Concatenation versus Design in early Hardboiled Fiction

In his description of genre function, Northrop Frye offers up a series of dichotomies that could be used to sketch the general shape of a work. Two pairs seem particularly relevant to sketching the boundaries of sub-genres within the Mystery-Investigation Complex: Force versus Guile, Hence versus And Then.

Frye illustrates Force versus Guile using the two key heroes of Homer. Achilleus is a hero who relies on Force to acheive his goals. He is simply undefeatable in battle, and knows it. His story is about more-or-less direct conflict. Odysseus is capable of Force, but he primarily relies upon Guile for his victories. He hides from Polyphemus, he disguises himself in Ithaca.

These two narratives can also illustrate the difference between Hence and And Then. The Iliad is a tightly controlled set of interlinked episodes whose action is all driven by the disagreement between Achilleus and Agamemnon. Almost everything that happens derives from that conflict erupting in that circumstance. It is a Hence narrative, with the connectivity implied by that logical relation.

The Odyssey on the other hand, is a concatenation of discrete events that could quite possibly be rearranged. The apparent cause of the whole adventure is that Odysseus angers Poseidon by blinding Polyphemus – it shares that apparent spark for action with The Iliad, but in truth, this merely provides a frame for the connective tissue between adventures. Does it really matter in what order Odysseus encounters Circe and Scylla&Charybdis?

We can use this pair of criteria to group different kinds of detective fictions within the genre, to help discriminate between narratives that seem similar, but which are operating in quite different ways.

The main two groups already in the discourse are the “Fair Play” and “Hardboiled” schools. These are thematically differentiated by their respective foci on restoration and disintegration, to put rather crudely what I have spilt much digital ink on untangling elsewhere.

The “Fair Play” group remains homogeneous in this scheme, because they share a strong necessity for a Hence structure. Given a certain cast of characters, and motivations, and means, you get a murder and the consequent investigation. Everything is a consequence of something else inside the narrative, so events cannot easily be reordered without sacrificing significant details of the plot. They are also almost entirely Guile stories, because of the detective’s ratiocinative methods. Clues are examined, suspects interrogated, and conclusions drawn. Where violence intrudes directly into the narrative, it is a deferment of a cerebral resolution, it does not propel the action forward.

The “Hardboiled” school however, begins to fracture somewhat. Even if we regard only the canonical authors, we find all four combinations of our terms occur.

Chandler and Macdonald largely remain within the Hence structure in their novels. Both always try to fold their stories back on themselves, creating doubled detective stories. In order to solve Crime A, you need to also and simultaneously solve Crime B. This leads to the cliche of two separate cases turning out to be a single case, as so perfectly satirised in Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang.

Force occurs far more often in their novels than their English counterparts, but that force is almost always directed at their detective, rather than by him. Marlowe and Archer are always being beaten unconscious to deter them from investigating. However, while the detective is not usually an active participant, their storylines do often get finally resolved and their stories finally ended by acts of Force, so that it is structurally important in a way it isn’t for the Fair Play crowd. We could think about the final meeting between Moose Malloy and Velma in Farewell, My Lovely.

Mickey Spillane is far more interested in Force, both as a tool for Mike Hammer and as a narrative mechanic. Almost all of the discussion around Mike Hammer focuses on this aspect of his adventures: to whom is violence done, and with what apparent justification and effect. Critics focus closely on Spillane’s apparent misogyny in depicting women as sexual objects, then destroying those objects.

That critical obsession helps demonstrate the primacy of Force, but it is interesting that so little attention has been paid to the mechanics of the story executed with this tool. I would be inclined to look at the Hammer novels as an exemplar of Robin D Laws’ Iconic character – the way the stories unfold is unquestionably a result of Hammer’s specific pathology; but given that initiating impetus, it seems to me like we generally find a basically And Then scenario.

Daly is clearly Spillane’s master; Race Williams does everything Mike Hammer does, but with less sexualised violence.

Which brings us to Hammett, and the difficulty of making any general statements about his 5 novels: they are all so different that they might as well have been written by different people. Who knows, maybe they were – put that in your conspiracy corner.

Red Harvest generally appears shapeless, with its extended series of set pieces and interrogations. It clearly does not have the same kind of single (or doubled) Hence-based structure as we expect from the other examples discussed. Yet, most individual sequences do depend in large part on details from previous scenes in a way that would make a large-scale reordering difficult. Still, what we end up with is a concatenation of events, and therefore an And Then structure.

Force plays a major part in the narrative, but aside from the initial murder of Donald Willsson, every act of violence is predicated on a deception, and so it clearly belongs in the Guile school.

The Dain Curse is similarly difficult to precisely classify. As it unfolds, it appears to be a series of unconnected events, something which bothers the detective, who intuits a connection. It is not until the final fifth that the unifying cause is revealed. Perhaps what is most surprising though, is that while Guile is hugely important in the way the story unfolds, it is actually resolved mostly by Force.

The Maltese Falcon and The Thin Man are both clearly in the Hence/Guile camp.

The Glass Key is perhaps Hammett’s least highly regarded work, because his extreme focus on objective reporting without affect means that it is impossible to draw any final conclusions about the motives or emotions of the characters. This is what classic criticism trains us to look for, and so this novel seems almost obstructive in the way it presents itself. Parsing it through Frye’s dichotomy pair almost seems to point out the problem with the system.

The main character is a consumptive named Ned Beaumont, whose friend Paul Madvig is accused of murder at a politically sensitive time, during an election. Madvig is a Capone-style gangster who, in Chandler’s phrase, almost rules a city. Ned believes he is innocent and sets out to prove it, almost against Madvig’s wishes. It has many of the hallmarks of a “Fair Play” narrative, with suspects, questioning, and the like. However, what really gets this apparently weak character through the narrative is really his ability to simply survive the violence directed toward him.

This confuses the few critics who comment on the detection component of the novel, because they are expecting a ratiocinative/Guile-based solution. The  the denouement has that form, but it has an inadequate feel, solved by too-trivial a clue. The truth is that it is not a brilliant assemblage of a clue-complex; it is powered by Beaumont’s simple survival. The Op in an earlier narrative claims that if you’re tough enough to survive, what you want will come to the surface, and that is far more true of Beaumont than for the Op himself. Reconsidering Force as the principle of action removes this problem in the ending of the novel.

As we can tell from even this cursory analysis, the dichotomies that Frye proposes are not without their problems. They can be difficult to apply, or apply in ways which are almost counter-intuitive. Yet, at the same time, they can provide valuable insight into how the stories are structured, and explain features of the text which are otherwise difficult. They help us understand in what ways these works are structurally different, rather than simple re-skinnings of the same essential formulae.

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