the politics of the hardboiled detective novel

I love these old covers!
Last year, I blogged about a wonderful essay by Raymond Chandler called "The Simple Art of Murder", written in 1950. Reading that, I realized that I knew the work of both Chandler and Dashiell Hammett -- the originators of the hardboiled detective genre -- only through film adaptations. I hadn't read any of their novels. To remedy that, I borrowed several titles by each from the library.*  (I also plan to read some of the giants of the noir novel, having seen the classic film adaptations of their work: James M. Cain, James Ellroy, Jim Thompson.)

I read Hammett's Red Harvest and The Maltese Falcon, and Chandler's The Big Sleep and The Long Goodbye. If I didn't have so much other reading pressing on me, I would have read many more. I loved everything about these books.

The writing is simple but vivid and evocative. The characters are interesting and multi-dimensional. The twisting plots are full of surprises. And above all, the protagonists -- the detectives -- are the perfect anti-heroes.

In detective movies and TV shows, the character of the detective him- or herself is paramount. If I like the detective, I'll follow him anywhere. If the detective rubs me the wrong way, it's a no-go, no matter how good the writing or acting or plots might be. Philip Marlowe (Chandler) and Sam Spade (Hammett) are as good as they get. It didn't even bother me that as I read, I could only see Humphrey Bogart in these roles. The casting of those famous films was perfect; my mental image of Bogart, who I love, only added to the enjoyment.

In his seminal essay, Chandler describes his detectives like this.
But down these mean streets a man must go who is not himself mean, who is neither tarnished nor afraid. The detective in this kind of story must be such a man. He is the hero, he is everything. He must be a complete man and a common man and yet an unusual man. He must be, to use a rather weathered phrase, a man of honor, by instinct, by inevitability, without thought of it, and certainly without saying it. He must be the best man in his world and a good enough man for any world. I do not care much about his private life; he is neither a eunuch nor a satyr; I think he might seduce a duchess and I am quite sure he would not spoil a virgin; if he is a man of honor in one thing, he is that in all things. He is a relatively poor man, or he would not be a detective at all. He is a common man or he could not go among common people. He has a sense of character, or he would not know his job. He will take no man’s money dishonestly and no man’s insolence without a due and dispassionate revenge. He is a lonely man and his pride is that you will treat him as a proud man or be very sorry you ever saw him. He talks as the man of his age talks, that is, with rude wit, a lively sense of the grotesque, a disgust for sham, and a contempt for pettiness. The story is his adventure in search of a hidden truth, and it would be no adventure if it did not happen to a man fit for adventure. He has a range of awareness that startles you, but it belongs to him by right, because it belongs to the world he lives in.

If there were enough like him, I think the world would be a very safe place to live in, and yet not too dull to be worth living in.
In an interesting bit of self-consciousness in The Big Sleep, Chandler has Marlowe describe his own role, and the hardboiled novel itself.
I'm not Sherlock Holmes or Philo Vance. I don't expect to go over ground the police have covered and pick up a broken pen point and build a case from it. If you think there is anybody in the detective business making a living doing that sort of thing, you don't know much about cops. 
I also loved the politics of these books. Of course hardboiled detective novels are not political per se, but Hammett's and Chandler's work have a clear, consistent political and social point of view. Spade and Marlowe are working class guys, and the reader sees everything through their working-class eyes.

In fact, class consciousness underpins everything in these novels. Throughout, there is a deep empathy for the working person, the underling, the regular Joe or Jane, and a consistent assumption that the odds are always stacked against them. Spade and Marlowe's work takes them into both dark underworlds and opulent mansions. They are equally themselves anywhere -- because they are men of integrity, without pretense -- but only the mansion will elicit scorn and contempt. The sad underworlds are more likely to evoke pity, and an understanding of why ordinary people may be driven to make bad decisions in an unjust world. Even in the criminal underworld, it's the little guy who takes the fall, while the rich and powerful do the damage and enjoy the good life.

There's a special place for the police in these novels, and it is not on a pedestal. Spade and Marlowe harbor a deep distrust of the police, and believe that in order to find justice, one must work outside the system, because the system is always corrupt.

In a world where the working class is always on the defensive, a man with a bit of power might just be tempted to overcompensate -- and we usually see police through this lens. Cops must be distrusted because they do the bidding of the ruling class. A good cop must prove himself to be one; he doesn't get the benefit of the doubt. Good cops are rare, but in this world, good men and women of any station are always rare.

