In GAD We Trust – Episode 10: Genre and Detective Fiction [w’ Ryan O’Neill]

In GAD We Trust

A final (for now) podcast episode before I head off on hiatus, this time discussing the idea of genre with author Ryan O’Neill.

This was going to be the first episode of a loose series on the theme of genre…and, I suppose, it still is, it’s just that that second, third, and fourth episodes will come after a mid-season break.  So for this entry we nose around the idea of what ‘genre’ means, whether rules are important, how cross-genre novels and stories work, and the ways in which the expectations of a genre can both be positive and a way for that genre’s critics to stick the boot in.

If I may allow myself a moment of hubris, I’m also pretty pleased with the observation I make toward the end about the sanitised nature of death in some GAD novels — this isn’t a perspective that I’ve held for a while, it just spontaneously came to me as we were recording — so let me know how near or far away from the truth you think I land.  And spare athought for Ryan when you discover which two books formed his first exposures to detective fiction, then marvel that he went on to become as much of a fan as he has…proof that no obstacle is too great to overcome…!

As usual, you can open the audio in your browser here, find the podcast on iTunes here, on Spotify here, or listen below.  Someone mentioned something called Stitcher for podcasts recently so I’ll look into that during shutdown, too.

Thanks, of course, go to Ryan, to Jonny Berliner for the music, to those of you listening, and to those people who have gotten in touch to express the hope that In GAD We Trust will not now vanish from their lives — after all, how many other podcasts can legitimately make reference to both Spaceballs (1987) and experimental French literature of the 1960s as a way of reinforcing their points?  The plan is, as I’ve said, just a month or two off to get my head straight, and then back to business.  And I always stick to my plans.

If you’re interested, I make reference in this episode to various posts that already appear on this blog, so at the following links you can find…

1. Christian and I working through Edgar Allan Poe’s tales of ratiocination
2. My defence of the perceived ‘rules’ of detective fiction
3. How The X-Files missed a trick by only using aliens

…and Noah Stewart’s post on the novel I Shot My Bridge Partner (1989) can be found here.

And finally, another plug for Ryan’s books Their Brilliant Careers (2016) and The Drover’s Wives (2019), both of which come highly recommended — and you know me, I’m not going to recommend something just to be polite.  If the guy’s books weren’t any good, do you think I’d have him on the podcast to begin with?  Exactly.

Ryan O'Neill

Right, see you in a couple of months…!


All episodes of In GAD We Trust can be found on the blog by clicking here.

29 thoughts on “In GAD We Trust – Episode 10: Genre and Detective Fiction [w’ Ryan O’Neill]

  1. Excellent as always. Many thanks to you JJ and all your guests for entertaining us over the last few months. I’ll make various unrelated comments based on brief notes made whilst listening:

    The Nine Tailors – yay!

    Chandler – boo! I got 6 in one volume for 50p but couldn’t be bothered after reading the first 2. Although I remember liking The Big Sleep and The Maltese Falcon but maybe that’s just because of Bogart.

    I wasn’t impressed by Hammett’s The Thin Man – annoying characters seemingly drinking constantly – but it sounds like I should give Red Harvest a go.

    I’m looking forward to re-reading The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle at some point and drawing out the map of what actually happens.

    And the idea of creativity coming out of constraints is wonderful.


    • Thankfully liking The Maltese Falcon in no way undercuts your dislike of Chandler, because he didn’t write it 🙂

      I have never read The Thin Man, and — in much the same way that the popular opinion of Ed Hoch (bear with me) always seemed to centre on the sheer <i<quantity of the man’s output rather than any specifically excellent stories — I find it interesting how many positive reviews of it can’t help but gush about the movies the book inspired…so maybe, y’know, it’s not actually the book that’s any good. I’ve had an itching to revisit Hammett for a little while now, though, so I might get to it before too long and find out for myself.

