Tuesday, October 4, 2016

"Oh-So-Irritating Wise Guy Crap": Chandler Melts Steel (But Was Chandler Full of Hot Air?)

Shot Down
Chandler wrote dismissively of
Kurt Steel's crime fiction but in
earning Chandler's scorn Steel
found himself in good company.
Raymond Chandler's marked crankiness toward other writers of crime fiction is amply demonstrated in his late-night correspondence (though regrettably all the acerbic hard-boiled author's fascinating correspondence still has not been preserved in a single volume).

To be sure, Chandler did praise some crime fiction authors, like Michael Innes and Elisabeth Sanxay Holding, but in a net of vituperation he caught many another wriggling crime writer, including not only esteemed British Crime Queens like Agatha Christie, Ngaio Marsh and Dorthy L. Sayers, but fellow American hard-boiled/noir authors like Ross Macdonald (one of the "literary eunuchs"), who felt the sting of Chandler's scorn all the rest of his life, and James M. Cain ("Proust in greasy overalls"), who returned Chandler's disfavor. There's no getting around it, Chandler was a very good (if highly entertaining) hater, and his ire found a lot of targets among his fellow mystery writers.

In a December 19, 1939 letter to the slick semi-hard-boiled mystery writer George Harmon Coxe (whose writing he once criticized in a letter to another correspondent), Chandler complained of the lack of good crime fiction in his local library in La Jolla, California, a city he dismissed, by-the-by, as "too dear, too damp, too elderly."

Chandler, it seems, was short of crime fiction to read. "If you still have that spare copy of your last book but one I'm hoping you are still feeling generous about it," he wrote Coxe, bluntly adding of his local library: "You're not represented."  He then declared, "But so are not a lot of other people who should be, and so are represented some mighty feeble gestures at detective fiction." On this point he expounded:

What do you make of a place that has one book by Hemingway, nothing by Faulkner, or Hammett, two pieces of oh-so-irritating wise guy crap by one Kurt Steel, everything by one J. S. Fletcher, a British brother who is far far duller than even a British brother has any right to be, nothing by Coxe, Nebel, Whitfield, or anybody you would think of as at all representative.  And my God no Gardner, yet a book called The Bigger They Come by A. A. Fair which copies the Gardner technique exactly and even swiped Gardner's idea of how Ed Jenkins couldn't be extradited.  

Raymond Chandler

Of course it's amusing to see Chandler complain about this nefarious "A. A. Fair" swiping from Erle Stanley Gardner, A. A. Fair having been a prominent pseudonym of Gardner's, but Chandler's recognition of the similarities of style in the novels of Fair and Gardner does show Chandler could be quite perceptive as a reader. (On another occasion he criticized Gardner's writing, though at yet another time, when he was bogged down with the plotting of his novel The Little Sister, Chandler expressly wished for Gardner's "facile plotting brain.") And few hard-boiled aficionados, I imagine, would cavil about Chandler's praise of a tough guy trinity like Dashiell Hammett, Frederick Nebel and Raoul Whitfield.

J. S. Fletcher could be, to be sure, rather, um, sedate, but what of Chandler's withering blast about mystery writer Kurt Steel's "oh-so-irritating wise guy crap"?  This shaft Chandler let fly at the end of 1939, a year in which Kurt Steel published a pair of what might be termed more serious social problem crime novels, Judas, Incorporated and The Crooked Shadow, efforts which I personally found quite interesting.

Had Chandler read either of these books? Or perhaps he had only read something of Steel's previous four shorter and slicker crime novels, what I call the Steel "Murder" series: Murder of a Dead Man (1935), Murder for What? (1936), Murder Goes to College (1936) and Murder in G-Sharp (1937).  Excerpts from critical reviews of the day give you some flavor of these earlier books:

Professor Rudolf Kagey smokes a pipe
while perusing a newspaper in 1942.
Rudy Kagey's "Kurt Steel" crime novels
were popular with reviewers and readers,
however much Chandler may have
dissented from general opinion.
The action, speed and lingo make it worthwhile. (Murder of a Dead Man)

Gangsters, gamblers, and counterfeiters contribute fast action to a tough but literate thriller. (Murder for What?)

Contains one of the most believable and nasty gangsters in fiction, wry humor, smart talk, shivers, and slick deducing. (Murder Goes to College)

For all its lurid descents into odd dives, voodoo overtones, crisply reminiscent patter, and abnormally observant detecting, it's slightly phony. (Murder in G-Sharp)

All of these persons deal in actions rather than words, and their actions are as quick and deadly as their words are forcible. (Murder for What?)

All six of the novels named above have a series detective, tough PI Hank Hyer, who also appears in Dead of Night (1940), Madman's Buff (1941) and Ambush House (1943). Hyer's qualities were described in this review of his debut novel:

[Hank] Hyer is a hard-boiled detective who does not shrink from burglary or other crimes when they suit his purpose.  No red tape is ever permitted to hamper his investigations. But tough as he is, his language is not so offensive to sensitive ears as that of some of the other detectives who have adorned the pages of recent detective fiction. So far as action and thrills go, he is the equal of any of them.  

Perhaps Chandler found all this synthetic and unconvincing, but I find Steel an entertaining writer. Ironically Steel himself--or I should say Professor Rudolf "Rudy" Kagey, philosophy professor of New York University, who wrote the "Kurt Steel" crime fiction--had a personal sense of mystery writing aesthetics that was rather similar to that of Chandler.  I'll be exploring this matter in an upcoming post on Steel's 1940s trade article, "So You're Going to Write a Mystery."


  1. Great post, Curt!

    Much is made of Chandler's curmudgeonly nature with regard to his fellow authors, and I'm not entirely sure I find is as amusing or charming as others seem to, but you do have to admire his honesty. In this day and age where authors seem to circle the wagons a lot and praise each others' books no matter what -- I couldn't tell you the last time I read a contemporary author's praise of a peer and actually believed it -- at least you knew that when Chandler said he liked something he genuinely liked it!

    Still, I remain not at all a fan of Chandler or his writing, and it sets my teeth a little on edge to read the author of so much "oh-so-irritating wise guy crap" condemn someone else for peddling what he peddled. Still, that s the beauty of individual tastes...!

    1. Yes, I think I should caveat the humor question too. It certainly wasn't humorous to Ross Macdonald, for example, when he found out about it. But sometimes these feuds are funny to me, like when Chandler and John Dickson Carr were slagging each other with great gusto and absurd dogmatism.

      I think Chandler took offense at others he perceived as imitators, though I don't know that he could have seen Kurt Steel properly as an imitator when Steel preceded into print as a novelist. And Marlowe surely was the king of the wise guy quip.

      I wonder whether Chandler ever suspected that his correspondence would be collected and studied like this? Maybe he did and just didn't care? Makes for fascinating reading.

  2. Looking forward to reading Steel's article! Great post!

  3. "Chandler could be quite perceptive"... Gosh, no, really? But I'm a Chandler fan. ;-)

    1. You really couldn't quote the three additional words in the sentence?

      I like Chandler as a writer too and find him a very interesting person, although I think he can be a maddening and often behaved like a jerk and was sometimes unfair in his assessments of other writers. I think Billy Wilder had some very interesting comments on what it was like dealing with him.