An Introduction to 3 Foundational Authors of Hard-Boiled Detective Fiction, With Several Digressions
Dashiell Hammett was one of the only pulp detective authors to have actually worked as a detective, with the Pinkerton National Detective Agency, back when it was basically a countrywide mercenary police organization. The Pinkertons were actually closer to modern police than their official contemporaries in the machine politics era, who tended to fall somewhere between patronage-hire watchmen and the mayor (or sheriff)’s sanctioned gang. The establishment of the FBI was in many ways a nationalization of the Pinkertons, with key figures brought on as advisors, replicating the network of local bureaus with focuses on both investigation and the infiltration and undermining of labor radicalism. Big city police forces then remodeled themselves after the FBI - famously the LAPD under William Parker (the NYPD had professionalized already under Teddy Roosevelt, and Chicago managed to preserve its machine structure).
This process continued into the early 1970s, as the RFK/FBI-led attempt to shatter the Mafia shook out. This was part of the mid-20th century American centralization of power. If you’re ever tempted to look with contempt upon modern African states, or pre-Mao China, or pre-unification Germany, keep in mind that America was largely structured as a loose coalition of local bandit-warlords until the 1960s. At the national level, civil rights laws and the attempt to merge the two (black/white) American nations were as much a cynical front for advancing this centralization as they were an honest idealism. And not without cost - organized crime, and the permeable borders between that and urban politics, were one of the major mechanisms by which immigrant groups were integrated to and advanced within the American system, a way to translate sheer numbers and cultural affinity into structural power. American blacks largely fit the immigrant pattern, if you date “arrival” to the Great Migration, but then stall out in the ‘70s-‘80s, and a lot of that has to do with RICO laws, post-60s reformist idealism, and the nationally-sponsored “war on crime” blocking this path. In an earlier world, black local politicians and street gangs would form alliances, eventually using patronage to co-opt and take over police forces, and extract rents that would be partially redistributed down the machine ladder. As is, you still have corruption, but it accrues to politicians, pastors and other organizers, and white property developers, without trickling down to street level.
You can quote me on that - the sorry state of American blacks is because criminal gangs are too weak and police aren’t corrupt and brutally extralegal enough.
What was I saying? Dashiell Hammett. Lived in San Francisco and set his fiction there. Was an actual private investigator, and accordingly has a strong focus on tradecraft, especially with the nameless “Continental Op”, employee of a fictionalized Pinkerton, protagonist of some of his books and most of his stories. Though the climaxes could get colorful, the Op’s assignments - quietly track down a runaway heiress, locate a fled embezzler - and methods - use 3-man teams to tail people on the street, question and dig up background on the target’s acquaintances, sit around and eavesdrop on conversations - were true to actual practice. (Hammett said the major difference is that what his characters accomplished in a week would in reality take several months, while they worked multiple cases in between).
While the Op was proudly professional (a recurring theme being his contempt for hotel staff “detectives”) but otherwise opaque, Hammett pioneered detective characterization with other characters. Where the Op was based on actual detectives he worked with, Sam Spade (protagonist of The Maltese Falcon) was based on those detectives’ romantic self-image, and his stoic facade, cynical chivalry, and romantic entanglements were a *huge* influence on later writers. Nick and Nora Charles, based on Hammet and his beloved, playwright Lillian Hellman, mixed investigation with screwball banter in a more lighthearted tone, and can be considered the predecessor of Maddie and David (of Moonlighting), Mulder & Scully, and even non-(explicitly-)romantic buddy partnerships like Crockett & Tubbs.
Hammett’s real-life experience exposed him to less picturesque aspects of the private investigator’s role in society as well. He complained that employers doing background checks were interested in issues of moral character that, gambling debts aside, had no correlation to trustworthiness, and he especially disliked working to suppress labor agitation. Starting as a Pinkerton agent, Hammett ended up being blacklisted and imprisoned as an enthusiastic communist activist.
Next is Raymond Chandler, the most literary of the detective greats. Where Hammett had been an actual PI, and reflected it in his writing, Chandler was a cuttingly observant man who retreated into drink because he was way too intelligent and cynical for Los Angeles, and reflected it in his. His Phillip Marlowe inhabited a thinly-to-the-point-of-pointlessly veiled LA, and passes through it with gimlet eye and poison tongue, all backhanded compliments and sideways insults. Hard-boiled fiction’s love of brilliant turns of phrase, of meandering digressions that end with a surprise punch to the gut, largely comes from him.
