I’m something like half way through Chandler’s works and handily and he provides his own criteria for thinking about his work; an essay called The Simple Art of Murder. He makes a number of very good points in the essay about the differences between Hammett and Christie’s followers, especially Dorothy Sayers. Points which have stuck in my mind and interested me enough to spend a year of my life pursuing and exploring. The principle claim he makes though, is that Hammett’s murders commit murders for real motives using the means at hand, rather than the over-elaborate and almost motiveless killings which fill the formal detective novel.
I’m not entirely sure that’s any more true of Hammett than Chandler than Christie. Sayers is on my list of things to read in the near future and I’ll let you know when I get there. The point is that crime is a fact of life and a factor in life, it’s integral rather than aberrant. In Christie, the solution of the crime is the return to normality, in Hammett, crime is normality. Well, his debut, The Big Sleep lives up to this ideal – and perhaps the success of the film is that it picked up Bogart’s Sam Spade and called him Philip Marlowe, a wise-cracking PI just at home with his clients as the criminals that plague them: when there’s even a difference.
Well, 14 years later Marlowe isn’t the man he was. When Sternwood hired him, he cost $50/day plus expenses; when the Wades try to hire him he’s too proud to take a dime – he’s financially worse off after a novel of investigating than at the start. The Sternwoods were a job to Marlowe, the Wades seem somehow an entirely personal matter of honour. When Eddie Mars has Marlowe trussed up, he plainly explains to Vivian how they’ll gruesomely kill him, never backing down, never compromising. Marlowe used to pound the streets of the city, delve into criminal enterprises, but by this book he’s pottering around the exclusive suburbs of the super-rich, solving their very specialist and convoluted problems. The murders may not require the curare that he so disdained in his essay, but they’re every bit as elaborate and constructed as anything in Christie’s mechanical mind.
The Long Goodbye isn’t bad, but it’s soft all the way through. Marlowe has moved from the mean streets and into the country manor.
I’m watching the 1973 film adaptation as I type this. It’s not great.
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