Nuances of The Lady in the Lake and The Maltese Falcon

Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett present two different versions of reality, for though they lived in the same world and their reactions may have been the same, the specifics that sparked their reactions were different. Chandler’s Marlowe said, “I’ve looked into too many faces not to know,” whilst noticing particular details, both in his surroundings and in the movements of his suspects. Hammett’s Spade was more emotional, or gut-led. Spade noticed the color of a person’s eyes when they spoke, whereas Marlowe noticed a person’s actions and the surrounding physical atmosphere. In addition, the detectives’ emotional reactions were different: Marlowe kept a controlled cool, whereas Spade lost his control at times and even seemed to have been subject to it. Spade is more emotionally-driven, even though in the end he controlled his emotions in order to do what he felt needed to be done (not let Bridget O’Shaughnessy go).

These stories enlivened the world in which they were set, for their worlds were central to the story. The clues were in the surroundings more so than in the minds of the suspects, the emotional depth of their characters themselves was substantial. In The Maltese Falcon’s chapter entitled “Death in the Fog,” the detail on the street, as is the physical detail about the billboard (someone is ‘stiff’’), and the detail of “fog’s got the ground soggy” direct the reader how to feel emotionally, more than intellectually; whereas the physical detail is central in Chandler’s story, emotional detail is important in Hammett’s. Hammett’s use of symbolism and play on words as well as names is insightful and carries the story – which also makes the story comfortable to read. The detail that Hammett gives, from the fog-laden street to the color of eyes and twists of mouths, is what made me want to learn more about implicating detail in my own writing.

I felt that Spade’s entirety of time (past, present, and future) were alive in Hammett’s story, whereas I felt that Marlowe was much more of a here and now character. There was always the talk of money and how much Spade was getting paid, which may have hit a nerve in depression-era readers, making his tale more real. In addition, his integrity and values, though heavily shaded with emotion, were central to him and were most important to him. This detail may have also struck a chord with depression-era readers.

When Sam speaks to Tom and the Lieutenant, the focus is on their eyes (“looked around the room with hard, deliberate eyes;” “greenish eyes fixed on Spade in a peculiarly rigid stare as if their focus were a matter of mechanics”) which speaks to the focus of the detective, and of the story; as does “his upper lip over the left side twitched over his eye tooth.” Truly, this outward facial description is the witness of inner thought for Spade, and he takes it seriously. Even in his personal life, such as in the chapter called “Three Women,” I truly begin to notice that details in facial movement denote truth or lies. Bridget’s plea draws upon the implied fact that Spade can ‘dig’ the truth out of her (may be a chauvinistic attitude?). The detail of Cairo’s yellow gloves denotes a fearful, cowardly color to a manly detective, as would soft hands.

In addition to eye color and eye expression, the amount of detail given to smoking, especially Spade’s, is striking…I wonder if it implies a “smoking gun,” and the fact that that he’s holding the smoking gun near – in front of his eyes (Bridget). Hammett, in whole, presents a study in human characteristics, facial twitches and eye expression. He covers the gamut of every eye expression for every emotion, from the skittishness of Cairo’s eyes to the puffiness of Gutman’s eyes. Spade can study an “anxious face” or “preoccupied eyes.” Joel Cairo was an especially vivid character in “Horsefeathers,” when blood ran into his eyes while his lips moved; his eyes shifted up and down, he fidgeted when the two cops found him captive. Later the muscles of Cairo’s face quivered as he tried to hold his smile.

I also felt it was noticeable when all three women in Sam’s life are called “the girl,” and that description in general comes alive in much greater terms when Sam is interacting with the women than when he’s interacting with Gutman or Cairo.

Lovely metaphors flow from Hammett, such as: “He took his glasses off, looked at them (saw the truth clearly)”; also for Spade’s notation that “everybody has something to conceal (coinciding with the DA’s action of settling his glasses more firmly on his nose, as if hiding behind a mask). In the chapter “Saturday Night:” “Small girl, hug desperately to the inner door knob…” denotes danger, and the child inside a WOMAN who is terrified because she knows the danger for her is looming (Bridget). Hammett also speaks of inner darkness near windows as well as the light gone out of someone’s eyes. In the chapter “The Fall Guy,” Gutman’s smile is described as “a bit oily,” denoting that he’s being ‘slick.’