While at first glance Marlowe might seem to perform the duties of a detective same as the Op, on close examination you realize that none of what transpires has anything to do with his intentions, and that the plot is moved along by coincidences he encounters while out on assignment, with the ultimate plot of a tale usually about as unrelated to the inciting incident as in golden age Simpsons. This is equally true of The Big Lebowski, which is a loving Chandler tribute, and Chandler himself parodies this (and his/Marlowe’s booziness) in one of his later stories in which the plot is advanced by the things his protagonist literally runs into while drunk driving around LA.
Chandler’s novels are usually composed of the plots of 3 or 4 of his short stories banged together, but that’s fine, because the plot was never the thing, the meat being the wonderful language, setting, and characterizations, which were crafted anew. You can still to this day drive around LA and discover most of the places he described, looking exactly as stated. And while I can’t speak to his period accuracy, I was myself once a too intelligent, cynical Angelino writer for a while, to the point I avoided leaving home sober, and I can confirm that the kind of person who inhabits LA, their nature and motivations, are exactly as he laid out back then.
Chandler’s output eventually trailed off. One story, appearing years after any others, reads like absolutely terrible Chandler pastiche. Scholars disagree whether this was the product of an alcoholic wreck of a man who had known better than to try to publish anything for years but needed the money, or his wife pretending to be him because he was an alcoholic wreck of a man incapable of even writing anymore but needed the money.
If you’re only going to read one of these three, read Chandler.
Finally, a bit of a contrast in Mickey Spillane. Spillane’s famous recurring detective character was Mike Hammer. Given the name, you might not be surprised to learn he spent less time in cautiously piecing together mysteries than punching communists in the jaw, in much the same way Captain America spent a lot of time punching Nazis in the jaw. Actually, Spillane had been a writer for Captain America in the ‘40s. Actually, the character was originally written as a comic book protagonist named “Mike Danger”. Beyond communism, Hammer often found himself arrayed against such other corrupt and corrupting trappings of the decadent elite as drugs, psychotherapy, and trial by jury.
Spillane’s writing was, I’ll say, not up to the level of Hammett or Chandler, though he has been favorably cited by prominent writers like Ayn Rand and Frank Miller. If you look at pulp of the time though, he’s appreciably above average. Pulp… basically the closest parallel we have to pulp today is fanfiction, in terms of its average quality, low cost of production and consumption, sheer volume, and the rate at which it produces critical and commercial successes. And dear god, the smuttiness. Mike Hammer banged a lot of the broads he ran into. Before barefacedly honest pornography became as ubiquitous as it is, pulp filled the role of mainstream erotic product, with much detective pulp serving the same “drugstore-available erotica” role for men that romance pulp did for women. (Appreciating this makes the “Seduction of the Innocent” comic book scare about drugstore-available pulp for kids a bit more comprehensible).
This crossed over into other formats like cinema - Deep Throat, Beyond the Green Door, and The Devil in Miss Jones were all received as at least in the same ballpark as mainstream releases, and up into the ’80s, pornographic movies had plots and runtimes that roughly approximated Hollywood product, and even in the ‘90s, softcore product at least had narrative framing devices. Between gonzo and DVD nonlinearity and the internet and the collapse of obscenity prosecution against which to offer artistic content as defense that’s faded, though as the Valley studio system’s share of the industry shrinks you’re seeing them play to their strengths in production values and plot (particularly with parody content, Tijuana Bible/H-Doujinshi-style).
On the other hand you had whole parapornographic mainstream subgenres as the erotic thriller, the rape-revenge drama, the teen sex comedy - American Pie was released in 1999, which was really pushing the limit at which it was worth it to watch 90 minutes of material for the chance to briefly see a bare-chested girl masturbating. (It’s still worth it to hear Alyson Hannigan talking dirty, though.)
The one thing that pulp still has a hold on is violence. (In addition to the jaw, there are many loving passages of Hammer battering guys in the crotch.) While splatter-horror may be a flourishing niche genre, with regular DVD releases, it’s still that, a niche genre, and not the mega-industry of pornography. Video games yes, but detective pulp and “true crime” genres have mostly just migrated to another medium and become hourlong police procedurals like CSI or Law & Order, offering the same thrills of vicarious brutality masked by the fig leaf of nominal identification with the forces of law and order. (Though cable antihero dramas and serial killer procedurals like Dexter and Hannibal seem to be moving a half- to full step beyond that.)
Mickey Spillane. Ah, fuck it, I don’t have anything else to say about Mickey Spillane.