Shoot to Kill & Kiss the Dames – a fond look at hard-boiled detectives

The hard-boiled detective is America’s contribution to the mystery genre.  For a good hard-boiled detective story you need a sarcastic, licensed private eye, with a loyal secretary who often hasn’t been paid regularly due to lack of funds, a few gunshots, a dead body or two, at least one beautiful dame probably called ‘sweetheart’ and the gum-shoe getting fired from the case but sticking with it because of his/her own moral code. Get out your old books and enjoy!

 

Ross MacDonald’s Lew Archer

Lew Archer goes mostly undescribed but in THE DOOMSTERS he is referred to as being 6’2″ with blue eyes. He drinks too much, is weary in his soul and thinks about his ex-wife a lot.

He did describe himself once:

“I tried smiling to encourage myself. I was a good Joe after all. Consorter with roughnecks, tarts, hard cases and easy marks; private eye at the keyhole of illicit bedrooms; informer to jealousy, rat behind the walls, hired gun to anybody with fifty dollars a day; but a good Joe after all. The wrinkles formed at the corner of my eyes, the wings of my nose; the lips drew back from the teeth, but there was no smile. All I got was a lean famished look like a coyote’s sneer. The face had seen too many bars, too many rundown hotels and crummy love nests, too many courtrooms and prisons, postmortems and police lineups, too many nerve endings showing like tortured worms. If I found the face on a stranger, I wouldn’t trust it.” (THE MOVING TARGET)

 

Dashiell Hammett’s The Continental Op

The Continental Op is unnamed but we do know he is short and fat. Tough as nails, he has no sentimentality and no sympathy. He is just trying to do his job in a very messed up world. The most feeling he shows was when he shot a woman: “I never shot a woman before. I felt queer about it.” (THE GUTTING OF GUFFIGNAL)

He was described thus in THE DAIN CURSE:

“You came in just now, and then I saw -”

She stopped.

“What?”

“A monster. A nice one, an especially nice one to have around when you’re in trouble, but a monster just the same, without any human foolishness like love in him, and – What’s the matter? Have I said something I shouldn’t?”

 

Dashiell Hammett’s Sam Spade:

Hammett described Spade: “…he is what most of the private detectives I worked with would like to have been … a hard and shifty fellow, able to take care of himself in any situation, able to get the best of anybody he comes in contact with, whether criminal, innocent by-stander or client.” Spade was also good with the one-liners as these from THE MALTESE FALCON show:

Cairo: You always have a very smooth explanation ready.
Spade: What do you want me to do, learn to stutter?”

O’Shaughnessy: “I haven’t lived a good life. I’ve been bad, worse than you could know.”
Spade: “You know, that’s good, because if you actually were as innocent as you pretend to be, we’d never get anywhere.”  

“Listen, Dundy, it’s been a long time since I burst into tears because a policeman didn’t like me.”

“Don’t be too sure I’m as crooked as I’m supposed to be”

 

Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe

Marlowe was great with the wise cracks, drank whisky, played chess, and didn’t have a secretary. He describes himself:

“There’s very little to tell. I’m thirty-three years old, went to college once and can still speak English if there’s any demand for it. There isn’t much in my trade.” (THE BIG SLEEP)

“Okay, Marlowe,” I said between my teeth. “You’re a tough guy. Six feet of iron man. One hundred and ninety pounds stripped and with your face washed. Hard muscles and no glass jaw. You can take it.” (FAREWELL, MY LOVELY)

I needed a drink, I needed a lot of life insurance, I needed a vacation, I needed a home in the country. What I had was a coat, a hat and a gun. I put them on and left the room.” (FAREWELL, MY LOVELY)

Marlowe has reappeared in THE BLACK EYED BLONDE by Benjamin Black. Honest, you wouldn’t know that Chandler didn’t write it unless I told you, it’s that good.

 

Leigh Brackett’s Ed Clive

At a time when the field was dominated by male writers, Leigh Brackett, a science fiction writer of short stories, created a hard-boiled detective named Ed Clive in her first novel, NO GOOD FROM A CORPSE. The novel was so good that film director Howard Hawks told his people to “get that guy Brackett”. She wrote the screenplay for THE BIG SLEEP and THE LONG GOODBYE among other big flicks.

Clive is a tough, tough-guy. He gets hit over the head so many times you wonder if he has a steel plate up there:

“Did it hurt much, getting hit like that?”

Clive laughed. “I hardly notice those things any more. You get hardened to it.

She studied his face intently. “I guess a detective has to be tough. Are you tough, Mr. Clive?”

“How do I look?”

“Tough. Awfully tough.”  (NO GOOD FROM A CORPSE)

 

 Loren Estleman’s Amos Walker

The things Walker doesn’t like would make a book – gun control, non-smokers, liberals, and feminists just to give you an idea. He’s a hard-drinking, chain-smoking thorn in the side of the authorities. He’s the guy for whom the term “tough guy” was invented.

“If it weren’t for concussions I wouldn’t get any sleep at all.”
— Amos responds to a suggestion that he see a doctor after he’s slugged (again). (THE LEFT-HANDED DOLLAR)

 

Mickey Spillane’s Mike Hammer

Spillane never claimed to be a “good” writer. He wrote to sell books, and sell they did. His 13 Mike Hammer books sold over 225 million copies. Clad in the private eye’s traditional trench-coat with his hat brim pulled down low, Mike Hammer was a no-holds-barred, take-no-prisoners, private detective who carried a .45 Colt.

