RARA-AVIS: So who is the Murdrous Ape these days?

From: Frederick Zackel ( fzackel@wcnet.org)
Date: 01 Nov 2005

(Most of what follows comes from an unpublished essay I once tried shlepping around. Can the Noir Manifesto and the Murdrous Ape get hitched?)

Hammett relaxed the detective genre. He invested more on personal relationships and less on details of murder and investigation. Much of his power and originality came from his concentration on characterization instead of fantastic ingenuity.

Edgar Allan Poe invented the modern detective story in his "Murders in the Rue Morgue", when he created Auguste Dupin, a professional detective who uses deductive reasoning to solve a hideous crime. Inside a locked upstairs room, a mother and a daughter have been brutally murdered, their throats slit, and one of them has been stuffed feet first up a Parisian chimney.

As Ross Macdonald, one of Hammett's most famous and literate heirs, explains it in his "On Crime Writing," Poe "devised (the detective story) as a means of exorcising or controlling guilt and horror." Dupin reasons only a murderous ape could have scaled the building, killed so barbarously and then stuffed the dead girl up the chimney. Therefore, the killer must be a murderous ape. Macdonald goes on to say that "Dupin's reason masters the
(murderous) ape and explains the inexplicable -- but not without leaving a residue of horror. The nightmare can't quite be explained away, and persists in the teeth of reason. An unstable balance between reason and more primitive qualities is characteristic of the detective story. For both writer and reader it is an imaginative arena where such conflicts can be worked out safely, under artistic controls."

There it was laid out like a fresh autopsy: Good versus evil. Reason doing battle with horror. The Super-ego versus the Id. The rational detective up against the murderous ape in an urban inferno. Yet there is more here, too, than Macdonald suggests. Many critics and readers understand that the conventions of popular fictions offer an apparent escape from both the author's and the reader's lives. But in a deeper sense they can also offer a writer a mask for autobiography, a fencer's mask to deflect the cold steel of reality as he struggles with his own Falstaffian shadows.

The Maltese Falcon is not at center a whodunnit, but a novel about people - - about one man, Sam Spade, especially -- caught up in a world of crime. It offers a peculiar point of view to accompany this vision, the detached-viewpoint story, where we never get into the head of any character. We are simply floating, invisible observors, and the narrator has disappeared.

We see and hear the events as they take place, as if we are present, but invisible in the room. This is not quite "the camera's eye." That's where the reader is allowed to see and hear only what a camera sees and a microphone hears. In The Maltese Falcon there are comments and interpretations. We become invisible observers in the room.

In The Maltese Falcon, murder is still represented as a game of Good versus Evil (although most of the violence is off-stage). The gamester here is the Ace of Spades, Sam himself. The ambiguity of his character is central to the story. In this world where all is corrupt, where all can be corrupted, Sam Spade knows the score. "Most things in San Francisco can be bought, or taken."

And when Miles Archer, his partner, is killed, Sam Spade pushes himself squarely into the center arena and the struggle for the Black Bird. He wheedles and cajoles and threatens and lies and taunts and bluffs to find out who killed Miles Archer.

Hammett's misdirection is marvelous. Archer's death very quickly becomes a subplot. Finding the Black Bird becomes the main plot. And yet once the Bird is found, Archer's death is resolved.

For many people, the particular horror of The Maltese Falcon is that Sam Spade is such a ready partner to theft and murder. Reading him, we are never sure that Sam Spade is honest. The ambiguity of his character is such that even Iva says: "Oh, Sam did you kill him?"

(and then the punchline, the happy ending...)

It is still the story of purging of monsters. The hero still does battle with the murderous ape in the urban inferno.

Frederick Zackel

 the boogie man lies waiting for his moment...

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This archive was generated by hypermail 2b29 : 01 Nov 2005 EST