      Red Harvest is excellent, however. The fact that Ryan gets to teach it inspires nothing but envy in me…


      • Red Harvest and the Cohen Brothers “Miller’s Crossing” (which I also teach) make a great pairing- lots of echoes between them, and interesting as the film does not adapt Red Harvest, but remixes it with “The Glass Key”, making something new and fascinating to watch.
        Regarding creativity and constraints, I think I forgot to mention the most famous example of all- Perec’s “A Void” which is a full length novel that doesn’t once use the letter e. And it’s also a mystery novel, concerned with strange disappearances…


        • I always felt that there were very strong similarities between “Millers’s Crossing” and “The Glass Key”. I am relieved to have Ryan confirm that, as I had been wondering whether I was utterly confused.
          On the other hand, I do not remember striking similarities between the movie and Red Harvest.


          • Hi Christophe
            I think the major element that Miller’s Crossing takes from Red Harvest is the idea of someone playing different sides of a gang war against each other and (mainly) using their brains over brawn to make their opponents destroy each other. There are some other similarities: Both the Op and Tom Regan from Miller’s Crossing have prophetic dreams, both are defined by their roles as employees, both cannot explain their actions to themselves or others, both are involved with another man’s mistress, and neither gets the girl. Also, both Red Harvest and Miller’s Crossing have murders early on in the plot which turn out to be red herrings.The setting of an utterly corrupt city where the police are in the pocket of gangsters is also common to both films.

            Liked by 1 person

  2. JJ – what a fascinating blog. I almost spilled my coffee laughing so hard when Ryan described the Chandler / Hammett view (neither are a favourite author of mine) of the genre as, “a bunch of old ladies shooting each other with blowpipes full of curare”. Priceless – I would love to read a book like that.

    Enjoy your break … everyone needs time away. No need for the dull ax syndrome (i.e., if you’re still swinging the ax, but you’re not getting much out of it, because you’re just worn out.).

    Know though that your humour and insights will be missed. I look forward to your return so I can be exposed to authors, who I otherwise would never knew existed without bloggers like you as well as Tomcat, Kate, Ben, Brad, Puzzle Doctor, Laurie, Curtis, Martin, etc. educating me on the wonders of GAD. All the best.


    • Thanks, Scott. I’ve said before, but it bears repeating, that the GAD blogger community is pretty damn amazing in its coverage when you consider how relatively few specialist blogs focus on it.

      I mean no disrespect to book blogs that occasionally dip a toe into our water, but if you look at the sheer range of authors and styles covered in the GAD genre by a set of blogs you can easily count on the fingers of both hands…that shows how fortunate we are, that such a range of opinions exist, rather than everyone just parroting the same four opinions about the same six or seven authors. It’s a genuine pleasure to find myself amidst such a well-read and enthusiastic crowd, and I wan to be able to contribute in a way that continues to advance our shared enthusiasm.

      And when I get to have conversations like the above with people who are so knowledgable about this area of enthusiasm…well, I’d be mad not to come back, wouldn’t I?


  3. I really enjoyed listening to this episode, and I am suitably intrigued by Their Brilliant Careers.
    When you started talking about the detective novels being realistic, I must have had my English Lit hat on, as I started thinking along the lines of the Victorian Realistic Novel. A writing style/genre which evolved naturally, but essentially had these components:
    • An emphasis on the here and now
    • Attention to specific action and verifiable consequences
    • Realists evoke common actions, present surface details, and emphasize the minor catastrophes of the middle class
    • They employ simple direct language and write about issues of conduct
    • Characterization is very important. There is often an abundance of characters and social types
    (Not my criteria, but they seemed to sum up the VRN quite nicely).
    I was just wondering what your or Ryan’s views would be on the way the emerging detective novel interacted with this other genre? It is interesting that they both sprung up and were developing around the same time.
    For me I have felt that a lot of detective fiction, discounting historical mysteries, situates itself in contemporary society and that is one of its attractions. Without becoming a stand on your soap box kind of story classic crime novels were very good at embodying cultural anxieties and zeitgeists, without becoming didactic. A form of documentary perhaps? Maybe I am pushing my luck with that idea though…
    I feel like I am being a bit of a nit wit but isn’t all fiction to a degree artificial? If so are people who deride classic crime fiction for being artificial, really talking about the degree of artificiality? Or is there just special dispensation for the brand of artificiality that “Literature” or Literary fiction contains? Is there non-artificial fiction? I know the modernists experimented a lot with trying to attain a naturalistically narrated story, but to be honest, their attempts are largely either incredibly and mind numbingly boring and/or make little sense. Maybe artificiality is therefore needed to make a plot coherent and to make it interesting?
    Sorry a bit of a rant.
    I have to agree in your lack of love for the term Cozy and I found it interesting to hear you two discuss hybrid novels. It seems sci fi and detective fiction can blend together quite successfully. Is this because they share in a way the trajectory of the quest narrative? The only writer I have studied in depth who blends detective fiction with another genre/style is Annie Haynes. She has quite a body of novels which experiment with fusing 1920s detective fiction with the Victorian sensation fiction novel and to be honest I found that the detective plot mostly did not come out on top. Sensation fiction definitely took control of the steering wheel for a number of the plots and I wondered whether the reason why these two styles do not fit well together is because they have opposing purposes. Sensation fiction is about revealing the whole scale of the secrets and horrors and then almost revealing in the vicarious emotional experience as the reader finds out what will happen to the characters, whilst detective fiction is about teasing the reader with the truth; giving them the clues to figure it out, but in such a way that very often they do not and it is surprise.
    Apologies for running on so long!


