Tuesday, June 10, 2014

HAMMETT'S RULES

I like mystery novels, particularly Hammet's and Chandler's work. I enjoyed the Spenser books by Parker, but they were pulpy and more adventures than mysteries. He wasn't so much a detective as a thug who annoyed people until the solution fell in his lap. A modern genius in this work is Loren Estelman whose characters Amos Walker (modern detective) and Page Murdock (western) are every bit as good as Sam Spade and Phillip Marlowe.

But there's a lot of lousy mystery work out there. Some are classics like Red House by A.A. Milne (yeah the guy who wrote the Winnie-the-Pooh books) which Chandler rips to pieces in his essay The Simple Art of Murder (which ought to be required reading for any author, let alone mystery writer) and many of them are just forgotten. Thousands of "house party" mysteries have been written, almost all of them junk requiring tricks played on the reader to hide the solution, and I just can't find myself caring about any of them.

In my opinion, a good detective story doesn't need to necessarily fool the reader or confuse them. Police procedural, for example, are more about the method of catching the bad guy than keeping the reader in the dark. To me the detective novel is about what the detective does than the confusing plot trying to keep the reader from guessing the solution. I don't have a problem with that, but it does lead writers to do things deliberately to deceive and confuse readers.

The most typical is to make the guilty party the least noticeable and interesting character. They are the guy that you forget about, and thus don't consider them as the villain. Another is to pick a sympathetic group to make the bad guy part of, such as a Jewish mass murderer (not inconceivable, but certainly unexpected). Another is to pile so many characters with a motive and opportunity nobody can possibly keep track of them. And then there are tricks such as requiring a huge chart to keep track of the timing and location of everyone (house parties rely on this), having everyone tell so many lies you can't keep track of what is going on, and so on.

But those pale compared to technical things that writers get wrong. As a fantasy writer, I'm a little bit more free with some technical aspects (if I say a ghost acts that way, then it does), but there are still details like how armor feels and how a sword should be sharpened that I need to get right or it will ring false to someone in the know and hurt the story. Some things are so obvious they violate anyone's ability to really become immersed in the story, such as people having a conversation on the back of motorcycles. Some you have to experience to truly understand, like how incredibly, ear-damagingly loud firing weapons can be.
Dashiell Hammett wrote a column for the New York Evening Post in which he'd review mystery novels and detective stories, generally tearing them apart, but finally he got so fed up at one point he wrote:
A fellow who takes detective stories seriously, I am annoyed by the stupid recurrence of these same blunders in book after book. It would be silly to insist that nobody who has not been a detective should write detective stories, but it is certainly not unreasonable to ask any one who is going to write a book of any sort to make some effort at least to learn something about his subject.
Some of the things he points out for writers, trying to help them get it right:
  • A silencer may be attached to a revolver, but the effect will be altogether negligible.
  • When you are knocked unconscious, you do not feel the blow that does it.
  • It is impossible to see anything by the flash of an ordinary gun, though it is easy to imagine you have seen things.
  • "Youse" is plural of "you."
  • A trained detective shadowing a subject does not ordinarily leap from doorway to doorway and does not hide behind trees and polls. He knows no harm is done if the subject seems him now and again.
  • Fingerprints are fragile affairs. Wrapping a pistol or other small object in a handkerchief is more likely to obliterate than preserve any prints they may have.
  • When an automatic pistol is fired, the empty cartridge-shell flies out the right-hand side. The empty cartridge-case remains in a revolver until ejected by hand.
I see a lot of these mistakes still being made. To this day you'll see a bad guy screw a suppressor (silencer is not a proper name for the device) on to revolver. There are almost no revolvers made on earth that are gas sealed, so the suppressor will have virtually no effect. Oh, and guns with suppressors don't make a little "pfft" sound when they are fired, they still are quite loud, just not nearly so. More like a book being dropped on the floor than an eardrum-shattering bomb.

Dashiell Hammett also told some tales of things that happened to detectives while he worked in the Pinkerton's agency, such as how a detective got his pocket picked while on a stakeout. Or how when trying to look into the second floor of a roadhouse, the porch gave way on him and he crashed to the ground. Or how when tailing a subject the guy was wandering around, thinking, and got lost, so he asked Hammett for directions back to where he was staying.

Things like that really happen to real detectives and you almost never see that kind of thing in any fiction. Rockford Files is the only show I've seen where you wouldn't be surprised to see something like that happen. Things almost never go as planned, and when they do, they almost never give the results you expect. Even the best person in the world at a task messes it up once in a while, and when its not their fault, someone else can mess it up for them.

And detective novels tend to be written about paragons who get it all right all the time (there are exceptions, Sherlock Holmes failed utterly to catch Irene Adler and did not actually help his client much). They almost always figure out the proper solution using shreds of tiny bits of clues which could have gone either way. To a point, that's fine. You can put up with it for the genre, but after a while it does get a bit wearying if not done very carefully. And all it takes are a few stupid mistakes by the author to ruin everything, in my experience.