Dashiell Hammett served in an ambulance corps during World War I and he contracted influenza and tuberculosis. His service in the Aleutian Islands in World War II, when he was in his fifties, worsened his health problems and his incarceration by the House Unamerican Activities Committee pretty much killed him, although he helped things along himself by doing some serious boozing.
He wrote comparatively few books: “The Maltese Falcon,” “The Dain Curse,” “Red Harvest,” “The Glass Key” and “The Thin Man,” but the early stories which he wrote for pulp magazines are collected in posthumous volumes like “The Continental Op,” “The Big Knockover,” “Dead Yellow Women,” “Son of the Continental Op,” “Return of the Continental Op,” “Return of the Bride of the Son of the Continental Op,” etc. etc.
But after “The Thin Man,” the spigot pretty much dried up. He started a book called “Tulip,” which is included in “The Big Knockover,” but frankly I don’t get it.
He had hooked up with Lillian Hellman at this point and I guess he just couldn’t do the hard-boiled solo guy anymore. He could have gone on cranking out a book every year like Agatha Christie, and he could have made tons more money, but either he couldn’t or he wouldn’t.
Raymond Chandler could and would and did meet that demand with books like “Farewell My Lovely,” “The Long Goodbye” and “The Lady in the Lake.” Thankfully, Chandler makes no bones about adopting Hammett’s style. It’s like he’s channeling Hammett, albeit without as much subtlety. He himself said that when he was stuck for a plot he had someone crash through a door with a gun.
But he had the same familiarity with actual investigations and police work, and he used it with imagination and verve. You could say he’s methadone for the deprived Hammett addict.
Don’t get me wrong; Raymond Chandler is brilliant. He’s the heir to Hammett, who’s heir to Dumas, who’s heir to Pushkin, who’s heir to — who else? — the blind Greek guy. And because Chandler wrote many more books for many years after Hammett was long gone, he developed his own unique style.
His books contain some truly amazing insights about this odd world and his hard-boiled dick, Phillip Marlowe, gets fleshed out much more than Sam Spade or Monsieur Rick. Like me he likes to play chess games from books.
Here are the opening paragraphs from “The Long Goodbye”:
“The first time I laid eyes on Terry Lennox he was drunk in a Rolls Royce Silver Wraith outside the terrace of The Dancers. The parking lot attendant had brought the car out and he was still holding the door open because Terry Lennox’s left foot was still dangling outside, as if he had forgotten he had one.
“He had a young looking face but his hair was bone white. You could tell by his eyes that he was plastered to the hairline, but otherwise he looked like any other nice young guy in a dinner jacket who had been spending too much money in a joint that exists for that purpose and no other.”
Marlowe later finds Lennox staggering around drunk on the street and takes him to his house to sleep it off. Lennox talks about quitting drinking. And Marlow says, “It takes about three years.”
“Three years?” Lennox looks shocked.
Then comes one of those insights I was talking about:
“Usually it does,” Marlowe says. “You have to get used to a paler set of colors, a quieter lot of sounds. You have to allow for relapses. All the people you used to know well will get to be just a little bit strange. You won’t even like most of them, and they won’t like you too well.”
Like his illustrious literary forebears, Chandler does not disappoint.