    • Wow — I am not going to be able to do justice to your comment in this reply, but here goes…

      The notion of Realism is an interesting one — and Ryan’s better placed to discuss this than I am — when you compare the works of contrasting schools. So Henry Lawson, who wrote ‘The Drover’s Wife’ that formed the basis of Ryan’s book, was seen as the “realist” alternative to Banjo Patterson, who wrote about Australian life in a much more Romantic way. But in terms of Victorian literature, how much Romanticism was there? My limited reading of the era — outside of detective fiction — seems to limit the non-realist school to the sorts of fantasy that Edgar Rice Burroughs or H.G. Wells wrote…which is certainly not Realist, but equally feels too distinct from the non-Realist example of Patterson above.

      The point I’m making badly is that I agree all fiction is inherently artificial, but there are clearly degrees of artifice…and how we unpick them is a task I am not qualified for at present 🙂 And, yes, the idea of cultural anxieties is certainly something I’d agree detective fiction has addressed — c.f. the mentions I make in the episode about the Welfare State, rising taxation, etc. However. such anxieties can be found in all manner of fiction (how virtually every Hollywood SF movie of the 1950s is essentially a thinly-veiled Communist allegory, say), and perhaps more in the foreground, so I don’t know if the the plot-driven nature of the detective novel really lends itself to that sort of documentary.

      And, yes, there certainly has to be a sort of common aim for two genres to meld well, but I do not possess the overview to be able to do more than generalise: quest narratives are helpful, but equally the “hard stone” analogy Ryan makes feels more rigorous to me. With that, you can embed a detective plot in any form of story, even if the other genre around it ends up taking over. An increased number of expectations probably make the fusion more satisfying to the disciples of both — the Western-Detection of Steve Hockensmith, say — whereas the looseness of the likes of Blow Up frustrates those of use wanting plot and baffles those wanting a looser sort of affair.

      I have no idea how much sense this makes, sorry — it’s wonderful to be given so much to think about, and I’m trying to capture the ideas as they occur to me…


  4. Another good and interesting listen. I haven’t read much hard-boiled detective fiction (no novels and possible twenty or so short stories), and I can’t say that your discussion here made me any more eager to do so… 🙂

    Tsk tsk on your comment on Hoch. I can see where you’re coming from, but I think that at least some bloggers, particularly TomCat – and if I may toot my own horn, myself – have mentioned specific stories that are true classics of the genre. That the general populace have only passing knowledge on the fellow isn’t much different than those who poo-poo Knox’s Decalogue without even knowing what he was trying to do.

    Enjoy your time off!


    • I did eventually get some Hoch recommendations, and people of course have their favourites, but I find it telling that people speak of And Then There Were None, say, or After the Funeral rather than going on about Agatha Christie writing 80 criminous works. Hoch, I feel, suffered from the problem all prolific authors tend to: he was too prolific, and so trying to boil 900 stories down to even 20 favourites is going to be a fool’s errand. So I see it from both sides, don’t worry…!

