Monday, December 11, 2006

The Evolution of Figurative Writing in Hard-Boiled Detective Fiction,
as examined through three texts: The Maltese Falcon by Dashiell Hammett, The Big Sleep by Raymond Chandler, and Black Money by Ross Macdonald

I recently completed a course in hard-boiled detective fiction. One of the requirements was to write a paper about how the genre evolved over time, using three of the texts we read in class. I am delighted that I got an "A" for the course, and due to a few requests, I'm sharing my paper. Comments and constructive criticism are always welcome. -- Stacy

The hard-boiled detective novel has at its core a certain consistency that has lasted from its inception in the early 1920’s through contemporary times. Unlike its British predecessors that centered on class distinction and formulaic mystery, hard-boiled detective fiction considers much more. These writers often had a political agenda, and by taking into account harsh realities of life in America, and a gloomy outlook along with a new distrust of authority, the genre became known for being believable while still maintaining simplicity, and in some instances for offering more of a sense of realism than that which came before it.

This change was first seen in the stories published in The Black Mask, founded by Henry L. Mencken. The stories reflected heroes who had a strict moral code that may or may not have been widely accepted by society. However, their primary concern was the quest for justice by any means; consequently the heroes of these stories were usually tough guys and loners. Writers like Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler got their start at the pulp magazine but went on to create hard-boiled detective novels that are now considered to be literature worth studying, primarily due to the use of figurative writing.

Dashiell Hammett, with his “blond satan” detective, Sam Spade, in The Maltese Falcon, broke new ground with his harsh hero and the amount of violence portrayed. Hammett used similes and metaphors to create more vivid descriptions and to describe the new genre. He was quickly followed by Raymond Chandler, who took the genre another step forward by using metaphors that emphasized the setting and character motivation, unusual similes and terse dialogue in his Philip Marlowe series. We can see further growth in the genre when we get to Ross Macdonald and his use of thematically related metaphors in the Lew Archer private detective series – a nod to Hammett and the partner Sam Spade lost in The Maltese Falcon.

In The Maltese Falcon, Hammett appealed to the strong masculine image with his hero. He describes Spade in the opening paragraph:

“Samuel Spade's jaw was long and bony, his chin a jutting v under the more flexible v of his mouth. His nostrils curved back to make another smaller v. His yellow-grey eyes were horizontal. The v motif was picked up again by thickish brows rising outward from twin creases above a hooked nose,...He looked rather pleasantly like a blond satan" (3).

He is also described as “wolfish” throughout the novel, and indeed this opening description could be that of a wolf.

Hammett used metaphors and similes sparingly in comparison to the authors who came after him, but when he used them he did so very effectively. He described Flitcraft’s mysteriously quick disappearance: “He went like that,” Spade said, “like a fist when you open your hand” (62). In fact, the Flitcraft parable can be construed as a metaphor for the new hard-boiled genre that appears to be a reaction to the world events and goes off in a new direction, yet ultimately is still detective fiction.

Hammett continues proving Spade’s tough guy masculinity. He has Spade talk about his way of detecting, of gaining new information. He scares Brigid when he tells her, “My way of learning is to heave a wild and unpredictable monkey-wrench into the machinery. It’s all right with me, if you’re sure none of the flying pieces will hurt you” (86).

By using a third person objective narration, we have to rely on the description of Spade’s face to get a hint as to his thoughts, which are never shared with the reader. We learn by reading his facial reactions to what is going on around him: “Spade said nothing in a blank-faced definite way” (43); “Spade’s voice was as empty of expression as his face” (45); “Spade smiled at the boy. His smile was not broad, but the amusement in it seemed genuine and unalloyed” (181).
Hammett used vivid imagery in his character descriptions. Spade confronts a young man who was following him, who is described as having “a voice as colorless and composed and cold as his young face” (93), an alliterative and intuitive description.

Undoubtedly the most memorable description we get is Gutman’s, whose name is a metaphor of his description: “The fat man was flabbily fat with bulbous pink cheeks and lips and chins and neck, with a great soft egg of a belly that was all his torso, and pendant cones for arms and legs. As he advanced to meet Spade all his bulbs rose and shook and fell separately with each step, in the manner of clustered soap-bubbles not yet released from the pipe through which they had been blown” (104). This description is diametrically opposed to Spade’s own, putting even more emphasis on their differences that surpass just looks alone, but go directly to their oppositional mindsets. Using such description as metaphor is one of the defining structural components of the genre.

Building on what Hammett started, Raymond Chandler’s writing is rich with metaphor and simile. In The Big Sleep, we get a detailed opening description of some art: “there was a broad stained-glass panel showing a knight in dark armor rescuing a lady who was tied to a tree and didn’t have any clothes on but some very long and convenient hair. The knight had pushed the vizor of his helmet back to be sociable, and he was fiddling with the knots on the ropes that tied the lady to the tree and not getting anywhere. I stood there and thought that if I lived in the house, I would sooner or later have to climb up there and help him. He didn't seem to be really trying.” (3). The knight is a metaphor for Philip Marlowe, and is self-referential as the novel is written in the first person. He is referred to again later on when Marlowe goes home and finds Carmen nude in his bed, rather like the nude damsel in the stained glass. Instead of focusing on Carmen, we get this: “I looked down at the chessboard. The move with the knight was wrong. I put it back where I had moved it from. Knights had no meaning in this game. It wasn't a game for knights” (156). Then he throws Carmen out of his room, adhering to his chivalrous moral code of not sleeping with the client’s daughter.

