Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Westlake on Hammett and The Thin Man

The Getaway Car: A Donald Westlake Nonfiction Miscellany began with a single essay, "The Hardboiled Dicks," which Westlake originally delivered as a talk at the Smithsonian on May 13, 1982. It's an extended look at Westlake's chosen genre--interestingly, at a branch of it that he barely bothered with a writer, the detective novel--and it reveals Westlake to be a careful, attentive reader and a thoughtful critic of his fellow writers. Even now that it's been surrounded by another 65,000 or so words of Westlake's writing in what will eventually become the book, it remains a standout, full of history, analysis, and opinion, all backed up by extensive quotations from the writers in question.

Over the weekend, while I was making my final edits to the manuscript before turning it in, I found myself particularly drawn to Westlake's thoughts on Hammett. No writer was a more obvious influence on Westlake's style in the early years, which makes his acute analysis of Hammett's relationship to his material, as seen by reading between the lines of The Thin Man (1934), particularly interesting.

Westlake's essay traces the movement of hardboiled fiction from its roots in some sort of actual experience through its increasing stylization and eventual shift into ritual and pastiche. (Had Tarantino been making films in 1982, Westlake could have used him as an oblique example.) Hammett he locates at that point on the arc when experience (which Hammett had with the Pinkertons) was beginning to give way--and his argument is that Hammett knew it and didn't want any part of it. The Thin Man, he claims, is Hammett's exhausted riposte:. After quoting a scene where a low-level hood gets beat up for no explicable reason, Westlake writes,
This sequence doesn't come out of anything, and it doesn't lead to anything. Its only reason for existing at all is to show that Nick doesn't know what's going on any more, he's become a visitor to the scene he used to live in. And when I say Nick, I mean Hammett.

Hammett was a major writer, for a lot of reasons, one of them being that the texture in his writing comes so very much from himself. Writing inside an action genre, where subtleties of character and milieu are not primary considerations, he nevertheless was, word by word and sentence by sentence, subtle and many-layered, both allusive and elusive, delicate and aloof among all the smashing fists and crashing guns. He put himself in his writing, and that makes The Thin Man a very strange read, in that singular way that The Tempest is strange; inside the story, the writer can be seen, preparing his departure.
As Hammett's own experience of hardboiled characters faded into the past, Westlake argues, he was unwilling to take the next step, into the baroque and ritualistic and stagily imitative--that would be left to Chandler. (Whom Westlake never thought much of.) In the Library of America edition of Hammett's novels, there's a quote from an interview tucked away in the notes that backs up Westlake:
I stopped writing because I was repeating myself. It is the beginning of the end when you discover you have style.
Westlake sees the result--which he elsewhere included among his ten favorite books in the genre--as an unusual thing for the genre: not a disappointed, or cynical, or world-weary book, but a sad one:
You notice also the passing reference to literature that will or will not last. The Thin Man is a very sad book, made even sadder by how bravely and smilingly the narrator hides his sadness. Hammett is not leaving the hardboiled detective story. The genre is leaving him.
My interest piqued, I re-read the novel for the first time in a dozen years. And whereas the first time I read it, I saw it as a slightly cockeyed comedy, a slightly less fizzy kin to the William Powell-Myrna Loy version, this time I couldn't help but see what Westlake saw: it's a novel about confusion, where everyone expects Nick Charles, returned to New York and (reluctantly) to detecting after seven years away, to step right in and be the detective he was, to know things the way he used to know them . . . while all around him is oddity and incomprehensible behavior and incompetence and uncertainty. Friends aren't friends, while enemies aren't even worthy of the name; the closest Nick comes to camaraderie (Nora aside) is when a gangster he once sent up the river insists on reminiscing a bit--at least those memories are honest.

This is what good criticism does: it makes it hard to read a book the same way you read it before you encountered the critic's take on it. I would have read The Thin Man again eventually, but would I have seen in it the sense of dislocation and loss that Westlake showed me? The book ends with the expected closure, but it's closure rooted largely in conjecture, which Nora finds frustrating. She wants to know for sure, and she wants to know what will happen to the people left behind by the murders. Nick replies:
"Nothing new. They'll go on being Mimi and Dorothy and Gilbert just as you and I will go on being us and the Quinns will go on being the Quinns. Murder doesn't round out anybody's life except the murdered's and sometimes the murderer.

"That may be," Nora said, "but it's all pretty unsatisfactory."
The first time I read the book, I took that as one final joke, an expression of Nora's ever-amused, ever curious arm's-length relationship to Nick's work, and to crime itself. Now I read it as Westlake did: as a hand waved in irritated farewell. How can I not?

If you like Westlake, you're going to like this book, folks. I'm really proud of it, and I'm champing at the bit. A year. That's all we've got to wait now!