      And there is some great hardboiled stuff out there — indeed, a future IGWT episode is going to look at some of it — but none of it was written by Mr. R. Chandler. That’s right, The Internet — none of it, Chandler was not a Hardboiled writer and does not belong in that school. I said it. Watcha gonna do about it, eh? Because the Ellery Queen fans go kerr-azy when I even moderately impugn those guys…so, y’know, your fandom needs to step up or else are you really fans?


      • Yeah I did sort of throw a lot of ideas at you. But it’s you’re own fault really for providing such a stimulating podcast episode. I was making quite a few notes as I was listening.
        I had to refresh myself on what realist victorian novels are, but I think they were meant to have a more journalistic style in their delivery of facts/information, (contrasting from a more romantic style I suppose). I just thought that some detective novels tried to do something similar in giving you the facts un-romantically, so you could figure out the mystery. The details of contemporary life also seem to be very important to both genres, though probably for different reasons. The 19th century is a bit of a pain for trying to categorise the different fiction writing styles. I wonder if the Victorians blended their writing styles/genres, creating genre fusions, more than writers did in the 20th century, when there seems to be a lot of effort to define separate genres and point out their distinctive features? Did genre become a more important concept in the 20th century? And now my brain is wondering why, if this is so… If I don’t sleep tonight I’m blaming you!
        Not sure if some of Dickens’ stories would count as realist novels?
        I think when I was suggesting a documentary like nature to some detective novels I was probably, rather poorly, trying to suggest something along the lines that such novels often give you a window into a particular period of time, yet because it is simply the present day to them, they don’t always feel it necessary to provide an extensive commentary alongside it and that put me in mind of a certain documentary style. In a way when a writer documents a crime scene they don’t always tell you at the time the significance of certain features about the corpse or the room. They allow you to observe the scene, but they don’t provide an in depth commentary all the time, (or rather not until the end when the solution is revealed).


        • Three things occur to me on the back of this. Hopefully they’ll make some kind of cohesive whole…

          1) From the persepctive you provide above, yes, I would suggest that there’s a distinct overlap between that element of “realism” in the communication of a key ideas. However…

          2) …there’s a principle in science called “parallax error” which is essentially the in-built mistakes made in measuring or observing something on account of the observer’s position. Inherently all fiction — regardless of how real it wishes to appear — is going to contain this, I’d argue. So anything with a Romantic edge is deliberately rose-tinting elements of what it discusses in the same way that anything Realist is playing up the more base nature of its subject. This is, typically, how we distinguish in the Subgenre Hell into which it’s so easy to stumble. So…

          3) …I wonder the extent to which this is where we find the observation of genre: simply an awareness of the ways in which a story is lying to us. We go in telling ourselves “Well, this is obviously going to make Event X appear more significant than it would in real life” and so, when it does, we’re okay with that…the lie we’ve been given has been mis-observed in a way we were anticipating. Indeed, it’s the lie we want to be told about Event X (be it how murder investigations work, what a sunset looks like, whether explosions deafen you, etc). The concept of revelation or commentary alongside that is, then, simply adding to the genre misrepresentation we’ve signed up for.

          Huh, that did kind of make sense, hey?


      • I’m stepping up!
        I’ll never stop sticking up for Chandler- his plotting may have been shoddy, but line for line he is one of the great prose stylists of 20th century genre fiction (and maybe even 20th Century fiction as a whole) and Marlowe is a great character- better than Poirot or Marple.
        That’s torn it!
        [runs for cover]


        • I’m glad we recorded the episode before you started saying crazy things liek this, Ryan, otherwise how would anyone have taken you seriously? This is just…bobbins, man, pure bobbins 😄

          Liked by 2 people

        • Ha! I think that comment needed some kind of warning: Make Sure You’re Sitting Down Before You Read It or Keep Smelling Salts Handy!
          If you shared their latter point at a conference such as Bodies from the Library, we could be looking at a full scale riot lol

