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Trouble Was His Business -- Raymond Chandler

March 27, 2009 | 10:00 am

Tough Guys and Sentimental Gumshoes

* SELECTED LETTERS OF DASHIELL HAMMETT 1921-1960 Edited by Richard Layman with Julie M. Rivett; Counterpoint: 650 pp., $40

* THE RAYMOND CHANDLER PAPERS Selected Letters and Nonfiction 1909-1959 Edited by Tom Hiney and Frank MacShane; Atlantic Monthly Press: 268 pp., $25

May 6, 2001

By DICK LOCHTE, Dick Lochte writes the regular "Mysteries" column for Southern California Living

"Hammett was the ace performer," wrote Raymond Chandler in his frequently quoted 1944 essay, "The Simple Art of Murder." "He did over and over again what only the best writers can ever do at all. He wrote scenes that seemed never to have been written before." Chandler's appraisal of Dashiell Hammett's influence on American crime fiction is unassailable. With numerous short stories and five novels, of which "The Maltese Falcon" and "The Thin Man" are probably the best known, Hammett moved the mystery story from a celebration of over-educated amateur sleuths who solved improbable crimes (exemplified by S.S. Van Dine's playboy-genius Philo Vance, whose arrogance compelled poet Ogden Nash to pen: "Philo Vance/Needs a kick in the pants") to a study of professional detectives who used street smarts and shoe leather to get their jobs done. Still, it was ingenuous of Chandler to mention it, since, at the time, he'd been tapped by the critical establishment and mystery fans as the heir apparent to the no longer productive Hammett.

Chandler and Hammett occupied roughly the same period: Hammett was born in 1894, six years after Chandler, and died in 1961, two years after him. They were not friends. According to all accounts, they met only once, in 1936, at a Hollywood dinner for contributors to Black Mask magazine. But they will be linked forever as the men of letters who, in Chandler's razor-edged words, took "a cheap, shoddy, and utterly lost kind of writing and ... made it into something that intellectuals claw each other about."

Much of the clawing was reserved for Hammett's "The Maltese Falcon," a lesson in avarice in which archetypal private eye Sam Spade searches for the murderer of his partner and a jewel-encrusted statue worth millions, and "The Glass Key," on the surface a whodunit involving the murder of a senator's ne'er-do-well son, but actually a study of power politics and male bonding. A segment of the literary establishment, led by Alexander Woollcott and Dorothy Parker, considered Hammett to be a major novelist. The opposition was led by Edmund Wilson, who ranked "Falcon" on a par with "newspaper picture-strips." Wilson was a bit more positive about "Farewell, My Lovely," one of Chandler's more tightly woven novels, a mixture of mayhem and romanticism in which detective Philip Marlowe is hired by an ex-convict named Moose Malloy to locate his lost lady love, an auburn-haired club singer as "cute as lace pants." What the literati said about them was important, of course, but as Chandler indicated, being discussed at all was a major accomplishment for writers of crime fiction.

Both men were fiercely private, lending an air of mystery to their lives. The more shadowy areas of Chandler's history have been illuminated by well-researched biographies and two generous books of letters: "Raymond Chandler Speaking," edited by Dorothy Gardiner and Kathrine Sorley Walker, and "Selected Letters of Raymond Chandler," edited by Frank MacShane. Hammett's life is a different matter. Though it has been examined in books, motion pictures and television dramas and documentaries, major questions remain. Why did he suddenly stop writing fiction in 1934 at the height of his career? What was his relationship to the wife and daughters whom he had seemingly deserted? How much of his decades-long affair with Lillian Hellman was real and how much the product of her imagination? (Gore Vidal once wondered wickedly if anyone had ever actually seen them together.)

"Selected Letters of Dashiell Hammett 1921-1960" was harvested from more than 1,000 existing letters by biographer Richard Layman ("Shadow Man: The Life of Dashiell Hammett") and the author's granddaughter, Julie M. Rivett. Presented chronologically, with annotations and trenchant biographical fill-ins, the letters depict a life if not in full then at least in focus. There's not much here to add to the accumulated information about Hammett's professional affairs. The key revelations are personal: self-portraits of the author as doting father, unremitting drunk, self-educated intellectual, committed Marxist, patriot, soft touch, seducer and romantic.

Hammett's earliest entries date from just after World War I, when tuberculosis put his career as a Pinkerton operative on hold. They're unabashed love songs sung by an infirm 26-year-old to Josephine Dolan, the pretty nurse he'd left behind after moving to another hospital. "I may have done a lot of things that weren't according to scripture," he wrote to his future wife on March 9, 1921, "but I love Josephine Anna Dolan -- and have since about the sixth of January -- more than anything in Christ's world." Tempering his ardor somewhat, he added a line meant to be playful: "Some day I may partially forget you, and be able to enjoy another woman, but there's nothing to show that it'll be soon."

On a November night in 1930, at a party hosted by Darryl Zanuck, Hammett was introduced to Lillian Hellman, at the time the wife of screenwriter Arthur Kober. As the book's editors describe it, they "left the party together and were companions for the rest of his life." Since he would complete only one more novel, "The Thin Man," the general assumption has been that Hellman was the reason for a writer's block that lasted for three decades. But his letters indicate that she was only one of a wide range of impediments. There were other women. He maintained a continuing, if long-distance, relationship with Josephine and his two daughters. He drank heavily and was in and out of hospitals. He was active in socialist politics. He wrote screenplays. And, while on the West Coast, he wrote letters to Hellman in the East. By then he was starting to sound like his blase "Thin Man" hero, Nick Charles. "I've been faithful enough to you," he informed her from Hollywood, "but I went back on the booze pretty heavily until Saturday night -- neglecting studio, dignity and so on."

