At first glance it might seem that poetry and American private-eye fiction are like the two roads that diverged in a yellow wood. But Hammett’s story, written around 1925, is not unique but simply the earliest of many links between the genres. As we shall see, some of PI literature’s key practitioners had an abiding interest in verse—suggesting that a common impulse lies behind the satisfying construction of a poem and that of a tale of detection. What are the relevant details, and in what order must the material be presented?
Between early private eye stories, Hammett (1894–1961) wrote a few poems, and two of them—cynical takes on love and women—were published in periodicals of the 1920s. “The Figure of Incongruity” (later titled “A Man Named Thin”), synopsized above, was the first time he created a poet as protagonist and first-person narrator. It introduces 30-year-old Robin Thin, who works in the San Francisco private detective agency run by his father but much prefers composing sonnets and rondeaus for that versifiers’ Valhalla, The Jongleur.
Thin Senior ridicules his son’s efforts as “Mother Goose rhymes” but recognizes that the kid is coming along nicely as a detective. The story opens with Robin learning that the Jongleur editor is displeased with the final lines of his latest sonnet, “Fictitious Tears”
And glisten there no less incongruouslyAt this juncture Papa sends Robin out to investigate that jewelry heist. It wouldn’t be fair for me to explain how the mystery is solved—beyond mentioning a certain market basket full of groceries—but the solution inspires him to replace that rejected couplet with these lines:
Than Christmas balls on deadly upas tree.
And shining there, no less inaptly shoneDuring the pit of the Depression Hammett became rich and famous. Novels like Red Harvest (1929) and The Maltese Falcon (1930) made him the darling of the literati. “Too Many Have Lived” (1932), one of only three short stories featuring Falcon’s immortal Sam Spade, is a tightly plotted tale about the murder of Eli Haven, a poet with underworld connections and a penchant for blackmail. Spade quotes one complete specimen of Haven’s work:
Than diamonds in a spinach garden sown.
Too many have lived“I don’t like blackmailers myself,” Spade remarks ironically as the story ends. “I think Eli wrote a good epitaph for them—‘Too many have lived.’”
As we live
For our lives to be
Proof of our living.
Too many have died
As we die
For their deaths to be
Proof of our dying.
A few years after Hammett went silent, another mystery writer took over as private eye author number one: Raymond Chandler (1888–1959). As a young man, he contributed poetry to such periodicals as The Westminster Review and The Academy. “My first poem was composed at the age of nineteen, on a Sunday, in the bathroom,” he wrote his English publisher in 1950, “and was published in Chambers’ Journal. I am fortunate in not possessing a copy.” Two stanzas are printed in Frank MacShane’s The Life of Raymond Chandler (1976), but I shall be merciful and quote only the first.
When the evening sun is slanting,“The less said about Chandler’s early poems the better,” MacShane writes, going on to call his 27 published contributions to the form “cloying and saccharine . . . full of sadly noble subjects and sentiments like death, fairyland, melancholy, art, and meditation. . . . [P]oetry for Chandler was an escape from the reality of daily life. It was a world populated by knights and ladies who achieve happiness only in death.” Chandler himself would later write, of his verses for The Westminster Gazette, that most “now seem to be deplorable, though not all.”
When the crickets raise their chanting,
And the dewdrops lie a-twinkling on the grass,
As I climb the pathway slowly,
With a mien half proud, half lowly,
O’er the ground your feet have trod I gently pass.
In 1932, Chandler worked on one final poem, never finished and never published in his lifetime. MacShane calls it “thematically central to his fiction,” though whether it’s of higher quality than his previous verse is open to debate:
There are no countries as beautifulThe only reference to a poet I’ve found in a Chandler novel takes place in The Little Sister (1949) when Marlowe is menaced by a woman with a gun. “Never the time and the place and the loved one all together,” he remarks. Seeing that she doesn’t comprehend, he adds: “Browning. The poet, not the automatic. I feel sure you’d prefer the automatic.”
