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.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:
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.
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.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?
"That may be," Nora said, "but it's all pretty unsatisfactory."
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!