Tuesday, November 15, 2016

Chandler Versus Hammett, Hammett Versus Chandler

I have been reviewing the top mystery novels which appeared on the Crime Writers' Association and the Mystery Writers of America best mystery lists.

The #2 entry in the CWA list, The Big Sleep by Raymond Chandler perfectly complements the #2 entry on the MWA list, The Maltese Falcon by Dashiell Hammett.

There exists a cosmic schism among fans and writers of hard-boiled mysteries: Hammett or Chandler?

Solomon: What about Raymond Chandler, who wrote so evocatively about Los Angeles lowlifes before you?
Ellroy: He is egregiously overrated
Solomon: Dashiell Hammett, whose name is synonymous with the adjective "hard-boiled?"
Ellroy: I think he's tremendously great...

From: Questions for James Ellroy, The Mother Load. Interview by Deborah Solomon. New York Times Magazine. Nov. 5, 2006.

"I grew up wanting to be Raymond Chandler, and now, in a sense, I am." Robert B. Parker quoted in Los Angeles Times, 1/13/1991.

Hammett Vs. Chandler

  • Razor-sharp observations Vs. Whiskey-laced metaphors
  • A hard puncher Vs. Pugilistic poet
  • Banter Vs. Wisecracks
  • Spade Vs. Marlowe
  • Bogart Vs. Bogart and Bacall
  • SF Noir Vs. LA Noir
  • Fog on the Waterfront Vs. Santa Ana winds.

Both served up hard liquor, double crosses, cheap hoods, sinister kingpins, and dazzling, dangerous dames.

Author: Dashiell Hammett
The Maltese Falcon
Publication: 1930
Rank: #8 on the CWA list, #2 on the MWA list.
Word Count: 66373
Age of author at time of publication: 35.
Previous novels published by this author: two.
Opening line: Samuel Spade’s jaw was long and bony, his chin a jutting v under the more flexible v of his mouth.
Significance: The most iconic detective in mystery fiction who only had a single book.

Author: Raymond Chandler
The Big Sleep
Publication: 1939
Rank: #10 on the CWA list, #2 on the MWA list.
Word Count: 56955
Age of author at time of publication: 51.
Previous novels published by this author: none.
Opening line: It was about eleven o’clock in the morning, mid-October, with the sun not shining and a look of hard wet rain in the clearness of the foothills.
Significance: The most iconic private eye in mystery fiction.

The Battle Is ON.

Round One: Career Output, Prose.
Dashiell Hammett wrote five novels and 50 short stories.
Raymond Chandler wrote seven novels and 24 short stories.
(Neither set of figures includes posthumous publications.)
Commentary: Chandler started later in life (age 51, first novel) and all of his novels presented Philip Marlowe as the protagonist. Hammett started publishing novels in his mid-thirties and stopped in his late-thirties. Two novels featured the Continental Op while the others had varied protagonists, most famously Sam Spade and Nick and Nora Charles.
Advantage: Hammett. Writing single novels about characters is more difficult than a series.

Round Two: Supplementary Output.
Dashiell Hammett wrote the screenplays to After The Thin Man; Shadow of The Thin Man; The Glass Key, and Watch on the Rhine. (and probably received help from Lillian Hellman)
Raymond Chandler wrote screenplays to: Double Indemnity; And Now Tomorrow; Strangers on a Train; Blue Dahlia; and, The Unseen. Usually with co-writers.
Dashiell Hammett wrote the first four adventures of the comic hero: Secret Agent X-9, a character who spent sixty years in comic pages.
Raymond Chandler wrote passable poetry and influential essays about mystery literature.
Advantage: Chandler's movies were better, his essays were iconic but, jeepers! Hammett wrote a comic book! Still, I have to give this to Chandler.

Hammett created Secret Agent X-9 after his novel-writing career.

Round Three: Quotability.
Hammett, Maltese Falcon: "The cheaper the crook, the gaudier the patter."
Chandler, The Big Sleep: "I don't mind your showing me your legs. They're very swell legs and it's a pleasure to make their acquaintance."
Hammett, Maltese Falcon: "The chances are you'll get off with life. That means you'll be out again in twenty years. You're an angel. I'll wait for you." He cleared his throat. "If they hang you, I'll always remember you."
Chandler, The Big Sleep: Under the thinning fog the surf curled and creamed, almost without sound, like a thought trying to form itself on the edge of consciousness.
Hammett, Maltese Falcon: Joel Cairo: "You always have a very smooth explanation ready."
Sam Spade: "What do you want me to do, learn to stutter?"
Chandler, Playback: "Guns never settle anything," I said. "They’re just a fast curtain to a bad second act."
Advantage: Chandler. Although not evidenced in the above examples, one of Chandler's faults is that he sometimes chose zingers over better writing. Still, he leads in the quotability factor.