          Liked by 1 person

  5. Thanks for all the fantastic points being made here. It’s great to see the podcast spark such discussion. It would take a book length reply to do justice to the comments above, but I’ll give some brief thoughts on some of them.
    I’d agree that all fiction is inherently artificial, but I’d argue that the prevailing view is that literary (realist) fiction is still considered to be the apogee of fiction and that it faithfully mirrors life, at least more than any other kind of fiction. This is nonsense- no one talks like characters in a book talk, and life is haphazard and messy and people don’t have arcs. But because mystery fiction’s prime purpose is to entertain, and lit fic’s purpose is to say something “important” about life, critics harp on the ridiculous coincidences and contrivances of mystery fic, without admitting that Lit fic has just as many coincidences and contrivances. That’s what gets my goat.
    As you suggested, I think genre was much more malleable in the 19th century (Dickens has elements of metafiction that realist novels don’t normally touch on now) and it was only really in the 20th century that critics got their teeth into it and starting thinking about genre seriously and codifying it, and they have been doing so ever since.
    As JJ and I demonstrated in the blog, discussion of the detective genre is difficult as it is hard to define. I think that difficulty is amplified when we talk about “realism” as it changes over time, and also necessarily brings in a discussion of how realism evolved and changed as the novel form developed and interacted with naturalism, modernism and postmodernism, at which point everyone’s brains start to melt!


  6. Genres and more genres and subgenres…
    I’d wager a truly realist novel would be hot garbage. In a fictional landscape, not even two characters share the same name, there’s only one John, one Paul, everyone has different traits and quirks, the main detective doesn’t die by falling down a stair, or fails to solve the case, retires 20 years later and dies of thrombosis at 82. Yeah, I’d say every novel ever written is artificial… And so is every history book, biography, etc, when you think about it.
    I don’t wanna go down a deep-as-fudge rabbit hole…but I’d even say characterisation in novels is either postmodernist bullshit, a gathering of overly emotional nutjobs or black hat white hat infantile dickensian cardboard cutouts. Do transcribe any gathering of friends and unless one of you is crazy as heck, if it were released as a novel you will be told it lacks characterisation. The religious guy, the overprotective father and the anarchist will talk about their children, the latest netflix special, what they ate for breakfast … Nothing about hearing the voice of God, the desire to choke the teenage daughter’s male friend or bombing crap.
    Well I wanted to write more, about romanticism, surrealism and how much I hate Paul Auster… But if unchecked, my comments are longer than A Song of Ice and Fire 😋


  7. The most striking take-away for me was JJ’s point that Hammett and Chandler are different to such a great extent that it is difficult to argue that they belong to the same genre. I much prefer Hammett, not only plot-wise (duh!) but also stylistically, and I experienced it as “comforting” and even “liberating” to hear that it is reasonable to appreciate Hammett much more than Chandler (or vice versa).


    • Oh, it’s perfectly reasonable to appreciate Hammett more than Chandler — dunno about vice versa, though 😛

      Nah, but in all seriousness I really don’t see them as members of the same school. They wrote PI novels, but that’s about it Chanler co-opting Hammett into justifying his own writing is akin to these modern publishers putting Agatha Christie comparisons in the blurbs of their new books: misleading, mendacious, and purely intended to give the later writer a sense of respectability they hope to achieve merely through repetition of the idea over earning it through actual talent and apt, intelligent, and comparable use of ideas.

      Liked by 2 people

  8. Really wonderful podcast. So much great stuff.

    As to the question of why detective fiction alone among genres was tied to terms of the application of rules, I really think I know the answer, and that answer appears to me with such clarity that I feel certain that it is right. As with Golden Age detective fiction and “cozy mysteries,” it is a matter of similar but distinct concepts being conflated and confused. In his case, it is the confusion of a metaphorical analogy with a literal identity.

    It is easy to see how detective stories bear certain resemblances with competitive games: a playful, ludic quality, an inherent (in this case intellectual) challenge, etc… But, whereas a game or contest works well as a metaphor for the detective story— and indeed a person can actually employ a detective story as a game— a detective story is in itself not literally a competitive game, and is indeed fundamentally very distinct one. I’ve written about this extensively (and rather nauseatingly) elsewhere, but here in short form are a few of the significant (and as I say, often fundamental) distinctions:

    ⁃ the reader of a detective story is not called upon to demonstrate the same skills as his presumed “opponent” (the author). Writing a mystery and solving one are two entirely different skills, and success in one exhibits no necessary ability in the other, and thus no comparative ability that would help to determine a “winner.” In competitive games, On the other hand, competition is based on demonstrations of like or identical skills.

