Re: RARA-AVIS: Blackmailers Don't Shoot

From: Marc Seals (
Date: 11 Mar 2004

Well, since Miker brought "Blackmailers Don't Shoot" up, here's what I had to say about this story (and a bit about the one that followed it) in my still-developing dissertation. Please excuse the citations, which will make little sense without an accompanying bibliography.

       Chandler's first short story, "Blackmailers Don't Shoot," was published in Black Mask in December 1933. He spent five months writing this
"novelette" and was paid a mere $180; Chandler said that after writing
"Blackmailers Don't Shoot," he "never looked back" though he had "a good many uneasy periods looking forward" (Selected Letters 236). His second story, published in Black Mask in July 1934, was "Smart-Aleck Kill." Both of these stories feature a private detective named Mallory. Paul F. Ferguson suggests that this name is an intentional nod toward Sir Thomas Malory, the fifteenth-century author of Le Morte d'Arthur (225). Thus from the very start of Chandler's career in detective fiction, he explicitly evoked themes of chivalry, a trait that would become a hallmark of his writing.
        Chandler did not seem to have a very high opinion of these two stories, despite the fact that writing them occupied about a year of his life. In a 1949 letter to publisher Paul Brooks, Chandler said that
"Blackmailers Don't Shoot "has enough action for five stories and the whole thing is a goddam pose"; both stories were, according to Chandler, "pure pastiche" (Selected Letters 187). A few months later (in a letter to literary agent Bernice Baumgarten), Chandler lamented the fact that
"Smart-Aleck Kill" was "weakish," while "Blackmailers Don't Shoot" was "too full of massacres" (Raymond Chandler Speaking 225). Tom Hiney points out that seven of the nine characters in "Blackmailers Don't Shoot" are killed by the story's close (83). William Marling would seem to agree with the negative valuations of Chandler's first two efforts, calling the first story
"flawed by clich餠dialogue, motiveless actions, and pointless turns of
 plot" (Raymond Chandler 51).
         Regardless of the lack (or presence) of literary merit of Chandler' s earliest short stories, there are a few features in them (in addition to the apparent reference to Sir Thomas Malory) that seem significant when considered in the overall context of Chandler's life and later work.
"Blackmailers Don't Shoot" opens with the introduction of Mallory, who wears a "powder-blue suit" (Collected Stories 3); this is an element that Chandler clearly "cannibalized" for the opening scene of The Big Sleep. Mallory has come to California from Chicago for work (and stays), a pattern that matches the life of Chandler himself. Mallory has been hired by a gambler named Landry, whose love letters to rising movie star Rhonda Farr have apparently been stolen in order to blackmail Farr. When Mallory meets Farr, she asks,
"What are you back where you live, darling? One of those hoods they call private dicks?" (39); this might indicate that Chandler knew that this was not a genre that many in the literary community would find respectable.
        It seems that nearly everyone in this story is crooked (and involved in the crimes at hand), and blackmail eventually turns into the kidnapping of both Mallory and Farr. Mallory seems more like a piece of wisecracking flotsam than a detective solving a case; his main job in the story is surviving as the gang of criminals kills each other off. Mallory tells Rhonda Farr that he'll tell the police all that he knows (and thus implicating Farr in the killings), and she exclaims, "You'd . . . sell me out?" (41). Commodification of human life, personal loyalty, and guilt itself are established as basic themes. In response to Farr's question, Mallory asks if there is any reason that he should protect her; this scene bears a striking similarity to the sixth chapter of Dashiell Hammett's The Maltese Falcon (when Sam Spade and Brigid O'Shaughnessy have much the same conversation). Perhaps this demonstrates that this story is indeed "pure pastiche," as Chandler admitted. The readers of a pulp magazine such as Black Mask would presumably not be bothered by a certain lack of originality. Rather than being mere pastiche, Chandler might have intended it as a nod to the debt he owed Hammett; in "The Simple Art of Murder," Chandler calls Hammett the "ace performer" among the early writers of hard-boiled detective fiction (998). This similarity to The Maltese Falcon is made even clearer when Mallory discovers that Farr is, in fact, behind the whole plot (as is Brigid O'Shaughnessy in The Maltese Falcon). Finally, there are both honest and dishonest policemen, with the latter seeming to make up the majority; crooked cops are a major theme in Chandler's fiction and may reflect a modernist distrust of authority. In a world where many policemen cannot be trusted to defend justice, to whom can the citizenry turn? Chandler's champion presents one possible answer in a modernist search for new authority.

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