Round Four: Movie Adaptation.
Considering the fact that such short stories as "Witness for the Prosecution" made it on to the all-time great mystery novel lists, one has to accept the fact that a great movie adaptation influences our appreciation of the book.
Hammett, The Maltese Falcon. Several versions including the all-time noir great directed by John Huston. The movie kept most of the book dialogue intact and featured perfect casting in all parts. The 1931 version directed by Roy Del Ruth is no slouch and being pre-Code, included direct sexual references.
Chandler, The Big Sleep. Two versions, but the 1946 make with Bogart and Bacall, directed by Howard Hawks, remains the classic. As a heresy, I like the Mitchum version of Marlowe better (1978), but the whole does not stand up well (and how dare they move it to London).
Advantage: Hammett. I can think of no movie more perfectly cast than The Maltese Falcon, 1941.

Round Five: Vox Populi. (11/15/2016)
Hammett, The Maltese Falcon, Goodreads votes, 62987, 3.92 rating.
Chandler, The Big Sleep, Goodreads votes, 82599, 4.04 rating.
Hammett, The Maltese Falcon, Amazon reviews, 555, 4.2 stars.
Chandler, The Big Sleep, Amazon reviews, 510, 4.3 stars.
Advantage: Chandler. The Big Sleep seems to be getting more love here. (I don't understand reviewers. These books should be between 4.5 and 5.0. What are you saving 5 stars for?)

Round Six: Best Life Story.
Let's face it. One reason that books and other forms of art are celebrated is the story behind them. John Kennedy Toole's tragedy, great fights against censorship, Malcolm Lowry's demons, all infuse the pages of their works.
Hammett: He was a P.I.. He battled tuberculosis and alcoholism (and stopped drinking about 12 years before he died). He wrote five great novels in five years and then, for mysterious reasons wrote no more prose. He was a communist who went to jail rather than reveal names before the House UnAmerican Activities Committee. His longtime companion, Lillian Hellman, is a legend in her own right. A smoker, he died of lung cancer.
Chandler: He spent his formative writing years in England where he published essays and poetry. Then he returned to the United States where he published nothing for 20 years. As a third act he wrote a series of short stories that expanded the emotional and existential borders of hard-boiled crime. He published his first novel (The Big Sleep) in his fifties. One of the most famously hard-drinking authors, he spent his career drunk or taking the cure and died in a rehabilitation clinic.
Advantage: Both have evocative life stories and not-your-typical writing careers. Advantage: Hammett.

Round Seven: The Critics and The Peers.

Has any writer with such a small oeuvre influenced American culture more than Raymond Chandler?

From: The Case For Raymond Chandler, Alan Barra. Salon, 7/31/2002.

It must be said that in the inevitable comparison between Hammett and Chandler, Chandler comes off second best. There was  a toughness in Hammett that Chandler lacked, and did not appreciate. Mystery author and critic Julian Symon in the mystery review, Bloody Murder (1972).

In researching this post, I was surprised at how many critics and famous writers pounded Chandler. Even the above-linked article, The Case for Raymond Chandler, is tepid in its praise. In contrast, I could not find anyone significant who said that Hammett was overrated, although several complained about his abbreviated output or else deemed specific works to be of lesser quality, especially The Dain Curse and The Thin Man.
Advantage: Hammett.

Round Eight: The Sequels.
Hammett, The Maltese Falcon. Although Hammett never wrote more about Sam Spade, Spade did become a major radio character. In recent years, Joe Gores wrote a worthy prequel, Spade & Archer.
Chandler, The Big Sleep. Chandler's entire writing career involved writing sequels, and not only did Marlowe return, but so did his cast of criminals.
Advantage: Chandler.

Overall Verdict: Both are essential reads. My personal preference is Hammett. When I read The Maltese Falcon, I decided I wanted to write mysteries.

Bonus treat: BBC radio adaptations of all seven Chandler novels. 

"I was never influenced by Chandler or Hammett." Elmore Leonard.

From: Elmore Leonard, interviewed in Endangered Species: Writers Talk About Their Craft, Their Visions, Their Lives, Lawrence Grobel. Da Capo Press, 2009.

Previously, #1 CWA list, The Daughter of Time
#1 MWA list, The Complete Sherlock Holmes

Martin Hill Ortiz is the author of Never Kill A Friend, Ransom Note Press.

Never Kill A Friend, Ransom Note Press

Never Kill A Friend is available for purchase in hard cover format and as an ebook.
The story follows Shelley Krieg, an African-American detective for the Washington DC Metro PD as she tries to undo a wrong which sent an innocent teenager to prison.

Hard cover: Amazon US
Kindle: Amazon US
Hard cover: Amazon UK
Kindle: Amazon UK
Barnes and Noble 

1 comment:

  1. How could you omit this great quote from "The Big Sleep"?

    “You know what Canino will do---beat my teeth out and then kick me in the stomach for mumbling.”