He wasn’t interested in catching the killers. He figured the legal system would mess it up. He cared about justice and he was more than willing to shoot to kill a killer. In the first five books of the Hammer series, Hammer dispatches 34 dirty, low-down killers.

Hammer’s saving grace may be that two good people were his friends and cared about him, Velda, his secretary, and Pat Chambers, Homicide Captain of the NYPD.

Spillane describes him thus: “Imagine this guys hits Mike Hammer over the head with a wooden coathanger [sic] and knocks him out. You hit Mike Hammer over the head with a wooden coathanger [sic]; he’ll beat the crap out of you.”

There are some very modern lady detectives that are hard-boiled as well, and they are for another time.

My Favorite Spy – Appleton Porter – What? Never heard of him?

Somewhere in the company of George Smiley and James Bond you will find Appleton Porter, a very British spy created by Marc Lovell. Appleton (“Apple” as he is known by his friends) is about as memorable as a spy can be. He is 6’7″ tall, with red hair, freckles (when he is not blushing) and a problem in that he blushes very easily.

His boss describes him as “six feet seven inches tall…How could he ever blend into the background?…He is kind to the aged and small creatures…and falls in love at the traditional drop of a lace handkerchief…training scores were pretty dismal…It makes me sigh myself to wonder why Porter didn’t have the cunning to try and fake his ratings. Is there no guile in the man at all? Finally, Porter blushes.”

His favorite snack is tea and toast with lemon marmalade – it helps him think. Often after just such a snack his mind is clear enough to see the solution to whatever problem he is facing.

The Spy Game is the first in this fourteen book series.

In the fifth book, Apple to the Core, Appleton manages to buy Ethel. Ethel is a very old British cab that has long been used by the Secret Service and for which Appleton has a great fondness. Ethel had been featured in the previous four books and it was nice to see the cab finally belong to Apple.

If I had to think up a description for this wonderful series I think I would call them “cozy spy”. While he does often have to fight physically the books aren’t full of killing, neither does Appleton swear. The circumstances he sometimes finds himself in are at times a bit crazy, but it makes the story so much more fun. The books are about 200 pages, give or take a few, and are a quick read.

While it is hard to choose among them, because they are all so much fun, Apple Spy in the Sky is one of my favorites. Appleton is an unlikely spy and in this episode he is up against a KGB agent as unlikely as he is.

White Hurricane : A Great Lakes November Gale and America’s Deadliest Maritime Disaster by David G. Brown

This was the story of the tremendous storm that raged over the Great Lakes in November, 1913. The storm began to be felt in small ways on Friday, Nov. 7th and from Saturday, the 8th, through Monday, Nov. 10th, 12 of the huge freighters were sunk and 31 more were run aground. 253 sailors were lost. But these figures are not the total because in 1913 no single body was responsible for keeping track of ships and lives lost. It also did not take into account fishermen or casual boaters out on the lakes or people who died on land. The storm was called the ‘white’ hurricane because it was accompanied by snow and ice which ravaged the ships and brought the towns along the Lakes to a standstill. Cleveland had over 21 inches of snow fall. Waves were 35′ high. Downed telephone and telegraph lines ashore hampered getting information to life-saving stations.  Brown describes the effect of the storm on the cities, especially Cleveland, and it is quite harrowing.

As with all disasters, press and politicians are desperate to point the finger of blame and the Weather Bureau took most of the blame. Brown points out, in all fairness, that in 1913 the methods of forecasting were very basic as was the current knowledge of what made weather patterns. The Gulf Stream was unknown, for example. Fingers were also pointed at the ship owners who pressed their captains to get in as many trips as possible. In fairness to the captains, if they had forecasts that really indicated how bad the storm was many of them might not have sailed.

The storm, which was actually two storms that immediately followed one another, was unprecedented when it occurred and there has not been a storm to match it since.

The story was engrossing, but I found it difficult to follow the timeline as Brown shifts from one ship, in one Lake to another ship in a different Lake and it would be much later when he came back to the original ship.  Not a terrible thing, the book still keeps your attention, but it was frustrating at times.

I found the title of the book, ‘America’s Deadliest Maritime Disaster’, a bit confusing.  Perhaps it was the deadliest disaster caused by weather; it certainly was not America’s deadliest. The SS Sultana was near Memphis TN on April 27, 1865 when three of her boilers exploded and she sank with the loss of 1800 lives.  It never received much publicity as it occurred the day following the shooting of John Wilkes Booth, so perhaps the author can be forgiven his extravagance.  Sometime in the next year I hope to read about the Sultana’s sinking.  Perhaps there is a technical difference between a disaster on the Great Lakes and one on the Mississippi, that makes one a ‘maritime’ disaster and the other not, or perhaps it is because the 253 lives lost were crewmen and the Sultana’s loss of life was concerned with passengers? I wouldn’t question that it might have been the, or one of the, costliest.  It might also qualify,  if you consider the loss of a ship a ‘death’, with 12 freighters going down.

But, in the end, I think the title is just the author’s, or his editor’s, hyperbole.