Thursday, July 23, 2015

Dashiell Hammett, father of the wisecrack, plus questions for readers

Dashiell (accent on the second syllable)  Hammett was not the first to introduce humor; Edgar Allan Poe had already done that by 1844, in "The Purloined Letter." (First publication in December of that year, right here in Philadelphia.)

But Hammett may have been the first to incorporate wisecracks, and he was almost certainly the best.

The scene in "The Girl with the Silver Eyes" in which the  Continental Op tries to pry information about the vanished Jeanne Delano from her would-be lover Burke Pangburn ought to be read in its entirety, but this excerpt gives something of the flavor:
"`What color hair?' 
"`Brownso dark that it's almost blackand it's soft and thick and 
"`Yes, yes. Long or bobbed?'
"`Long and thick and'
"`What color eyes?'
"`You've seen shadows on polished silver when' 
"`I wrote down gray eyes ... '"
Hammett's wisecracks are entertaining for their own sake, wittier than most, and, unlike most wisecracks by the generations of hard-boiled writers who have followed, they are always thematically apt. They advance the story; they never seen designed to attract attention for their own sake. Hammett did it first, and Hammett did it best.

And now, readers, who are your favorite wisecracking hard-boiled writers? Why? What do wisecracks contribute to a story? What makes for a good wisecrack in the context of a story, as opposed to a mere funny line?

© Peter Rozovsky 2015

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Blogger R.T. said...

FYI, Chandler was born on this date in 1888; as notice of that birthday, I have posted an article and questions at my site, Crimes in the Library.

As for your question, I think the key to Chandler's "wisecracks" is the originality of the language; he succeeds best when he surprises with unique, new phrases with never before used metaphors and similes.

Now, to refresh my memory and remind me that my thesis is correct, I will reread _The Lady in the Lake_, my favorite Chandler.

July 23, 2015  
Blogger Dana King said...

Wisecracks, especially in an otherwise heavy story, leaven the mood and can serve to make the violence and other malevolence more effective by keeping the book from becoming a dreary trudge from bad to worse. They're also great for characterization, even when the character isn't as funny as he thinks he is. As much as anything, though, they're how life is. People are cracking wise all the time. They stand out more in books because the author can refine the comment through several drafts.

July 23, 2015  
Blogger Cary Watson said...

One of my favourites is by Elmore Leonard. I can't remember which novel it's from, but the setup is a not very bright hitman hiding out in Windsor after some trouble in Detroit. He's on the phone to his boss having an important conversation, and at the same time staring out his motel window at a Chinese greasy spoon diner that has a sign advertising "Chinese and Canadian food". Towards the end of the conversation the hitman suddenly interrupts his boss to ask, "What's Canadian food?" Leonard was great at the parenthetical wisecrack or observation.

July 23, 2015  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

R.T.: I hope Blogger enjoys that comment it just ate. Here it is again:

Hammett's wisecracks were certainly nowhere nearly as extravagant as Chandler's similes (, which may be why they are far less widely imitated (though Hammett was capable of verbal slapstick, too, as in the opening scene of "Arson Plus.")

But the tones are so different that I have to think the two writers had different goals for their humor. Chandler's always seem more verbally inventive, Hammett's to cut closer to the moral or narrative of philosophical heart of the story at hand.

July 23, 2015  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Dana, perhaps Chandler's make the reader laugh before he or she gets back to the matter at hand, whereas Hammett's elicit an ironic smile.

July 23, 2015  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Cary, I don't know the book, but I like the crack. At first glance, it strikes me as closer to Hammett's than to Chandler's.

July 23, 2015  
Blogger Dana King said...


No argument from me. I used to prefer Chandler, but now I like my such humor more in the vein of Hammett or Leonard, where it's more subtle and arising from the situation. They never reach.

July 23, 2015  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Dana, I don't find that Chandler's humor reaches. At its best, its very extravagance can jar a reader into alertness, into looking at the situation in new ways.

July 23, 2015  
Anonymous Mary Beth said...

One of my favorite wisecrackers is in Sharyn McCrumb's book, "If I'd Killed Him When I Met Him". Her character Eleanor is a Betty Broderick type, but with a sense of humor. I have wondered if she used the Broderick case as inspiration.

July 24, 2015  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

That title is a wisecrack all by itself. Thanks.

July 24, 2015  
Blogger Gerald So said...

Hi, Peter.

Two of my favorites are Robert B. Parker and Gregory Mcdonald. When writing Spenser, Parker showed the same talent for wisecracks as Hammett and Chandler, but his humor was more contemporary, being written in the 1970s, so I related somewhat better to it than Hammett's or Chandler's.

As much as he joked with other characters, Spenser's internal monologue also had humor, as if he were conversing with the reader as well. Mcdonald's humor writing Fletch came through dialogue with other characters, but written in third person, his wisecracks were more surprising, not set up by internal monologue.

I like humor pertinent to the story, but I also like how humor shows detachment, gives a sense there's more to the joker's life than the story's main action. The joker is able to step back and and laugh at his situation.

Of course, as wisecracking humor has become a trait of many hardboiled characters, it can also prevent one from standing out from the rest. Not every character can or should be a joker.

July 25, 2015  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

The humor in the Fletch books could also be specific to the situation, as in Fletch's account of why he did not last as an obituary writer because he told the truth in obituaries.

I'm not sure Hammett's jokes are s all that rooted in its own time, as in the following, from "Arson Plus":

"Tarr leaned back in his chair, turned his red face to the ceil- ing, and bellowed:

“`Hey, Mac!'

"The pearl push-buttons on his desk are ornaments as far as he is concerned. Deputy sheriffs McHale, McClump and Macklin came to the door together—MacNab apparently wasn’t within hearing.

July 25, 2015  

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