Chandler used figurative writing as subtle reminders of his California setting as well. He describes the cabinets in his office as “full of California climate” (56). Eddie Mars’s place has a parquet floor “made of a dozen kinds of hardwood, from Burma teak through half a dozen shades of oak and ruddy wood that looked like mahogany, and fading out to the hard pale wild lilac of the California hills” (135-136). Chandler gets even more specific when writing about the porn industry: “Everybody knows the racket exists. Hollywood’s made to order for it” (81).

Chandler also expanded on a recurring description of a character that first appeared in Hammett’s Red Harvest, “the gray man” (12), and shows up regularly throughout the hard-boiled genre. Chandler took it further: “He was a gray man, all gray, except for his polished black shoes and two scarlet diamonds in his gray satin tie that looked like the diamonds on roulette layouts. His shirt was gray and his double-breasted suit of soft, beautifully cut flannel. Seeing Carmen he took a gray hat off and his hair underneath was gray and as fine as if it had been sifted through gauze. His thick gray eyebrows had that indefinably sporty look. He had a long chin, a nose with a hook to it, thoughtful gray eyes that had a slanted look” (68). In this instance, Chandler is describing the gangster Eddie Mars, but a “gray man” appears in many other hard-boiled detective novels.

Ross Macdonald also used a character that could be described as a “gray man” in Black Money: “A man was sunk in an armchair by the windows, reading a book. His hair was gray, and his face very nearly the same colorless color” (22). Macdonald also used figurative writing in his descriptions, creating instant visual flashes of clarity for the reader.

“The man behind the wheel wore rectangular dark glasses which covered the upper part of his face like a mask” (14).

“A tired–looking hostess offered me the temporary use of her smile” (75).

“His face was swollen tight and mottled, like a sausage” (107).

However, Macdonald often closely tied his metaphors and similes thematically to the plot, bringing the genre to yet another level. A recurring theme running through Black Money is marriage. Mrs. Tappinger is first introduced as, “A woman was bowed over the sink in a passive-aggressive attitude, peeling potatoes” (38). We learn about Archer too, from this: “A married woman with young children wasn’t exactly my dish, but she interested me” (42). Later Archer leaves Bess to take a taxi home: “She looked at me as if I was abandoning her to a fate worse than life” (138).

But marriage isn’t always bad in Archer’s world. Dr. Sylvester says, “the girls with bad cases of romanticism turn into realists. Like my dear wife here” (66). The photographer, Eric Malkovsky, doesn’t want to work late because he and his wife have tickets to a film and he tells Archer, who offers to reimburse him, “That’s not the point. I hate to disappoint her” (70).

Macdonald’s apparent interest in literature is another theme running through Black Money. Tappinger is a professor with “the professional habit of nonstop talking” (39). He is trying to write a book on Stephen Crane and tells Archer, “But that wouldn’t interest you” (39). Later on Archer finds several variations of manuscripts that he describes as “gibberish” and the most recent as a “hopeless manuscript” (231). There is also a reference to the three fates of Greek mythology in a conversation Archer has with Martel.

Finally, an argument about Black Money’s theme of literature and use of metaphor wouldn’t be complete without mentioning that the novel is often viewed as an updated version of The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald. Martel is the Gatsby-esque figure, a dreamer who is young and poor when he falls in love, reinvents himself then comes back, successful, to get the girl. Archer is the Nick Carroway character, the innocent bystander who tells the story.

Archer isn’t as hard-boiled as Spade or Marlowe, at least in Black Money. He doesn’t drink, other than some champagne with Bess Tappinger, and he doesn’t carry a gun unless he needs it. When he does carry it, we get this: “I pushed the front door wide open and walked in, conscious of the gun bulging like a benign tumor in my armpit” (192).

Yet all these private detectives have something in common; a code of honor that is explored and examined throughout each book. Spade, who may or may not be in love with Brigid O’Shaughnessy but nonetheless, has no qualms about turning her in to the police because she was a murderer. Marlowe offers to give the client his money back because he didn’t solve the case the way he intended to, and he throws a naked woman out of his apartment because she’s the client’s daughter. Archer tells us, “It was a moral hardship for me to walk away from an unclosed case” (207).

It is these moral dilemmas that helped shape the hard-boiled detective fiction into a unique genre, while the violence, realism, and politics also add to its mystique. Yet it is the figurative writing found within these detective novels that force them to break free of the shackles of “genre,” and push hard-boiled detective fiction into the wider realm of mainstream literature.


Chandler, Raymond: The Big Sleep, Vintage Books
Hammett, Dashiell: The Maltese Falcon, Vintage Crime/Black Lizard
Hammett, Dashiell: Red Harvest, Vintage Crime/Black Lizard
Macdonald, Ross: Black Money, Vintage Crime/Black Lizard

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