My Lovely and The Long Goodbye.  Like P G Wodehouse, he was educated at Dulwich College in London.  Also like Wodehouse, his descriptions of women and minorities are dated.

But if you can aim off for this, the writing style is crisp and elegant, and the stories engrossing.  Philip Marlowe (aka John Dalmas**) is a splendid creation: independent yet loyal, ultra-violent yet big-hearted, with a dry wit and infinite patience.  He is nothing less than inspiring – indeed I wonder to what extent he may have been the inspiration for Lee Child’s Jack Reacher.  Some of Chandler’s minor characters, such as detective Al De Spain, are beautifully developed – again reminiscent of some of Jack Reacher’s supporting cast, mentioned in the blog at the link.  I have no hesitation in recommending Chandler.

A few quotes:

Killer in the Rain: Then all expression went out of her white face and it looked as intelligent as the bottom of a shoe box.

Goldfish: I wasn’t doing any work that day, just catching up on my foot-dangling.

The Curtain: The first time I ever saw Larry Batzel he was drunk outside Sardi’s in a second-hand Rolls-Royce.  There was a tall blonde with him who had eyes you wouldn’t forget.

The Curtain: Frame houses on the main street, a sudden knot of stores, the lights of the corner drugstore behind fogged glass, a fly-cluster of cars in front of a tiny movie palace, and a dark bank on another corner, with a knot of men standing in front of it in the rain.  That was Realito.

Mandarin’s Jade: I got down to the office late enough to be elegant, but not feeling that way.  Two stitches in the back of my scalp had begun to draw and the tape over the shaved place felt as hot as a bartender’s bunion.

Mandarin’s Jade: Mrs Prendergast gave me a smile I could feel in my hip pocket.

Red Wind: 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.  You can even get a full glass of beer at a cocktail lounge.

Bay City Blues: It must have been Friday because the fish smell from the Mansion House coffee-shop next door was strong enough to build a garage on.

Bay City Blues: Behind me, in the back of my car, there was a soft, sibilant breathing.  I didn’t know whether the chunky man heard it or not.  His own breathing was heavy enough to iron a shirt with.

The Lady in the Lake: I was breaking a new pair of shoes in on may desk that morning when Violets M’Gee called me up.

The Lady in the Lake: The blonde could have been anything from eighteen to forty.  She was that type.  She had a figure and didn’t act stingy with it.

Trouble is my Business: ‘You’d better have a drink,’ she said.  ‘You probably can’t talk without a glass in your hand.’  I sat down and reached for the Scotch.

Trouble is my Business: George grinned.  ‘He’s so tight his head squeaks when he takes his hat off.’

The Pencil: The little one-storey house was as neat as a fresh pinafore.

What about Dashiell Hammett?

“The Glass Key” was published in 1931; my Pan edition dates from 1975

The Glass Key is famous for eschewing internal monologue.  The writing is deceptively spare and simple – looking at it now I am reminded of Geoffrey Household’s seminal Rogue Male.  But I suspect The Glass Key deserves a blog of its own.  Watch this space.

P.S.  If you enjoy fresh, original writing, feel free to friend me on Facebook or sign up for e-mail updates (top right – see blue “click here” button).  You can explore the range of writing on this site via my five pleasure paths.

* Other Greek ferry book-swaps included two hard-boiled French thrillers: Rendezvous à Macao by Philippe Casanova and the magnificently-titled Qui est Socrate, Mr Kern? by Marc Revest.  The latter includes a list: Du même auteur dans la même collection, including such gems as Kern danse la mazurka; Havane, Mr Kern?; Kimono Kern; Achtung, Mr Kern!; and Kern à la kurde, which also sound worth a blog of their own.

** Curiously, in some of the stories, including Trouble is My Business and The Lady in the Lake, the first person narrator is not Philip Marlowe but John Dalmas, whose behaviour and narrative voice is in every respect identical with Marlowe.  He even interacts with other characters, such as Violets McGee, in the same way.  He is described by The Thrilling Detective Web Site as “more or less that same character… save for the name”.

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1 Comment

  1. honoria plum says:

    What Ho, Robert.
    I am slightly embarrassed, having dashed off a few quick words on Chandler to mark his anniversary today, to discover that you put this terrific piece together yesterday. An utter coincidence — something to do with great minds thinking alike perhaps (although I clearly fall short of your knowledge of this genre).
    I’ve read some Hammett, but found him a bit too cold blooded. I really ought to give some of the other hard boilers a go, especially as I love the classic film adaptations of this genre.
    Thanks again & Cheerio!

    Like

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