My favourite gumshoe

When it comes to detective stories there is only one writer, and one book, for that matter, that hits all the buttons. The writer is Dashiell Hammett, and his book, The Maltese Falcon.

As a teenager I enjoyed Raymond Chandler and his wisecracking PI, Philip Marlowe. Nothing could surpass him, I thought at the time, for enjoyment in detective fiction. But that all changed when in later life I read Hammett’s The Thin Man, and then the mother of all detective fiction, The Maltese Falcon.

Up to that point, I didn’t think Chandler could ever be possibly dethroned in my head. But after casting my eyes over The Thin Man, considered a lightweight novel, compared to Red Harvest, The Dain Curse, The Maltese Falcon and The Glass Key, I realised how wrong I was.

The Thin Man, which was the last of his five published novels, also happened to be a very thin book indeed. But that is the beauty of his writing. He was so efficient in his prose that the story revolves around a few characters in walking distance of each other. There is humour and a general ease in style that makes it effortless to read again and again and again. The husband and wife team of Nick and Nora Charles and their witty banter led to a spate of films and set a blueprint for comedy between the sexes ever since.

And when I thought it couldn’t get any better I browsed The Maltese Falcon in a small London bookshop during a lunch break and forgot to return to the office. These are the most cherished moments in finding that right book that fits you. Time just seems to stand still when they get into your hands.

The Maltese Falcon marked a step-change in detective fiction. Its hardboiled style and darker approach to crime, dragged readers away from the cosy upper-class detectives created by mystery writers from the Golden Age. The British whodunits were being passed over for the grittier American urban crime thriller where the hero was working class.

Hammett’s Sam Spade, the dry-witted gumshoe, would a decade later turn into the more defined Philip Marlowe created by Chandler. Both characters would become the template for all future pulp fiction private detectives until they were eventually replaced by cops in police procedural thrillers.

The Maltese Falcon had the requisite MacGuffin, a femme fatale, crooked chancers, and of course a hero with his own code of ethics straight from the Knights of the Round Table. The plot is linear and not overly complicated, unlike those of Chandler’s, and there is humour too. But it is the directness of his writing, using a third person point-of-view, which allows the action to speak.

Of course, Hammett had one advantage over Chandler in that he had been a real detective for the Pinkerton National Detective Agency, although not much is known about his job there. Hammett, certainly had a harder upbringing than Chandler, having to leave school at 13. Both were born in the US with unreliable fathers, but Chandler thanks to his Irish mother was classically educated at Dulwich College in London, a private school whose pupils included the authors P.G. Wodehouse and C.S. Forester.

Chandler published his first novel The Big Sleep in 1939, introducing Philip Marlowe some nine years after Hammett’s Sam Spade. But the detective’s first person narration brought more immediacy in his story as well as more scope for humour and style.

Farewell, My Lovely followed a year later and soon Marlowe was hitting the big time on the silver screen. It was not long before Chandler turned his hand to scriptwriting, just as Hammett had done many years earlier.

His self-styled similes became his stock-in-trade as a writer and brought him much admiration in the literary world, something that was less apparent in the UK with regards to Hammett’s work.

The British-based Crime Writers’ Association ranked The Maltese Falcon at No.10 out of the top 100 crime books, while placing Chandler’s The Big Sleep at No.2 and Farewell, My Lovely at No.7. But the Mystery Writers of America ranked The Maltese Falcon as the best of all time mysteries, ahead of Chandler. Over the years, the US association has ranked Hammett’s book at No.1 or No.2.

Hammett’s influence is everywhere from Chandler to Le Carré, to Elmore Leonard and even Len Deighton. While he may not have been the first writer to create a hard-boiled detective, he was innovative and original, justifying his classic status.

My only gripe with Hammett was that he gave Sam Spade only one outing in full-length fiction. That was a very mean thing to do in my book.

 

Keep up to date with Tom Claver at www.tomclaver.co.uk

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The Godmother of Nordic Noir

Look up Maj Sjöwall or her late writing partner Per Wahlöö in Wikipedia and you’ll find only a paragraph or two dedicated to each of them. But more than half a century ago these two Swedish crime writers created a form of crime writing that we now refer today as Nordic Noir.