As the England I picture in the night hours
Of this bright and dismal land
Of my exile and dismay.
There are no women as tender as this woman
Whose cornflower-blue eyes look at me
With the magic of frustration
And the promise of an impossible paradise.
Another mystery novelist who allowed poetry to make its way into the margins of his work was Kenneth Millar (1915–1983), who usually wrote as Ross Macdonald. As a teen he wrote poetry for the literary magazines of the various prep schools he attended and later for the publications of Waterloo College and the University of Western Ontario. A short sample from 1934 runs:
Thou sad-voiced sky-born Fury, thou storm-child of the North,The first general periodical to publish his work was Saturday Night, a Toronto-based weekly, which paid him a penny a word for contributions like these:
Swift arrow of His vengeance, what Bowman launched thee forth?
If light were darkIn 1941 his wife, Margaret Millar, completed and quickly found an American publisher for her first whodunit, The Invisible Worm, its title borrowed from William Blake’s “The Sick Rose” (“The invisible worm / that flies in the night . . . Has found out thy bed / Of crimson joy”). That same year Kenneth took a course at the University of Michigan on “Fate and the Individual in European Literature,” offered by the already world-famous young poet W.H. Auden.
And dark were light,
Moon a black hole
In the blaze of night,
A raven’s wing
As bright as tin
Then you, my love,
Would be darker than sin.
Auden loved mystery fiction and took it seriously, reinforcing his student’s growing belief that the genre was not somehow inferior. (Several years later, after reading Auden’s essay “The Guilty Vicarage,” which sought to interpret detective fiction as Christian allegory, Macdonald remarked to an old school friend that his mentor simply didn’t know what he was talking about.) Following his discharge from the Navy after World War II, Macdonald created private eye Lew Archer. He continued to work toward his Ph.D. and wrote his dissertation on Coleridge.
The most zealous advocate of Hammett, Chandler, and Macdonald would never call any of them a major poet. We read their couplets not for their own sake but for whatever light they might throw on the authors’ novels and stories. But is it just happenstance that all these influential mystery writers were keyed into poetry? The composition of a good poem is roughly analogous to a successful feat of detection: The poet seeks a precise sequence of words that can be as agonizingly hard to discover as the truth behind appearances that is (for a Spade or Marlowe or Archer) the holy grail. Perhaps it’s not by chance that after fingering the jewel thieves, Robin Thin, Hammett’s versifying gumshoe, hit upon the diamonds that his sonnet needed all along.
Dashiell Hammett has attracted several biographers, but the only one who printed some of his early poetry is Diane Johnson, on page 61 of Dashiell Hammett: A Life (Random House, 1983). Hammett’s “A Man Named Thin” and “Too Many Have Lived” were most recently included in the collection Nightmare Town (Knopf, 1999). Robin Thin also appears in “The Nails in Mr. Cayterer” (Black Mask, January 1926), which involves the poetic sleuth and his father in a double scam aimed at a wealthy backer of Asian revolutions; Robin’s avocation is unconnected with the plot, however, and the tale hasn’t been reprinted in 60-odd years.
Raymond Chandler has also been the subject of more than one biography, the first and finest being Frank MacShane’s The Life of Raymond Chandler (Dutton, 1976), to whose discussion of Chandler’s poetry I am deeply indebted. An extensive selection of his early verse may be found in Chandler Before Marlowe: Raymond Chandler’s Early Prose and Poetry, 1908–1912 (University of South Carolina Press, 1973), and an extremely generous selection from his vast correspondence is contained in The Letters of Raymond Chandler, edited by Frank MacShane (Columbia University Press, 1981).
Only one life of Ross Macdonald has appeared to date, but Tom Nolan’s Ross Macdonald: A Biography (Scribner, 1999) is a first-rate work, from which I have taken Macdonald’s poetry quoted above.
Homepage image is a detail from the Ward Lock edition of Harry Stephen Keeler's The Magic Ear-Drums. Courtesy the Harry Stephen Keeler Society.