“He looked at me as if I was a cigarette stub, or an empty chair. Just something in his line of vision, without interest for him.” (R. Chandler, The Long Goodbye)
Immersing myself in old-shelf Hammett, Chandler, and Cain, their folk art, indulging the Bogart in me. At the local public Jamestown Philomenian Library (no one knows what that middle word is supposed to mean) the separate shelf space for mysteries is almost as large as the shelf space for all the rest of adult fiction. I wonder why I stayed away from it so long. There are even large-print editions of some of the classics, for us old folks, who remember the original editions.
Sure, the plots are familiar, but the plots aren’t really what the stories are about. They are all about self-knowledge—not deep self-knowledge, just a sure awareness of what’s coming down and how ego—the personal third-person, hardly omniscient narrator—will react to it. The goal of each story is our man not having to alter or even seriously question—much less apologize for—his sense of himself. The ones that get roughed up are the best at this.
You got to like these guys. Shamus surely should be a cognate of shaman. Anchorites on the edge, approached only for their special knowledge and extra-societal competence. The rules are made to be broken. I glimpse features of Amerindian trickster heroes here—coyote unbound by politesse—and the Wild West tall-tale. An American hero, someone your wife would never invite twice for dinner. That dangerous friend.
The only way to solve a mystery is to become caught up in it. And, of course, the babes are always young and comely, decked out in bespoke Hollywood innocence, but always with their own agendas. Lashed to the mast of his low-life craft, our man is tempted but does not yield. Babes are nothing but trouble. The streets are noir. There is no gore. The dialogue is repartee.
Like the words on the page, it’s a black and white world, but with shades of gray in the best. Those are a sort of history, snapshot albums of an American time when men wore fedoras and cars had running boards. Chandler’s Los Angeles and Hammett’s San Francisco are more real than what is there today. The Greatest Generation Tom Brokaw called them, the tough guys. Once they were role models, cigarettes and all.