When you hear the term “hard-boiled crime” you might think of these two names: Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler. They are considered by many to be the founding fathers of the genre.
Hammett is credited with writing the very first hard-boiled story, “Fly Paper,” published in Black Mask in 1929. His iconic private eye, Sam Spade, became the model of the detective in every crime subgenre. His most famous book, The Maltese Falcon, features Spade and is widely considered to be a great American novel. It had just as big an impact on crime writing as did its main character.
Chandler cited Hammett as one of his major influences. His private eye, Philip Marlowe has also inspired countless others to write such characters. Chandler developed philosophies on crime writing than ring true today. He defined what it means to “walk these mean streets” of literature.
Since I love reading both of them, I was surprised to learn that the Hammett and Chandler fan-bases frequently debate which of these crime fiction masters was better.
Let’s join in the fun!
Dashiell Hammett worked as a private detective in San Francisco before getting tired of the job and becoming a writer. He lived the life of his character, Sam Spade. It shows in his work.
Hammett’s writing has a realistic edge to it. Spade’s clients and villains are members of the criminal world. They’re tough people with plenty of motive to murder, steal from, and con each other. They live in the underbelly of San Fran. They are professional crooks who make little effort to hide their criminal natures.
Spade joins in the schemes and double-blinds, as well. He’s not a pure hero seeking justice. Far from it. In The Maltese Falcon, he sees an opportunity to score and tries to make a deal. He has an affair with his partner’s wife, to the extent that she suspects him when his partner turns up dead—she thinks Spade killed him so he could marry her.
Hammett’s private eye is as tough as the people who hire him. And as ruthless as the adversaries he faces. This is the edge with which Hammett crafted his stories.
Raymond Chandler worked in one of the most corrupt American industries of the day: big oil. He rose to the top in his company before becoming an author. And corruption became his favorite subject to write about.
His novels, set in Los Angeles, portray city officials, the wealthy, and the police as flawed, often villainous people. He points out the corruption in the systems on which society relies for justice.
His famous private eye, Philip Marlowe, is the knight-errant who makes up for the failing system. He deals with clients and villains who are respectable members of society… on the surface.
Marlowe uncovers their transgressions. They are often two-faced, personifying Chandler’s point that we cannot trust the system or the people running it. These characters are morally grey, not wholly villains but certainly not “the good guys” of the story. They have complex reasons for committing their crimes, which typically go beyond the heists and hustles of Hammett’s stories.
Unlike Sam Spade, Marlowe does care about finding the truth. Halfway through Chandler’s most famous novel, The Big Sleep, Marlowe contemplates quitting his case. He’s fulfilled his obligation to his client. He’s expecting his fee the next day. There’s no reason for him to continue. But he goes on to solve the mystery for the sake of justice.
He is the common man, working for every meal, up against a deceptive establishment that can’t be trusted. Readers could relate to those ideas in 1939, at the tail end of The Great Depression. People had lost everything to failing systems. They saw Marlowe, the hard-working tough guy with a sense of virtue, as an American hero.
So, who’s the better author?
1. Hammett’s mysteries are simpler than Chandler’s. Spade’s task is to identify the biggest villain in a cast of villains, then face-off against all of them. Marlowe, by contrast, has a taller order. He must unravel complicated series of facts in order to determine which “respectable” socialite is guilty. The result is that Chandler’s mysteries are more complicated puzzles for Marlowe (and the reader) to solve.
2. Hammett is more hard-boiled. Chandler is more literary. What I mean by this is that Chandler sought to bring the classic, British literary tradition to the American hard-boiled story. His work features healthy amounts of expository narration and detailed description, elements of classic literary fiction. Marlowe delivers first-person accounts of everything he thinks, does, and feels. Chandler was so descriptive, in fact, that his editors often had to cut passages so that his crime readers wouldn’t complain about slow pacing.
Hammett’s third-person omniscient narration is far sparser. While his description is quite vivid, he uses short paragraphs for his expository writing. Additionally, we never know Spade’s thoughts, just his body language and actions. We infer what he’s thinking from how he behaves and from what he says.
We’re interested in Marlowe because of what he tells us. And we’re interested in Spade because of what he doesn’t.
3. Spade is realistic. Marlowe is heroic. There’s no denying that Sam Spade is the more accurate portrayal of a private eye. His edge makes him real. He’s not a police detective who gets a paycheck for closing cases and finding the truth. He’s a P.I. who’s in it for himself, always looking for the next shady client to pay him to fix a problem. Put Spade in The Big Sleep, and the novel would have ended halfway through.
Marlowe, on the other hand, fits Chandler’s definition of a crime fiction hero, which he outlines in his nonfiction work, The Simple Art of Murder. He says:
“Down these mean streets a man must go who is not himself mean, who is neither tarnished nor afraid. The detective must be a complete man and a common man and yet an unusual man. He must be, to use a rather weathered phrase, a man of honor. He talks as the man of his age talks, that is, with rude wit, a lively sense of the grotesque, a disgust for sham, and a contempt for pettiness.”
Marlowe is a good man who knows how to play it tough when he must. He is a common man who uses that to relate to the people he encounters on cases. He speaks the common language, complete with the slang of those mean streets. But Marlowe also understands honor and justice—he fights for them in a world run by the corrupt.
While he is not the most accurate depiction of a private eye, especially at the time these books were written, it makes for classic and compelling fiction. And let’s not forget that we are talking about fiction, a type of writing meant to inspire our imaginations with powerful stories. Marlowe’s quest for justice in a corrupt city is certainly that.
So, who was the better writer? I still don’t have an answer. The works of both men are revered for good reason.
I recommend that you read each one and make up your own mind. My hope, though, is that you enjoy and love their novels as much as I do.
But if you do have a preference, leave me a comment!
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The Great Detectives: The Simple Art of Philip Marlowe. Perf. Nigel Williams. BBC, 1999. YouTube Upload.