Chandler vs. Hammett

Reading about P.D. James’s Talking About Detective Fiction, I found a post at A Work in Progress that excerpted James on hard-boiled American fiction, catching my eye with it’s description of Dashiell Hammet:

Hammett had a rough upbringing and supported his family by writing short stories for the pulp magazines. Interestingly (but maybe not at all surprising) his editors wanted “violent action, vividly portrayed characters and a prose style ruthlessly pruned of all essentials.”

I suppose this is someone’s misprint, or mis-edit, but I read this shortly after finishing The Thin Man, my second go with Hammett, thinking it was a bit too apt. A few weeks ago I noted that Chandler actually made me visualize scenes, which he presents in extreme detail and with admirable precision.

In The High Window, for example, when he goes to the home of a blackmailer who’s just been killed, he gives a cinematic and vivid description of the room the body is found in. That physical description is important, not just as a window into the life and situation of the blackmailer, or even just as a collection of evidence useful in solving the murder, but also immediately important to the events that will unfold in the coming pages.

One of the ways Chandler achieves his vivid images is through his trademark similes. I like them, quite a bit, but what really gets me is his perfect diction. Words are specific and extremely appropriate. It all helps the visualization, and the action, and the characterization.

Hammett feels much more stripped down—not that there’s much wrong with that for pulp, of course. In The Thin Man, the first and completest description of Mimi, one of the three major female characters:

The doorbell rang. I went to the door. Eight years had done no damage to Mimi’s looks. She was a little riper, showier, that was all. She was larger than her daughter, and her blondness was more vivid. She laughed and held her hands out to me.

Mimi turns out to be a wild force of nature. Her whole family is a bit mad; she has probably done something very Freudian to ruin her children. It makes for a lot of hysterics and a dialogue-heavy novel where it seems much of the time the most the narration gives you is information about how so-and-so’s “eyes [are] shining” and how this other one sounds “excited.” And those first few sentences up there could be a parody of Hemingway.

Compare with The High Window‘s first description of Mrs. Murdock, Philip Marlowe’s client in this case and a roughly similar figure, in terms of the novel, to Mimi:

There was a reed chaise longue over by the window. It had a curved back and enough cushions to stuff an elephant and there was a woman leaning back on it with a wine glass in her hand. I could smell the thick scented alcoholic odor of the wine before I could see her properly. Then my eyes got used to the light and I could see her.

She had a lot of face and chin. She had pewter-colored hair set in a ruthless permanent, a hard beak and large moist eyes with the sympathetic expression of wet stones. There was lace at her throat, but it was the kind of throat that would have looked better in a football sweater. She wore a grayish silk dress. Her thick arms were bare and mottled. There were jet buttons in her ears. There was a low glass-topped table beside her and a bottle of port on the table. She sipped from the glass she was holding and looked at me over it and said nothing.

Mrs. Murdock is much more solid for me than Mimi ever is; I have an easier time all around understanding her as an agent. Even Nora, Nick Charles’s wife and co-star of The Thin Man, is never so comprehensible for me. She’s game and fun and has breakfast in the afternoons and is only 26 but so much older and wiser than young Dorothy, older and wiser than Nick even, but innocent, and just all-around wonderful. Perhaps she’s just too perfect, or that Nick is also much more slippery for me than Marlowe, but the interpersonal dynamics are much more difficult for me to understand in Hammett.

And that’s sort of surprising, because I’m so often surprised by who’s actually dunnit in Chandler, and surprised by what he decides to let go and what needs to be reported to the police and all that. Then again, I did think the reveal in The Thin Man was a bit cheap—not against the unwritten rules of the genre, but skirting the line of too clever or not clever enough by half, to paraphrase Evadne Mount.

6 comments to Chandler vs. Hammett

  • The Chandler quote you pulled reminds me how much I love him and that I should read more of his work! I love the economy of how his descriptions work as evocative scenes, and also as character development for Marlowe/the narrator, and also as humor. He’s fantastic.

  • For me, it’s Chandler, but I could be persuaded otherwise with a strong argument.

    I just completed my collection of Chandler with the new covers…I love them.

  • Peter

    I cannot disagree more. Hammett’s description is terse and spot-on, vivid. Enough to evoke, then get out of the way. The mind of the reader forms the picture from prior experience, as evoked by the deft, spare description. Chandler piles too much on, gassing, cleverness over substance. Chandler steps on his own feet, over and over. Marlowe, if he met Spade, would say something clever and bitimg, then Spade would slug him (just so, the sweetspot on the jaw)and step over his unconscious form, on the way out the door. The gaudier the patter, the cheaper the punk.

  • Peter—Haha, I don’t know that I disagree with your penultimate sentence at all. But maybe that’s why I don’t like Spade so much.

  • cthulhu

    Unfortunately, “The Thin Man” is far and away the worst of Hammett’s five novels. My recommendation is to read the other four in chronological order: “Red Harvest”, “The Dain Curse”, “The Maltese Falcon”, and “The Glass Key”. All are worth the investment in time.

    I’m assuming that you are familiar with Chandler’s delicious essay “The Simple Art of Murder” as well; it does as good a job as has ever been done in setting out the motivation for the hard-boiled style and story, and also delineates where Chandler was trying to go beyond Hammett.

    As for me, I am definitely a fan of Hammett’s first four novels, but they don’t speak to me the same way that Chandler’s works do. “The Long Goodbye”, in particular, is as good an American novel as was written in the 20th century, IMHO.

  • Thanks for the info on Hammett. I have read The Maltese Falcon and definitely did prefer it to The Thin Man which seemed, now that it’s faded a bit in memory, mostly just…thin. I’ll definitely have to try at least a few of the others.

    I do love “The Simple Art of Murder” and completely agree with you on “The Long Goodbye.” Almost anytime I read Chandler I begin to think he is probably one of the most underrated (American) novelists of the 20th c.

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