Re: RARA-AVIS: Hardboiled and Existentialism

From: Brian Thornton (
Date: 16 May 2005

Tim Wohlforth wrote:

> Brian raises some interesting points in his reply to me on
> existentialism and hardboiled - specifically Hammett. He claims that Sam
> Spade, or for that matter, the Continental Op does what he does because
> "it's the right thing to do".

Actually, what I said was that Spade did what he did because *he* thought it was the "right thing to do." The Op I mentioned in passing in reference to your mentioning his rant about nailing the Russian countess in "The Gutting of Couffignal," by saying that he does the same thing in "The Girl With The Silver Eyes," a sequel of sorts to "The House on Turk Street."

> Right equals moral.

I didn't put it *quite* that way, but if it makes you feel better to boil it down for the sake of this discussion, sure. That's why they call it
"personal morality," as opposed to "public morality," which I explained in my previous post, and which you've ignored in this reply, Tim.

> So he acts in a moral way and therefore is not an existentialist. Wrong on
> two counts.

The only thing "wrong" about this statement is the assumption that it's an accurate summation of what I said. It's not. I never said that Spade wasn't an existentialist. If anything his rampant, overt, over-the-top existentialism baits the trap perfectly so that the reader is rightly surprised that he doesn't let Brigid go at the end.

And *WHY* doesn't he do it? WHY does he nail her? Because it's what he thinks he's *supposed* to do. Regardless of what the cops say, or Gutman says, or Brigid says, or Iva, or Effie. It's at least in part about intent, same as with committing a crime.

THAT is personal morality. Call it a "personal code," call it Barney the dinosaur, for all I care, it is the very definition of the term. Spade puts his own personal morality before public convention (or, if you prefer,
"public morality"), and does what he thinks he's supposed to do, because he's supposed to do it.

(extended definition of determinism deleted in the interest of brevity)

> Let's look again at Spade in the Maltese Falcon. He is screwing his
> partner's wife.

Well, he *was*. Apparently he no longer is by the beginning of the novel, hence her jealousy.

> His partner is a sleaseball. Spade does not claim to be
> above the shady deal. He acts NOT to do the "right thing" but because of
> what he is, created by the choices he has made so far in life -- a
> private investigator. Someone kills your partner, you do something. As
> simple as that.

You're making my point for me. Substitute "Spade" for "you" and "your" and you're part way there. Also, bear in mind that your ad reductio description of Spade's actions does nothing so much as reduce him to a wind-up toy. Point him in the direction you want, wind him up, watch him nail Brigid for icing his partner, regardless of any internal or external conflict involved. If the main character in your book is little more than the sum total of his experiences, you're in for one dull ride. Of course, Spade is far more than that, which is what makes THE MALTESE FALCON such a terrific book.

By the way, being an existentialist doesn't make a person any more or less moral, per se. It merely removes the external impetus for being moral, for choosing as one chooses. It puts the focus on the individual and leaves them at the center of their moral universe, wherein they exercise ultimate free will. If you're an existentialist of the same stripe as most of the protagonists in Hemingway's fiction, for example, being an existentialist means that you do what you do without the necessity (or in some cases, the luxury) of making excuses about it.

> Or the Continental Op in Couffignal. "I'm a detective because I like
> the work. ...It's the only sport I know anything about, and I can't
> imagine a pleasanter future than twenty-some years more of it." Or when
> she offers herself to him, he responds: "I'm a man hunter and you're
> something that has been running in front of me. There's nothing human
> about it. You might just as well expect a hound to play tiddlywinks
> with the fox he's caught."
> When it comes to the right thing, how do you explain the last two lines
> of Couffignal: "You ought to have known I'd do it! ... Didn't I steal a
> crutch from a cripple?"

I have no idea why you keep trying to crack me over the head with the crutch the Op stole from the cripple. Here's the entirety of what you and I had previously said about the Op:


"Hammett develops the same view in a lengthy rant on why he is about to shoot a beautiful woman in The Gutting of Couffignal."


"Don't forget that he did the same thing in "The Girl With The Silver Eyes," a sort of sequel to "The House on Turk Street." When Chandler is faced with a similar dilemma in "The Little Sister," he has Marlowe punt."

That's it. That's all. Nowhere do I say the Op is moral/immoral/amoral/existentialist/nihilist/Republican/Democrat/Communist/Fascist/evangelist. I simply pointed out that he had done the same thing in "The Girl With The Silver Eyes." The debatable moral relativism/existentialism of the Continental Op, Nick Charles, or Ned Beaumont, I'll leave for another thread. I was addressing your statements about the character of Sam Spade from THE MALTESE FALCON, period. Let's leave the focus there, ok?

> I am not saying all hardboiled fiction is existential. However, I do
> feel the label fits the best of Hammett and Hammett is the best of the
> best. I doubt if Hammett wrote consciously as an existentialist. That's
> a European thing to do (No Exit- Sartre, The Stranger - Camus). And
> Hammett is about as American as a writer can be.

And as such had a personal morality streak a mile wide. The man was in many ways a cipher. He left his wife and kids when he took sick with tuberculosis. He also volunteered for military service in both World Wars. He was a serial womanizer, never faithful to any woman with whom he was personally involved, including, but not limited to Lillian Hellman. He went to jail rather than rat out people he knew to have been members of the American Communist Party. Complicated? Sure. Unconsciously existentialist? Perhaps. Immoral on some questions, decidedly. Moral on others? You bet. So devoted to his own code of personal morality that he was willing to do a tough stint in jail at great cost to his personal health and financial status over it, regardless of what the law stated? Absolutely.

And we agree on the statement "Hammett is the best of the best." I love Chandler and MacDonald, Cornell Woolrich, Chester Himes, et. al., but for me, Dashiell Hammett's stuff is genuinely a cut above.

Brian Thornton

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