They wrote only 10 crime books together in the 1960s and 1970s until the death of Wahlöö at the age of 48 from cancer. But they recalibrated crime writing based on real social issues and police procedurals. Their books featured Martin Beck, a tenacious Swedish policeman and his team in homicide.

Sjöwall, who celebrates her 80th birthday next month, is hailed by writers like Henning Mankell, Karin Fossum and Jo Nesbø as the Godmother of Scandinavian Crime Fiction.

She was given a standing ovation at the recent Crimefest in Bristol after being interviewed on stage by Lee Child. Sjöwall, a modest and unassuming lady, could have done without the intrusion of her privacy, but it was unavoidable as she was there to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the first Martin Beck novel, Roseanna. She was also followed around Bristol by a Swedish TV crew making a documentary about her work.

Sjöwall, a former Marxist, was brought up in a hotel managed by her father and as a child saw Nazis in the hotel. German soldiers travelling on leave between Norway and Germany were allowed passage through neutral Sweden – the so-called permittenttrafik. “Everything stopped in Sweden during the war,” she told Child. “The borders were closed. There was no traffic.”

When she was a teenager she saw many of her friends travelling to exciting places like Paris, but she was not allowed to go abroad. Then in the 1960s, Sweden, like other parts of Europe, saw its fair share of left wing agitation in the form of student protests and demonstrations against the Vietnam war.

To the outside world, Sweden looked a free and easy place to live, she explained but in reality the country was moving more to the right and becoming a capitalist state. Sjöwall claimed that the country’s reputation of being some sort of “idealistic” state was nothing more than a “PR exercise” that clouded the fact that the country was lurching to the right.

She met Wahlöö while he was a journalist as she needed someone to translate Father Brown stories for the publishing house she was working for. She’d already been twice divorced when she met Wahlöö who was nine years her senior and already married. But he eventually left his wife and they lived together, producing two sons and 10 crime books.

They were influenced by writers like Chandler, Hammett, and Simenon, but she said they did not want to write like someone else. The aim was not to have just a hero but a team.

Ed McBain’s police procedural style was also an influence but Sjöwall told Child that it was not true that they copied him.

Most Swedish crime novelists at that time, according to Sjöwall, were “bourgeois” and did not write about policemen but characters who happen to stumble upon crime. Wahlöö, who was also a Marxist, wanted to do something different. He was keen to show a critique of Swedish society, using the police procedural format as the vehicle.

So they planned a book and allotted each other chapters.They would sit opposite each other writing into the night, having put their kids to bed.

Roseanna, their first collaboration, sold moderately well despite crime books not being a particularly popular genre in Sweden in those days. Martin Beck was the rather typical civil servant who was boring and dutiful, she said. She admitted that it was a gamble to have such a boring character, but the point was to show how real human beings work.

They were criticised for showing the private lives of policemen, something which would today sound odd as so many crime books are about romance. But she feels that the genre has in fact gone too much in this direction as the books seem to now over dwell on the personal lives of detectives.

Their fourth book together, The Laughing Policeman, won an Edgar Award in 1971 from the Mystery Writers of America for Best Novel and was later adapted into a film starring Walter Matthau.

Sjöwall and Wahlöö had only planned to write 10 crime books together although they saw it as one big novel about crime split into ten stories. The last book was completed before he died.

Child asked her whether they would have continued to write more had Wahlöö lived? Her answer was yes, although it would not have been about crime but about modern warships.

Since Wahlöö’s passing 40 years ago, she has collaborated with other authors from time to time, but she admitted in recent years she does not like to sit on her own to write. “It’s too lonesome. So I write short stories or articles, poetry and texts for my friends. I write when I have an idea but I won’t be publishing again.”

When asked by Child why she thought Nordic Noir was so popular? She said, “I don’t know, it’s not that fantastic.”

Keep up to date with Tom Claver at www.tomclaver.co.uk