Again, Cairo is associated with ‘yellow’ as his face is described; and when he’s described as having ‘opaque eyes,’ Sam can surely see right through him. When Gutman spoke of death he was noted as having “grave eyes;’ and when Spade was written as differentiating his sitting positions, I think his mind is shifting from thought to thought. The biggest clue of her guilt and his awareness of it is in the chapter “If They Hang You” when Bridget looks to Sam with “uneasy eyes,” and Spade looks down at his “wet palms” and “Spade smiled with his lips but not his eyes.” “She swallows with difficulty,” is her guilt in play, and with Spade’s face noted as yellow, white – his act of turning Bridget in is hurting and scaring him as much as it condemns her. At this point it’s hard to see who’s playing who; but his pride is greater than her love. Sam’s broken heart is written visibly as blood-shot eyes, then his eyes becoming blood-streaked, then his eyes burned madly. In the end of the story, the reader knows Sam will be fine when his still some-what red-veined eyes were clear.

Spade’s effortlessness with women equal his effortlessness with solving a case; the three women he’s involved with equal his three suspects in his current case; and as he discovers that the bird is fake in the end, he discovers that the woman he loved was fake/a liar.

Whereas Spade could see through anyone, Marlowe can let everything bounce right off of him (but they’re removing the rubber sidewalk)…until he gets to the complicated case of The Lady in the Lake. Chandler’s realism is in his surroundings and descriptions; he doesn’t let a thing that Marlowe’s sight reaches go without description. Chandler had a touch of Hammett’s writing in him when he wrote in chapter 1: “His eyes were stone gray with flecks of cold light in them…” representing detachment. Chandler’s use of slang in his story seemed more forced rather than meshing with the fabric of the story as did Hammett’s language. In chapter 3 I noticed that “Altair Street lay on the edge of the V forming the inner end of a deep canyon,” because it may coincide with Hammett’s deep ‘V’s’ in Sam’s face (a good example of Chandler’s surroundings vs. Hammett’s facial expressions).

Such amazing realism within the setting is written as vivid sight, when in chapter 3 Chandler describes “a dim pleasant room with an apricot Chinese rug that looked expensive, deepsided chairs, a number of white drum lamps, a big Capehart in the corner, a long and very wide davenport in tan mohair shot with dark brown, and a fireplace with a copper screen and an overmantel in white wood,” though I wasn’t as captivated as I was by the noting of simple puffs under the eyes in Hammett. I felt that Marlowe lacked the emotional depth of Spade (though Spade tried to deny his emotion) especially when relating to his three women.

I found the simplicity of the facial expressions in Hammett more realistic and captivating than Chandler’s: “He looked at me very carefully, drawing his eyebrows down at the corners and making his mouth small.” I distinctly felt that Hammett was writing from experience, which was what made Spade more real. I felt like I was back in the time era of both stories, probably even more so with Chandler, however I felt more within the character himself with Hammett. Chandler gave intricate detail of an “iron railing which the beach moisture had begun to corrode (ch. 4),” whereas Hammett would have given direct facial expression that reacted to the iron railing. While Chandler wrote, “quick puffs of smoke appeared in the air over the pages,” Hammett would have said how the smoke made the eyes look puffy.

‘Mulberry bath tiles’ may symbolize the possibility of blood, a small lamp making a dim yellowish light may symbolize an awakening, and as Marlowe’s mind churning to seek the answer as he notices “fat straight rows of orange trees spin like spokes of a wheel,” all denote the most pivotal part of the story when the murderer is revealed. Marlowe is again without emotional attachment though, where Spade was emotionally attached, and by expression the reader knew it.

The physical detail builds the suspense in Chandler’s story whereas Hammett’s bodily detail builds suspense. In chapter 9, Marlowe sees the “females in highpitched laughs, oxblood fingernails and dirty knuckles,” which was Chandler’s surrounding detail. The description of the deer in the beginning of chapter 10 made the story seem surreal, in a way that I didn’t sense with Hammett. By Chapter 17 Marlowe’s questioning made it apparent that he needed to know about the emotional states of those he questioned – promoting him to a detective of emotion like Spade was with his three women. His description of “very faintly down below in the bathroom the quiet trickle of water dripping on a dead man’s shoulder,” is stunning physical realism (whereas Hammett cut to the heart of internal thoughts).

Another insight to these two detectives is that Spade’s focus is narrowly on those around him, in his immediate circle or those who come to him, and consisted of singular, more quiet places, while Marlowe’s focus is more outreaching, populated, and involving. In that, Marlowe is so close to the crime that he’s accused of it at one point, unlike Spade. Both detectives felt they must hand the woman over to the police, though Spade’s involvement was much more emotional (speaking to his character as a whole).

One Comment:

  1. I’m surprised you didn’t remark on the striking metaphors in Chandler, which absolutely drew me in.. He is focused more on his surrounding world, because at the end of his novels, we discover that it is rotten and corrupt top to bottom. For me Marlowe’s repression becomes very sad because everyone who feels is a sucker, but he can’t help feeling anyway. (I haven’t read Hammett, so I can’t comment on how he stacks up. One day I’ll get around to him.)

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