RARA-AVIS: Re:Hammett & Chandler & Burroughs/Black Mask Hard Boiled

From: Keith Deutsch ( keithdeutsch@earthlink.net)
Date: 12 Apr 2000

Browsing through the Archives of RARA-AVIS, I was interested in the conversations about Black Mask Magazine, W. Burroughs' Junkie & Naked Lunch, and whether Burroughs was a hard boiled writer, or not.

Frankly, I think the issue is moot.

For instance, James M. Cain repeatedly told me that he did not consider himself a "hard boiled writer" because, even in his darkest work, his primary interest was in passion and the sexual tensions between his main characters (Postman; Double Indemnity, etc.); Cain, who has an extraordinary range of novelistic styles and interests, thought theme was as important as language, narration, and dialogue in defining what a "hard boiled writer" was. He disliked being associated with Hammett and Chandler, and never published a tale in Black Mask.

And look closely at Hammett and Chandler, often mentioned in the same breath as masters and innovators of the classic "hard boiled detective." They are worlds apart in style.

Hammett, as Gertrude Stein observed in her 1920's booklet, Narration, predates Hemingway with the invention of the terse, flat, short sentence narrative voice that we now recognize as "modern."

Hammett's ideal detectives, particularly as overtly expressed by Spade in the Maltese Falcon, were the ultimate professionals. The rules of the trade predominate all other values. Archer was an ass, but he was Spade's partner, and Spade's unflagging allegiance to this professional relationship inform the novel and Spade's actions throughout.

Hammett wrote to the editors of Black Mask that his Continental Op was based on his Pinkerton experiences, but the Op was the detective every operative wanted to be, imagined he might be, but whose tradesman ship was beyond any real person's capacity.

n this way Hammett and Hemingway share another link besides their narrative sentence structure, and style in dialogue. They both valued professionalism in work. Hemingway, also emphasized professionalism in play--hunting, bullfights, etc. "Grace under pressure" is vital to the soul of both these writer's heroes.


You will find few, if any, metaphors, analogies, or clever figures of speech in Hammett's work. BUT his first stories were stunning in Black Mask because they seemed so real, as if written from within the detecting profession, with what reads like real speech from the streets.

Hammett repeatedly played up his experience as a Pinkerton operative, and he did know current criminal slang, and secret street argots of the time--which give his dialogue a certain memorable spice, particularly against his rather spare, pure professional, narrative landscape.

"Gunsel," for instance, used by Hammett in the "Maltese Falcon" serialization in the 1929 issues of Black Mask, didn't mean a gunman. It was slang for a homosexual, and Hammett used it to refer to Wilbur, Gutman's "boy" bodyguard.

"Gunsel," here is one word by Hammett , picked up by detective hack writers and by accomplished contemporary noire artists, that has become part of the "hard boiled" lexicon for a hired gun. And because that's the way a living language works, that's what it means now...at least in our detective fictional tradition.

I do believe that argot, slang, underground codes and rituals from the
"subterranean culture" of each writer's generation" is an important element of the Black Mask hard boiled tradition. The language of the streets, as Cap Shaw used to repeat in his "Behind The Mask" intros to each issue.

Chandler, of course, was the most lyrical "hard boiled" narrator of all time. He was a practicing poet all his life, actually knew nothing about street crime or underground language, and slowly created a "romantic" ideal for his detective. I use romantic to imply Marlowe's poetic sensibility, and his overt relation to the courtly ideals of knighthood in the Arthurian tradition. In fact Chandler has such a poetic vision, sometimes Marlowe consciousness veers closely to the lyrical, hallucinative vision of Marie de France. BUT, Marlowe's language, his characteristic "hard boiled" similes, often pack a good solid grotesque punch: He had enough hair in his ears to catch moths. And Marlowe's consciousness is as sweet, clever, and complex as it is tough: A Browning? Do you mean the poet, or the gun?

