Hard-boiled Masculinities

A thesis is, to an extent, a filter that is applied to a work. We hold a word up in front of a work of art and see what patterns are formed and omitted. My thesis has ended up about how we can apply the concept of “detective” to Dashiell Hammett’s fiction – does detection happen? Is it important? How does it work? And unfortunately that has ended up excluding quite a lot of interesting things from the thesis. One of the persistent concepts that others apply to Hammett and his progeny is the word “masculinity.” Hard-boiled fictions tend to be about men and the relationships between men, women often seem to represent an instability in narrative terms – a monkey-wrench if you like. Naturally, that orients hard-boiled fiction as structurally sexist.

For me, Raymond Chandler and Mickey Spillane both take this concept and run with it in their novels. In all of Raymond Chandler’s novels, the specific crimes that Marlowe is setting out to solve all find the women guilty of causing male death. Some novels complicate this, like The Lady in the Lake, by drawing into the mix a substantial male co-conspirator, but even there I am left with a sense of, almost, entrapment. The situation is almost always what it appears to be – a dangerous woman is pacified or evaded or punished by the hero. This is one of the things which makes it quite difficult for me to accept Chivalric reading modes for these stories – maybe anti-Chivalric stories would work, where the men are seeking freedom from women rather than service to them, and where chaste courtly love is replaced by prophylactic courtly hate.

Ross Macdonald and Hammett are not quite so easy to summarize in such sweeping terms. There are dangerous women in Hammett, but there are equally dangerous men, and sexual entanglement can definitely cut both ways. For most critics, Brigid O’Shaughnessy is the ultimate femme fatale, alluring but deadly. She’s left behind at least two corpses created by infatuation with her beauty. Miles Archer she executes herself, to put pressure on Floyd Thursby, who is in turn killed by Gutman et al to put pressure on her – he is made vulnerable by his connexion with her. At the crucial moment, when Spade seems about to desert her, she offers him her body to buy his loyalty – the classic femme fatale play, except that it is undoubtedly she who is played in that situation. Spade knows she killed Archer, but he needs her in his pocket to untangle the entirety of the mess. “you don’t have to trust me as long as you can persuade me to trust you” says Spade – but that applies totally in reverse, as he is just as untrustworthy. Brigid is suckered.

How do we read that scene in terms of our masculine-oriented structural-sexism? Maybe I’m overly naive, but I think that we’re not supposed to read it in gender terms at all. Sex is just one more avenue for trickery, and Spade beats Brigid on that battle ground, just as he out-manoeuvres Gutman in his negotiations for sharing information. Sex is terrifying to Marlowe because it represents a real connection to another human being, one that would shatter his ironic detachment and protective isolation, but for Spade, it’s just another facet of the human experience to exploit as best he can, and women are just other players in the game to be gone up against.

But, I hear you say, Mike Hammer is always sleeping with women, doesn’t my analysis of Spade thus exculpate Mickey Spillane too? Spade outplays Brigid, but he still has a stake in the game, and Brigid is essentially one of several equally villainous characters in the fiction, not the single purge-able source of the contagion. Mike Hammer accepts sexual services as his due, but it’s not a finely balanced act of duplicity, it’s that he simply isn’t affected by it. Women just bounce right off him, whereas Hammett leaves us no doubt that playing against Brigid has cost Spade.

I’ve probably commented before on this, but Hammett is interesting because whatever genre template or habit you want to pick up and examine, Hammett just doesn’t quite comply with it. He’s difficult to pin down to a specific meaning or ideology, difficult to summarize. For a guy that everyone claims to be trying to emulate and improve upon, he remains a unique voice in the genre.

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