Towards the end of The Big Sleep, a decent police captain explains:
I'm a copper. Just a plain ordinary copper. Reasonably honest. As honest as you could expect a man to be in a world where it's out of style. That's mainly why I asked you to come in this morning. I'd like you to believe that. Being a copper I like to see the law win. I'd like to see the flashy well-dressed muggs like Eddie Mars spoiling their manicures in the rock quarry at Folsom, alongside of the poor little slum-bred hard guys that got knocked over on their first caper and never had a break since. That's what I'd like. You and me both lived too long to think I'm likely to see it happen. Not in this town, not in any town half this size, in any part of this wide, green and beautiful U.S.A. We just don't run our country that way.

The edition in our library.
Some might find these books sexist, as women are often portrayed as deceitful and dangerous, but that's not my reading. The women of Chandler and Hammett are not helpless ragdolls in need of rescue; they're not dependent on men for identity or status. They are free agents -- free to love, free to act on lust, to lie, to murder, but always free to make their own choices. The women of the hardboiled mystery are not be trusted -- just like the men. Both men and women do stupid things under the influence of love or lust, Marlowe and Spade included.

Men and women, working class or ruling class, guilty or innocent -- character traits cross all lines. There is honour and deceit on all sides. There is abuse of power everywhere. There is deep sorrow, and there is addiction. Indeed, I came to see alcohol almost as a character in these books.

At bottom, the hardboiled mystery, at least as practiced by the masters, is a study in power. The upper class, the criminals, the cops, the guards -- everyone is trying to get power, to use it, and to keep it. Only an honest man or woman cares more about doing the right thing than about power.

That's why class consciousness permeates everything: because the playing field is grossly tilted. The ruling class and their minions always have a giant head start. That's why the detective needs to stand up for the little guy. It's also why the detective hero must be wily and super-smart, why he needs to work outside the system, why he must often consider the means against the ends. He is a justice warrior amid an universal imbalance of power.

* Working in a library has greatly expanded my reading. More on that another day.


Zenslinger said...

There's a lot to say because I love these novels as well. But just a couple:

I recently read The Lost Detective: Becoming Dashiell Hammett by Nathan Ward, which is not a complete biography, but focuses on the influence of Hammett's career as a detective working for Pinkerton on his writing. "Detectives" were, of course, the private security of their day, and the violent events of Red Harvest are definitely based on a strikebreaking assignment Hammett was sent on in the early 30s. There's a lot of evidence that Hammett's later socialist leanings were in part a guilty reaction to the suppression of labor activity that he participated in (although the degree to which he acted isn't known).

I've read all the Chandler novels many times, and read aloud them to my wife sometimes. The Long Goodbye is one of the last Marlowe novels, so I believe his thinking was a little more in place. The following quote from it always seemed to sum up his thinking about crime's relationship to capitalism; he's talking with Bernie Ohls, a cop he's friendly with in more than one of the books (it's nice that not all cops are all bad):

“You’re a damn good cop, Bernie, but just the same you’re all wet. In one way cops are all the same. They blame the wrong things. …Crime isn’t a disease, it’s a symptom. Cops are like a doctor that gives you aspirin for a brain tumor, except that the cop would rather cure it with a blackjack. We’re a big tough rich wild people and crime is the price we pay for it, and organized crime is the price we pay for organization. We’ll have it with us for a long time. Organized crime is just the dirty side of the sharp dollar.”
“What’s the clean side?”
“I never saw it. …Let’s have a drink.”

I grabbed the quote from this Goodreads review (https://www.goodreads.com/review/show/654263552?book_show_action=true) so I'm not sure what that author excised, but the sentences that stay in my memory are here.

laura k said...

Zen, thanks so much for your thoughts!

I did know about Hammett's turn as a Pinkerton, and wondered how that fit in. He's such a legendary figure. Love that quote.

karen said...

I never really thought about the politics of mystery novels, but this kind of explains my love for them. I grew up with Rex Stout's Nero Wolfe (really, it was Archie Goodwin that I had the crush on), and John D. MacDonald's Travis McGee. My mom and her dad read those as well as Dorothy L. Sayers and Ngaio Marsh, and there were always paperbacks by all those authors around. Archie and Travis were good men and they were interested in the truth and I admired them so much. Thank you so much for this post. You have a way of reminding me of the things that make life good. I'm going to the library tomorrow!

Unknown said...

Great post, Laura! Jim Thompson is one of my favourites. His novels have their fair share of violence and all that you describe above, and in some ways are more about the underclass than the working class, but when I read one I couldn't stop till I had read them all & there've also been some great films from his novels: The Grifters, After dark, my sweet, etc.

laura k said...

Thank you Karen and Faline! Your comments remind me to keep blogging. :)

(Seriously. Wmtc is a shadow of its former self, so it's really good to know readers still enjoy it.)