Hammett wrote fast and clean. As he says in one of his first letters to the Black Mask editors, after his first rejection, I've been writing the stories for lunch money. You are right. I guess I'll have to work harder to improve them.

Chandler took months to write his first story "Blackmailers Don't Shoot," published by Cap Shaw in Black Mask. Because Chandler took the time to type this manuscript with justified margins (!?), Shaw is reported to have said:
"The man is either a genius, or a lunatic." It turns out, I believe that he was closer to a genius as a narrator. Review his working notebooks and you will find meticulous notes for similes and metaphors. Complex character analysis. And constant worry over plotting. Chandler's plots are often a mish mashed mess--but who cares? The action, and the narration are what carry the books.

Hammett's work is plotted with the same clarity as his sentence structure. The Maltese Falcon unfolds, twists, sums up, and ends so beautifully that it remains an icon of the classic hard boiled tale of greed, deception, and retribution
(and sometimes, as with Spade, redemption).

So different yet both Chandler and Hammett are indelibly linked as paradigms of the hard boiled school--and with Black Mask, from which this school originated.

Burroughs and I corresponded during the late 1960's and 70's, and in my 1974 newsstand edition of Black Mask Magazine, I included an original piece by him. He certainly has the argot, street language, and secret community codes down--but many RARA-AVIS correspondents seem to object to his "non-realism", and reject him as a hard boiled writer. I don't think the category "hard boiled" is that useful a classification. But I certainly considered him a Black Mask author. And so I made him one. And he was delighted.

Burroughs and Kerouac had been long working on what they considered a "hard boiled" novel in the Black Mask vein from the late 1940's on. Thirty years ago some of it still existed. Burroughs was very widely read in many fields. I think his greatest contribution to 20th Century American literature is his recurring metaphor of the "virus" as an analogue for so many different things that go wrong in our global culture...down to our personal geometry of needs. Personally, I like the cut-up technique and associate with with a variety of modern art movements in music, painting, and construction/performances. But it may be a dead end for narration.

Burroughs loved science fiction. One of his favorite authors was Henry Kuttner. In the early 1960's one reviewer of Naked Lunch thought he was sending the ultimate jibe by demeaning those critics who thought Burroughs a great artist (Mailer, for instance) and who said Naked lunch should be relegated to the same shelves as that "hack" of fantasy Edgar Rice Burroughs. Now in my opinion, Edgar Rice Burroughs, who first wrote for All Story Weekly, and continued writing for the pulps for the rest of his long life, is an immortal for having created TARZAN. But, even more importantly, I believe, his primary contributions to popular entertainments have been too often ignored. To my knowledge, he invented the multiple stage perspective where we move from Tarzan's dilemma's, to a villain's problems, to the cannibal village war preparation, etc. Action is described with a camera's eye. The plotting reads visually like a movie.

William Burroughs also appreciated the moving camera eye. Some later novels experiment with the camera as narrator.

Hammett's plotting and dialogue was so clean that John Huston claims he wrote the shooting script for the Maltese Falcon by having his secretary type up an outline of describing the action in each chapter--"and just add the dialogue as it appears in the book, honey."

A final word on the issue of "hard boiled." I do not believe we can separate the actual writing from the graphic images presented in Black Mask: the wonderful Rafael DeSoto 1940 covers, the often brilliant dry brush drawings from the 1930's----and of course, all those noire films that the Black Mask school helped create, supplied characters, language and plots for.....but, the movies so vividly inform our vision of the hard boiled, that we can never separate the image of Bogart, for instance, from our vision of Spade and Marlowe as created by Hammett and Chandler.

A Black Mask Magazine site is under construction. A new series of Black Mask Books is in the works. I am currently editing a collection of Hugh B. Cave's Black Mask stories with Doug Greene, publisher of Crippen & Landru. And negotiations are under way for an even bigger, multi-media Black Mask project the facts of which I am currently sworn not to reveal.

Keith Alan Deutsch

Anyone interested in Black Mask Magazine can contact me at : keithdeutsch@earthlink.net

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