An Interesting Neutrality

In the Wall Street Journal, Lee Sandlin discusses two hard-boiled crime authors whose work has recently been anthologized, Paul Cain and David Goodis. I’m pretty familiar with Goodis, but Cain (no relation to James M.) is new to me. Sandlin assures me I haven’t missed much—Cain was tasked with writing Dashiell Hammett-esque stories for Black Mask in the 30s after Hammett himself struck out for Hollywood, and falls short in comparison. Indeed, the best part of the review is a bit on what made Hammett’s prose work so well. Hammett, Sandlin writes, had a

freakish knack for making neutrality interesting. Every object in a Hammett novel registers with unnerving clarity, even when it doesn’t appear to signify anything at all—as in this aria to an office desk:

Ragged gray flakes of cigarette-ash dotted the yellow top of the desk and the green blotter and the papers that were there. A buff-curtained window, eight or ten inches open, let in from the court a current of air faintly scented with ammonia. The ashes on the desk twitched and crawled in the current.

It’s as radiant as an Edward Hopper painting, and as eerie. It means nothing in particular, and yet it seems to hold within it the silence of the entire American landscape. Hammett’s deadpan brutality inspired generations of truculent, thuggish, bullying private eyes; because of his influence, the average hard-boiled novel is like the world’s surliest Internet comment thread. But his more enduring legacy is in the way he was able to infuse the flatness of the American vernacular with this strange visionary cool.

2 thoughts on “An Interesting Neutrality

  1. Now wait a minute, Paul Cain was no Hammett, but if you pick up his A Fast One and fail to be thrilled by the breakneck hardboiled retro Hollywood action, I’m going to wonder about your taste. Seriously. Especially if you’re a fan of the history of the old Whitley Heights / Los Feliz Hollywood of the 1930s, gambling ships, hardboiled lingo. Come on, man, don’t put it down till you’ve had a shot or two.

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