Like a Metaphor

The Big Sleep

The three-word titling metaphor, seen here in its natural habitat.

The source of the charm of pulp fiction is its freedom from the manners imposed on high literature leaving it, like the imagination of a child, unfettered and unfiltered by any notion of shame. Popular fiction is as free as beat poetry to be as absurd and exaggerated as its readers will stand, and the limits of what readers of pulp fiction will stand have never been plumbed.

The phenomenon reproduces like rhizomes, popping up in improbable plots as outrageous characters and gaudy dialogue and, most particularly in the case of American crime fiction, the effusive simile.

The simile and her abstract sister metaphor have been with us for as long as it’s been helpful to describe something by comparing it to something else, which probably literally predates language itself or at the very least adjectives. Statistically, this is probably a bad thing, but for occasional passages of spun gold it’s objectively not.

It’s in American crime fiction where, like Braque’s tableaux of found objects, this handy instrument is elevated to an art form. Yet its utility and ubiquity mean that the device largely goes unnoticed in context, like shoelaces and every line in this article so far.

The etymological wellspring of the practice is the word “hardboiled”, so succinct that the rest of the metaphor isn’t even necessary to encapsulate the stoic cynicism of the private detective as twenty-minute egg. The best of them are like that, hard and hurting and, ideally, humorous.

Arguably the first hardboiled fiction is The False Burton Combs, by Carroll John Daly, and it builds a good case on tough-talkin’ street jargon of dames and dicks and a sparse but convincing distribution of juxtaposition:

“There ain’t nothing in governments unless you’re a politician. And as I said before, I ain’t a crook.”

“One of the others was fat and looked like an ex−bartender.”

“He paints up those three crooks like they were innocent young country girls.”

These were early days, though, before Hammett really got going and nearly ten years before Chandler would give up the oil game and bring us…

“He collapsed like a half-filled sack of sand.”

“ It glittered like a Ziegfeld chorus.”

and

“His clothes fitted him as though they had a soul of their own, not just a doubtful past”

which is a respectable showing for the first time out of the gate (Blackmailers Don’t Shoot, Black Mask, 1932).

The best of them paint a picture too big to be seen in anything but the abstract, composed of jungian touchstones and communal memory…

“Waves rose like apparitions at the surf-line and fell like masonry.”

Ross MacDonald, The Barbarous Coast

“The rain was hitting the streets as though fired from a machine gun.”

Philip James, Deceased and Residing in Oakland

“The house itself was not so much. It was smaller than Buckingham Palace, rather gray for California, and probably had fewer windows than the Chrysler Building. I sneaked over to the side entrance and pressed a bell and somewhere a set of chimes made a deep mellow sound like church bells.”

Raymond Chandler, Farewell My Lovely

“It was ten minutes by foot, if you were on your way to church, about two and a half minutes if your old lady was chasing you with a razor.”

Chester Himes, All Shot Up

“There was nothing wrong with Southern California that a rise in the ocean level wouldn’t cure.”

Ross Macdonald, The Drowning Pool

Or they sketch a character in the present with the full pallet of past and personality…

“As far back as Lieutenant Anderson could remember, both of them, his two ace detectives with their identical big hard-shooting, head-whipping pistols, had always looked like two hog farmers on a weekend in the Big Town.”

Chester Himes, A Rage In Harlem

“…the stigmata of the trouble-prone.”

Ross MacDonald, The Chill

“His nose spread itself across his face like an inadequate police cordon trying to hold back an ugly mob.”

Philip James, Deceased and Residing in Oakland

“Even on Central Avenue, not the quietest dressed street in the world, he looked about as inconspicuous as a tarantula on a slice of angel food.”

Raymond Chandler, The Big Sleep

Of course it’s the danger, deception and desirability of the inevitable femme fatale that test the distance between cynicism and sentiment…

“She smelled the way the Taj Mahal looks by moonlight.”

Raymond Chandler, The Little Sister

“She gave me a smile I could feel in my hip pocket”

Raymond Chandler, Farewell, My Lovely

“She was all legs and hair with a pleasantly hilly terrain in between.”

