Ten Things to Learn from Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett
If you can’t learn from the best, then you’re not reading carefully enough. Here are ten writing tips I learned from the books of Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler, who together pretty much invented the modern detective story.
- A detective always has a code.
Hammett’s great detective, Sam Spade, lays it out in The Maltese Falcon. “When a man’s partner is killed he’s supposed to do something about it. It doesn’t make any difference what you thought of him. He was your partner and you’re supposed to do something about it.” Chandler thought his detective, Phillip Marlowe, had the idealism of a romantic hero and described him in one of his books as a “shop-soiled Sir Galahad.” If your detective doesn’t have a code, then he’s just a thin reed in a hurricane.
- A detective, in the end, works for herself.
In Hammett’s Red Harvest, the client tries to call the Continental Op off the case, leaving the city of Poisonville at the mercy of the its rival gangs, but the detective, already paid, is having none of it. “I’ve ten thousand dollars of your money to play with. I’m going to use it opening Poisonville up from Adam’s apple to ankles.” What drives the detective in the end if it’s not the interests of the client? See item one above.
- Being tough is not about being violent.
Marlowe and Spade will defend themselves, but you wouldn’t call them brutal. They laugh at the hoods who only have violence in their tool kits, and then take advantage of them, the way Spade abuses Wilmer, the fat man’s gunsel, and the way the Continental Op lets the warring factions of Poisonville destroy each other. Chandler once said admiringly of the actor who best played Marlowe on film, “Bogart can be tough without a gun.”
- Make the setting your own.
The way Chandler creates Los Angeles in his Marlowe books is breathtaking, but I’m sure it’s not a wholly accurate picture of the city at the time he was writing. He wasn’t writing a travelogue; instead, he transformed the city into something immediately identifiable and yet completely his own, something that still lives. Whenever I drive along the LA boulevards, I can still see Chandler’s city in the interstices of something so much more modern. I look into the dusty windows of some of the old buildings and believe I can spy Marlowe staring down.
- Scenes need to sing.
Chandler cared more about his scenes than the whole flow of the book. You can see him in the end of his novels straining to make all these great scenes come together into something coherent. Because of this, the through line isn’t always so clear. One famous story has Howard Hawks, who directed the film version of The Big Sleep, sending a telegram to Chandler asking who killed the Sternwood chauffeur. Chandler sent a telegram back, “I don’t know.” But his scenes are brilliant enough to carry the day and because of that, his books are magnificent. As for Hammett, every scene in Red Harvest is a killer.
- But don’t stint on the setup and the story.
The first Chandler novel I ever read was The High Window. It was beautifully written and the scenes were cool, and very Chandleresque, but it felt too slight to be great. The whole book was about a missing gold doubloon; the stakes were not very high and that hurt it. Big stories make big books, so go big.
- Go easy on the alcohol.
Hammett drank way too much, and sometimes it got in the way of the story. The Thin Man made a great movie, but to read the book today is to be at first shocked, then wearied by the amount of alcohol Nora and Nick consume. It gets in the way of the story; you care more about getting them to rehab than finding the murderer. I wrote a novel about a bartender and, to make sure I didn’t have the same problem, I made him a nondrinker.
- Check your sexism at the door.
Chandler’s The Long Goodbye is a beautiful and elegiac work, but there is something seriously off-putting about it. It seems as if Marlowe can’t stop thinking sexually about every pretty woman who slips into his orbit. It feels less rakish than creepy and, especially, it feels old. The boundary between description and objectification can be a difficult line to see clearly, but make sure you’re on the right side of it.
- Use your own language.
Chandler absolutely used Hammett as a model. “I did not invent the hard-boiled mystery story,” he wrote, “and I have never made any secret of my opinion that Hammett deserves most or all of the credit.” But Chandler assiduously created a language of his own when he wrote his Marlowe novels. Chandler was so successful, his style has been aped over and again, but it was his style, from his time. Trying to write like Chandler now is a losing game, because he’ll be better at it than you. Find your own style and keep it rocking.
- Pulp Rules!
Finally, Hammett and Chandler wrote for the pulp magazines of their days, Black Mask primarily, and I think that gave them a great amount of freedom. The pulp magazines were printed on cheap paper, designed to be thrown away after they were read. Published for a different audience from the more staid literary publications, they promoted risk because the worse sin for the pulps was to be boring. Robert E. Howard first wrote his Conan stories for Weird Tales, and Edgar Rice Burroughs originally published Tarzan in a pulp magazine called All-Stories; Hammett and Chandler wrote for the same audience. The lessons are clear: be anything but boring, be bold, take risks, go out on precarious limbs where the ripest fruit is found, and shake the tree.
William Lashner’s most recent legal thriller is The Four-Night Run, published by Thomas & Mercer. He is the author of the Edgar-nominated and Digital Book World #1 bestselling novel, The Barkeep, as well as Guaranteed Heroes and The Accounting. He is also the creator of Victor Carl, who has been called by Booklist one of the mystery novel’s “most compelling, most morally ambiguous characters.”