    ⁃ the only arbiter of the “outcome” of a detective story is the lone judgment of one of the participants, namely, the reader. In competitive games, the winner is agreed upon either by mutual assent of all participants, or else by the judgment of an external arbiter, following pre-established guidelines.

    – a detective story exists as an entertainment regardless of whether or not the reader chooses to employ it as an intellectual challenge— he may just “go for the ride” (as many mystery readers claim they do). But a competitive game without anyone playing doesn’t exist.

    ⁃ a large percentage of mystery readers are consistently more satisfied when they experience that which would have to be referred to as “losing” in game terms— that is, they find it more satisfying when they do not succeed in “solving” the mystery before it is revealed to him. With a competitive game, on the other hand, there is always the presumed desire to win. This is an incredibly significant distinction, for it means that the whole purpose of participating in reading a detective story is frequently entirely distinct from that if playing a competitive game.

    ⁃ a mystery is designed to ideally provide the reader with a conclusion that both surprises him and yet seems retrospectively inevitable. That dynamic for many readers Is the most important aspect of a detective story. But there’s nothing about the end of a competitive game that necessarily or even desirably contains either of those elements.

    Which leads us to the subject of “rules.” Rules are found in competitive games because they are entirely necessary to determine outcomes, which is a primary focus of the activity. Games can’t be played without rules. Egos, money, and even friendship is often at stake, and thus much effort is made to ensure that all participants are playing by the same (often highly exact) rules. But note that, despite, the efforts of Knox, Van Dine, etc, not only are there no consistent rules for mystery writers, there are rules dictated to readers at all!

    Ultimately, I think the “rules” were just created to address the common tacit expectations of readers, and the common disappointment that occurs when they are not met. Basically, there are just three:

    1. The solution must be sufficiently indicated by the puzzle (though what constitutes “sufficiently” will always be a point of contention, “all the clues necessary to solve the mystery” being an ultimately immeasurable and thus meaningless phrase).

    2. The solution must account for elements provided in the puzzle (Chekhov’s guns).

    3. The solution should surprise.

    I don’t believe there’s any “rule” from Van Dine, Knox, Elliot, or anyone else that doesn’t follow from those three ideas. When an author breaks them, he is not being “unfair” (again, a term applicable to games but not to mystery stories), he is simply not living up to reader expectations.

    But again, the apparent need for these rules is borne of the belief that a detective story is literally something it’s really only metaphorically analogous to. I mean, it’s fine to say:

    “There is no frigate like a book to take you lands away.”

    But if you put a book in the water and try to sail away in it, you might run into trouble.

    On a different subject, I personally don’t feel Chandler is bad at all… I just feel he’s not trying to achieve the same thing as the Golden Age authors. At all. But I can’t see how I could rate anyone who wrote:

    “It was a blonde. A blonde to make a bishop kick a whole in a stained glass window.”


    “From 30 feet away she looked like a lot of class. From 10 feet away she looked like something made up to be seen from 30 feet away.”

    as anything less than genius.


    • I’ll attempt a fuller reply in die course, Scott, but I want to address the Chandler point you make at the end there, because I legitimately feel that this is the exact problem with Chandler. One criticises his prose, his lack of plotting, his rejection of the concept of a novel, his glad-handing of authors far better than himself to give his own work legitimacy, his ignorance of the purpose of prose — in short, pretty much every valid criticism that can be raised at an author — and people tend to reply with “Yeah, but he wrote some funny sentences”.

      I don’t deny he had an occasionally arch turn of phrase — a favourite of mine is something like “She was pushing 30 backwards hard enough to break a wrist” — but we’re all pithy when we want to be, and pithiness alone shouldn’t give respectability to his criticisms of a subject that he does not have the understanding to criticise. It’d be fine if no-one took him seriously, but the aura of respectability Chandler has achieved on the back of some highly tortured metaphors (I’ve never understood that “stained glass window” one — it sounds good, but it makes no sense…Chandler in a nutshell, to me) is baffling.

      Anyhoo. A discussion for another time, perhaps!