“Her lips were full and quivery. When she talked she looked like she’d been dubbed into English from a language that had 900 words for ‘foreplay’.”

Philip James, Deceased and Residing in Oakland

“She ran the tip of her red tongue slowly across her full cushiony, sensuous lips, making them wet-red and looked him straight in the eyes with her own glassy, speckled bedroom eyes.”

Chester Himes, A Rage in Harlem

“From 30 feet away she looked like a lot of class. From 10 feet away she looked like something made up to be seen from 30 feet away.”

Raymond Chandler, The High Window

But it’s arguably when the poetry of the pulp fiction simile stays close to its hard boiled roots that it’s at its sad, cynical, psychological best…

“…as though I had written a poem and it was very good and I had lost it and would never remember it again. “

Raymond Chandler, The High Window

“In wine was truth, perhaps, but in whisky, the way Hoffman sluiced it down, was an army of imaginary rats climbing your legs.”

Ross Macdonald, The Chill

“He felt like somebody had taken the lid off life and let him see the works.”

Dashiell Hammett, The Maltese Falcon

“She visibly weakened when she said that. She always visibly weakened when she said that, and the feisty went somewhere quiet to have a good think.”

Philip James, Deceased and Residing in Oakland

“He looked around at the daylight as if it had betrayed him, again.”

Ross MacDonald, Black Money

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A McGuffin For The Age Of The Anti-Hero

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Fiction tends to wear its age either poorly, as does science fiction predicated on the assumption that by the 1990s we’d have achieved faster-than-light space travel and racial harmony — or well, as is the case of the best of hard-boiled detective fiction which grows over the years to be more representational of its era, more evocative and less self-conscious.

And then there’s the rare third way of novels that would be arguably better books if they were written today, like The Maltese Falcon.

Dashiell Hammett produced in 1931 a book that, when initially serialized in the Mask, probably struck readers as a particularly good and remarkably original example of the genre and I’m guessing when I say that most probably didn’t realize just how much harder the author had to work to so quietly and thoroughly evolve the medium.

It could be argued that the anti-hero dates back to at least Don Quixote — so some 400 years before Sam Spade — and the concept is probably appreciably older than that but as a staple of American fiction it was unheard of before the 50s. And this was the uniqueness of the challenge facing Hammett — Spade’s no anti-hero but to make the revolutionary plot work the reader needs to be convinced that’s exactly what he is twenty years before anyone’s heard of such a thing.

Hammett wasn’t inventing the anti-hero, he was moving the utility of misdirection in detective fiction onto a whole new plane. He was preoccupying the reader with a McGuffin and a colorful cast of self-serving characters and a multi-threaded plot about the Knights Templar and Spanish Kings when the real crime takes place on page 11. And to pull it off he had to convincingly present his main character, who would have been universally expected to be law-abiding and moral and chivalrous, as corrupt and mercenary and lascivious.

And he certainly succeeded but a lot of readers probably instinctively saw justice coming, one way or the other. The plot twist as it would be received in the context of today’s books and movies about happy and successful crooks and murderers is that the main character is in fact strictly, selflessly and, indeed, heroically moral.

Writing today, Hammett wouldn’t have to work quite so hard to convince us that Spade is looking out for his own best interests and a modern reader has the luxury of focusing on just how blithely cold-blooded the detective apparently is as he removes his partner’s name from the door the day after his brutal murder and scoffs at the man’s widow. None of that would strike us as strange or suspicious or misleading, all of which it turns out to be, so it would be merely entertaining and we’d fall much more easily for the trick than would have Hammett’s initial audience.

So apart from the obvious handicap of being universal common knowledge the plot twist at the end of the Maltese Falcon works better now than it did in its own day.

Then or now or a hundred years from now The Maltese Falcon will always have been the first detective book to present a narrative that’s mostly one extended charade meant to distract the reader and, for that matter, most of the characters, from the real story, and to teach us to love being fooled.