  1. Having also re-read it recently, I don't really share Westlake's take on it, and I think it might say more about Westlake himself than about Hammett. I think the "dislocation and loss" you're talking about is present in the background of almost all good private eye fiction, and if anything it's toned down a bit in The Thin Man. It's so hard to separate TTM from the movies though, which were obviously a lot more lighthearted.

    In any case it's an interesting angle. I'm reading the Tucker Coe books now and there's an intro in these editions in which Westlake makes some similar comments about TTM and what an influence it was on him: "It was a sad, lonely, lost book, but it pretended to be cheerful and aware and full of good fellowship."

    Very much looking forward to your Westlake compendium..,.

    1. You certainly may be right, mechanicalbrain: I have no doubt that Westlake's perspective was influencing my reading this time around. Next time, ten years or so from now, I guess we'll see where I come down on it. (And you're definitely right about the difficulty of separating it from the movies: even as I was reading it as melancholy, I nonetheless kept picturing William Powell!)

    2. I never read The Thin Man until after I read Westlake's take on it (though not that essay--his introduction to his Mitch Tobin novels, which were influenced by it)--and I saw everything he talked about. It's a story of unfathomable sadness. A man who has everything, and doesn't really want it anymore. But he goes on living out of force of habit. Nora keeps bringing him back to life, but they are both slowly drinking themselves to death. I have to wonder what Lillian Hellman thought of it, since she was the model for Nora.

      The Mitch Tobin novels are actually more optimistic. Which isn't saying much. Actually, what it's saying is that Westlake was still a young writer with a lot of untapped ideas when he wrote those, while Hammett was circling the drain, and he knew it.

      Nick Charles is a man who lost his reason for being by marrying a beautiful heiress, whose estate he manages. She wants him to go on being a detective, but he just doesn't see the sense of doing it for its own sake, as opposed to making a living by it. Westlake can see it from both sides--how could you turn down The Good Life? But once you have it, what's getting you out of bed every morning? Charles had every reason to want out of that life--it was full of violence and death and untrustworthy people. But now that he's out, his mainspring is broken. Sure, he can still solve a murder now and again, but he doesn't believe in the work anymore. Just going through the motions.

      I might not have seen it so clearly if Westlake hadn't pointed it out, but after all--how many people have ever read the novel without seeing at least one of the movies with Powell and Loy? Some of that sadness is in there too--but turned way down low. So people have the image of Nick & Nora, the daffy Gotham sophisticates, the perfect movie couple, with Asta acting like a movie dog instead of a real one, and then there's a baby (but they go right on drinking cocktails at all hours)--it colors your perception of the story, airbrushes it. It took Westlake to strip away all the layers of Hollywood varnish and show us the real story. And it's not funny.

  2. I was in a faithful stage adaptation of "The Thin Man" a few years ago - and many people noted how different a feel the book has from the movies (although the movies - at least the first two - are delightful.) There definitely is a tinge of dissatisfaction at the end. Which is why, of course, Hollywood changed the ending.

    But I'm still trying to wrap my head around the note that Westlake wasn't a Chandler fan. I'm a rabid fan of both. I just wish Chandler had as much material out there as Westlake! Or at least as many as the number of Parker novels.

    1. Anonymous5:10 PM

      You'd be surprised how many hardboiled crime novelists past and present were/are not very big fans of Chandler. James Ellroy comes to mind, he summed it up perfectly in an interview, Chandler was writing about the man he wished he was and Hammett was writing about the man he feared he had already become.

    2. I see Westlake's (and others') points about Chandler, but I can't help but love him anyway: it feels like it bears little relation to reality--and Anonymous is definitely on to something in the wish fulfillment aspect--but the prose is so much fun, and the sensibility so compelling, that I fall for it every time. (I want to say that Westlake thought reasonably highly of The Long Goodbye, but I can't right now recall where I would have seen that--I'll have to dig through my files.)

    3. I suspect Westlake thought of Chandler as a pernicious influence on the genre. Yes, his best stuff is worth reading, but it spawned such a lot of books and stories and movies and tv shows that were not. "Down these mean streets must walk a man who is not mean"--okay, then he's dead.

      I think Westlake fought hard against characters who did the right thing simply because it was the right thing--he might make an exception for something really important, like saving people from African genocide--but rarely. He mistrusted the self-conscious hero, striving for some abstract ideal. He wanted characters to have their own unique believable concrete motivations for what they did, admirable or otherwise. Chandler's notion of a Knight Errant of Noir--just did not appeal to him.

  3. To paraphrase Churchill: “Any man who is under 30, and doesn't think Chandler is the best, has not heart; and any man who is over 30, and doesn't think Hammett is the best, has no brains.” ;)

    Really looking forward The Getaway Car!

    1. Well played, sir.

      Glad you're looking forward to The Getaway Car. We now have an anticipated publication date: should be around October 5 or so, 2014.