  9. I think Chandler is more than just a few funny lines— his ability to convey the sense of place, for instance— but I won’t argue the point too strongly, for I too am much more interested in puzzle plotting than the stuff Chandler brings to the table (though I’ve never thought there was any reason why we couldn’t have both). As for the “stained glass window” line, it’s always been pretty clear to me— the evocation of Suppressed sexual desire so great as to make the bishop take out his frustration on the church window. Maybe that one was obvious to me because I’ve been that guy looking at that blonde, though I wasn’t a bishop and there wasn’t a stained glass window nearby.

    As for The Thin Man, it might very well disappoint any lover of puzzle plotting because it was a book with a thesis, and that thesis was almost militarily Chandlerian. The point Hammett was making in The Thin Man was that real life crime has none of the symmetry or neatness of Golden Age detective fiction. Thus, Hammett purposely left clues that had no payoff, and included plot elements that were intentionally arbitrary (that phrase sounds like a contradiction, but I think you know what I mean— Hammett intentionally included arbitrary plot elements). Unfortunately, this aspect Of literary critique was overlooked by the screenwriters when they adapted it for the films, leaving in the sloppy plotting but failing to elucidate the point of it. So that the film, in terms of plot, becomes a weakly clued example of just the type of story Hammett is criticizing. On the other hand, it still includes some of the best (indeed, I’d argue very possible THE very best) character comedy ever seen in cinema history.


    • We’re giving Chandler’s writing more attention than he probably did, but that “stained glass window” thing still bothers me. I get that it’s about sexual repression/frustration, but “kicking a hole in a stained glass window” is such a random payoff, don’t you think? The image doesn’t work for me, not least because of the sheer physical difficulty involved — stained glass windows are high up, so to kick one is…not exactly routine, and would involve a lot of preparation to get up to that height to then kick it. Sure, many would claim I’m over-thinking it, but it’s not the momentary outburst of frustration Chandler intends it to be — and the one thing Chandler was good at was making those sorts of setups pay off well (see the examples you and I have both quoted, which demonstrate his skill with this sort of jaded pithiness far more effectively).

      As I say, possibly this is giving it too much attention, but it’s a popular quote used to demonstrate his skill that doesn’t actually do what so many other Chandlerisms (the one about the kangaroo in the smoking jacket, say) do to far better effect.

      As to The Thin Man…I really appreciate this insight, and shall have to bear it in mind when I get to it. I will, I will, I will read some Hammett later this year, and I’ll include that novel in my sweep (I think it’s the only Hammett novel I’ve not read…but I could be wrong: elements of The Glass Key are familiar, but I can’t say for sure I recall enough to be certain).


  10. Maybe the fact that a church stained glass window would take such energy to get up to reflects the high level of frustration. Like tearing a hole in the ceiling. I dunno.

    Anyhow, I think the points I made about Thin Man bear attention. I’ve seen almost no one else mention the very deliberate arbitrariness of the plotting, but it seems obvious to me, as in lines such as:

    “When murders are committed by mathematics, you can solve them by mathematics. Most of them aren’t in this one wasn’t.“

    Or Nick’s response to the untidiness of the solution:

    “It’s neat enough to send him to the chair, and that’s all that counts.”

    And I think in the last line of the novel, Nora sums up the point by making clear her disappointment with the lack of what I refer to as sudden retrospective illumination:

    “That may be— but it’s all pretty unsatisfactory.”

    I don’t think that’s intended to convey Hammett’s modesty regarding the novel, but commenting upon the (purposely) unsatisfactory quality of the puzzle plot within it, and of real crimes in real life.

    By leaving the thesis out (I suspect the screenwriters didn’t recognize it, as I find that most people don’t, as patent as it seems to me) the film is an alternation of plot exposition scenes with little to no payoff (almost like Chandler), and unequalled Nick/Nora banter. Fortunately, I feel the latter is great enough to compensate for the former; the film is fully worthy of It’s reputation.

    Curiously, there was a double-murder in my county ( Orange County, California) about 10 years ago, that basically bore the same plot as The Thin Man. I’m horrified to admit that I actually knew the culprit of this crime. If I had ever seen him after his arrest, I probably would’ve commented upon what a stupid story to model his crime on (though I do suspect the resemblance was pure coincidence).


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