In 1942, at age 48, in a patriotic, anti-fascist fervor, he enlisted in the Army. He was stationed on Adak Island in the Aleutians, a ruthlessly cold and desolate location that offered little by way of hedonistic pleasure. But as is clear from his wartime correspondence -- more than 250 pages of letters, predominantly to Josephine, his daughters, Hellman and another paramour, Prudence Whitfield -- Hammett relished his military duty, particularly his main assignment, the creation and editing of a daily camp newspaper.

The final letters were addressed primarily to his younger daughter, Jo. They are relentlessly upbeat, no matter how dreary the circumstance. After numerous failed attempts to jump-start his fiction career, he wrote her, "... it's swell having a new novel not to do: I was getting pretty bored with just not working on that half a dozen or so old ones...." After his imprisonment for refusing to aid a federal court in locating bail-jumping Communists, he seemed almost jaunty. "Dear Jo, This is the first letter I've written since I've been in the clink ... it's getting kind of fallish down here, with frosty nights, mostly foggy mornings and sunny afternoons ...." At liberty again but in failing health, he continued to put on a game face, responding with genuine-seeming warmth and grandfatherly pride to news of her children. His last letter, penned just 15 days before lung cancer claimed him, was a paean to his chance meeting with Hellman 30 years before. He described that event as "the beginning of everything."

But as compelling and informative as many of these letters are, there is an overabundance of them. Those addressed to his wife after their parting are repetitious enough to take on the aspects of a litany: My health is improving, my weight is increasing, the weather here is (fill in the blank), a check is in the mail and kiss the girls for me. And it's unclear who or what is served by the inclusion of several bits of sappy esoterica, such as Hammett' s toe-curling "Love Poem" to Hellman: "I am silly/About Lily./Without Lily,/I am silly/Willy-nilly."

In comparison, "The Raymond Chandler Papers" is much leaner. And definitely meaner. There's a genial quality to most of Hammett's letters. Even in his rare flashes of waspishness, he pulled his punches. The Chandler letters, on the other hand, are the work of a hypercritical past master of the use of sarcasm, irony and bitter wit. In his introduction, Tom Hiney mentions newly resurrected material, but there's not much of it, other than a gleefully vicious description of an Academy Award celebration that appeared in a 1948 issue of the Atlantic Monthly, a rather feeble 1958 interview with Lucky Luciano that the London Sunday Times commissioned and then discarded and a few scattered excerpts from business letters. But even though the book is essentially a trimmed-down version of the "Selected Letters" edited by the late MacShane, the new offering is jampacked with shimmering invective aimed in every direction, including inward.

Hiney has not been scrupulous in indicating every minor edit or in researching his annotations (he seems to think that Studs Lonigan was "a pseudonym of James T. Farrell"), but he has been careful to include many of his subject's more harshly humorous observations. An example, written to critic and novelist Lenore Offord: "Most writers have the egotism of actors with none of the good looks or charm." And to Charles Morton, associate editor of Atlantic Monthly: "Talking of agents, when I opened the paper one morning last week I saw that it had finally happened: somebody shot one. It was probably for the wrong reasons, but at least it was a step in the right direction."

The "Chandler Papers" covers much of the author's adult life, beginning with samples of poems and essays written in his early 20s for several British literary magazines; a brief, crisp account of a day in the trenches during World War I; and a maudlin poem to his wife, Sissy. The letters start with his association with publishers Alfred and Blanche Knopf regarding the 1939 debut of his first novel, "The Big Sleep," then move through the good, productive years of the '30s, '40s and '50s, when he wrote his remaining six novels and assorted screenplays.

After Sissy's death in 1954, they describe a sort of aimless decline, during which he reportedly attempted suicide. In a letter to British publisher Roger Machell, he suggests that the "suicide" may have been an accident. "I couldn't for the life of me tell you whether I really intended to go through with it or whether my subconscious was putting on a cheap dramatic performance. The first shot went off without my intending to ... the trigger pull was so light that I barely touched it ...." Though drinking heavily and traveling back and forth from London to La Jolla in search of a "comfortable home," he managed to write what many consider to be his best novel, "The Long Goodbye," and arguably his worst, "Playback." The last letter in the book, to British detective novelist Maurice Guinness, discusses the pros and cons of Philip Marlowe's taking a wife. Chandler neglects to mention his own plans to marry his agent Helga Greene, Guinness' cousin (an event canceled by his fatal episode of pneumonia).

The letters offer few glimpses into his private life (except for some strikingly unpleasant examples of his anti-Semitism and misogyny). It's as if, by railing against everyone and everything from desert weather to American justice, Chandler were trying to deflect attention from matters too painful or too personal for him to discuss. The nearest he comes to self-revelation occurs just after the death of Sissy, in a letter to Roger Machell. "All us tough guys are hopeless sentimentalists at heart," he wrote. He was speaking of himself, of course, but he could just as easily have been speaking of Hammett too.

Note: To mark the 50th anniversary of Raymond Chandler's death, the Daily Mirror is revisiting some of The Times' stories about his life and influence. We invite the Daily Mirror's readers to share their thoughts.
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