Saturday, January 11, 2014

He “Seemed Quite Unspoiled to Me”

We now think of Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler as being joined at the literary hip, brother knights charged with making American crime fiction more relevant and influential during the 20th century. But in fact, as the Los Angeles Times’ Carolyn Kellogg recalls, the two men didn’t know each other, and “met just once. That was 78 years ago today, Jan. 11, 1936, in Los Angeles.” She continues:
The occasion was the first West Coast get-together for Black Mask Magazine. A photograph taken at the end of the meal shows 10 pulp writers gathered patiently around the end of a table. Chandler and Hammett are both standing: Chandler has the pipe. Hammett, the tallest, is at the far right.

Of the 10, it was Hammett and Chandler whose work would become the most enduring. But there was no way of knowing that at the time--while both authors contributed to Black Mask, the two were at very different places in their careers.
By that point, Hammett--an alcoholic former detective agency operative--had published all five of the novels from which he would derive indelible renown, including The Maltese Falcon (1930) and The Thin Man (1934). Meanwhile, Chandler--an alcoholic former oil company vice-president, six years older than Hammett--was still just starting out as a writer, having penned a variety of short stories but no novels. (His first, The Big Sleep, wouldn’t see print till 1939.)

“No wonder Chandler didn’t make much of an impression on Hammett--who, apparently, never bothered to write a word about him,” remarks Kellogg. Chandler, however, did remember that L.A. encounter with Sam Spade’s creator. Kellogg says that “In a 1949 letter to Canadian journalist Alex Barris, he said of Hammett: ‘He was tops. Often wonder why he quit writing after “The Thin Man.” Met him once only, very nice looking tall quiet gray-haired--fearful capacity for Scotch, seemed quite unspoiled to me.’” And, of course, Chandler would speak well of Hammett again in his classic 1944 essay, “The Simple Art of Murder,” in which he applauded Hammett for having taken “murder out of the Venetian vase and dropped it into the alley,” where violence and venality were commonplace and could better integrate themselves into crime and mystery fiction.

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A concluding note: As much as I enjoy and respect Kellogg’s work, I have to point out an error she made in today’s Times piece. She writes that in 1936, “Hammett’s ‘The Maltese Falcon’ wasn’t yet a film, but his novel ‘The Thin Man’ was. Released in 1934, it was a commercial and critical success.” Yes, it’s true that the best, Humphrey Bogart version of The Maltese Falcon had not been released by ’36; it didn’t reach silver screens until 1941. However, there were two previous movie adaptations of Hammett’s only Sam Spade novel, one of which--The Maltese Falcon, starring Ricardo Cortez and Bebe Daniels--had debuted back in 1931. The second, Satan Met a Lady, a light-comedy version starring Bette Davis and Warren William (and in which private eye Spade is renamed “Ted Shane”) reached theaters in July 1936, six months after Hammett and Chandler met.

READ MORE:Rediscovered: When Hammett Met Chandler” and “Hammett: And (More) Chandler,” by Don Herron (Up and Down These Mean Streets).

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