I recently undertook a program of hardboiled/noir reading to inform some of my work in progress. There’s a lot of good stuff out there, including some terrific work by contemporary writers. But as far as templates for the hardboiled detective himself, you gotta start with the OGs, Sam Spade and Phillip Marlowe. They are the foundations. As I read, I couldn’t help but wonder, as I’m sure many have, “Who is the hardest of the hardboiled dicks? Spade or Marlowe?”
For the record, this is not a scholarly endeavor. I read a few books, usually with bourbon accompaniment, and made some observations, definitively with bourbon accompaniment. Actual Chandler and Hammett scholars might and probably should take great exception to my slapdash, knee-jerk characterizations in the form of a humble, gimmicky little blog post.
A couple of other notable caveats. I’m talking about the characters, Spade and Marlowe, not the authors, Hammett and Chandler, other than a couple of general observations. One, Spade is written in third person and Marlowe is written in first person. This gives Marlow some big advantages but also one MAJOR disadvantage, as we will see. Also, Marlowe appears in multiple novels, Spade appears in only one plus a handful of short stories. So essentially, this whole exercise is severely lacking in legitimacy. Some may even call it pointless — that I’ve decided to write about whether apples or oranges are the more representative fruit. Perhaps, but pointless analysis is one of my strongest assets. So here we go.
Cool Noir-ish Wordplay
Arguably the single-most important attribute for a hardboiled detective is a wise-cracking, dry, streetwise proletarian banter. By virtue of being written in the first person, Marlowe has a distinct advantage here. That means that it’s not just his actual dialog that counts but all his descriptions and observations. The classic Noir voice-over as it were. Marlowe gets in great narrative one-liners such as: “’Uh-huh,’ the voice dragged itself out of her throat like a sick man getting out of bed.” And, “It seemed like a nice neighborhood to have bad habits in.”
Then, once in a while, he gets in a long-form beauty like this one:
The main hallway of the Sternwood place was two stories high. Over the entrance doors, which would have let in a troop of Indian elephants, there was a broad stained-glass panel showing a knight in dark armor rescuing a lady who was tied to a tree and didn’t have any clothes on but some very long and convenient hair. The knight had pushed the visor of his helmet back to be sociable, and he was fiddling with the knots on the ropes that tied the lady to the tree and not getting anywhere. I stood there and thought that if I lived in the house, I would sooner of later have to climb up there and help him. He didn’t seem to really be trying.
Spade doesn’t really have a chance here. He is less loquacious by nature and suffers from third person narrative. He takes far fewer swings at glibness, preferring to his talking with his fists. That’s not to say he doesn’t get in a good line from time to time. When accused by Joel Cairo of always having a “very smooth explanation ready,” Spade answers with, “What do you want me to do? Learn to stutter?”
Spade weighing his love for Brigid O’Shaughnessy against throwing her over is also a gem but doesn’t really fall under the category of glib banter. Don’t worry, I’ll give him some credit for that further down in a different category.
Marlowe takes this category decisively.
When the world was lived in black and white, people smoked – de rigueur. It made men manlier and dames . . . dame-ier, or at least more mysterious. Will she kiss the dick? Or stab him? Or both? So, I’m treating smoking as a positive asset. Marlowe and Spade both smoke prodigiously, excellent. But Spade rolls his own. Advantage Spade.
Mickeys and Sap-downs
Spade and Marlowe are both tough guys that can win a fight. The most likely way for anyone to get the best of them is through the slipping of a mickey, or a sucker shot with a sap. Spade gets slipped a mickey by Gutman in The Maltese Falcon. And in one of the short stories, They Can Only Hang You Once, he gets clocked on the back of the head with a pistol, leaving him “shaking pinwheels out of my noodle.” A delightful way to describe probable concussion symptoms. But Marlowe, man that dude gets mickey’d and sapped down twice per book on the average. And sometimes winds up captive and shot up with heroin or something like in Farewell My Lovely. In The Little Sister he gets mickey’d with a doctored cigarette and left to take the fall for a murder. Now, I guess for a detective to become hard-boiled, he’s gotta suffer some of this stuff and work through it right? I mean, you don’t become hardboiled through a life of leisure and good breaks. But Marlowe just seems sloppy, he keeps getting it book after book. I give this one to Spade.
1930s & ‘40s Toxic, White-Male “Context”
Anything created during the time period of these stories, at least anything by white folks, faces THE problem. The treatment of race, gender, and LGBTQ characters WILL be offensive. Bank on it. The question is how difficult it is to acknowledge these issues, regard them as “context” for the period, and continue reading. In other words which of our dicks, Spade or Marlowe, is the least bad here? If you cannot abide the “context” argument and want nothing to do with books and films of the period, I cannot fault you. That is an eminently reasonable position. I myself am remarkably inconsistent on what I can sit through and what I can’t. With a gun to my head, I can probably watch The Searchers and just sort of cringe my way through the treatment of women and Native Americans. But faced with the same situation with Gone with the Wind, well, I might flip the table and hope that the bullet flies quick and true. I cannot rationally defend this distinction. We all set our own boundaries, I suppose. I’ll just say this though, if you are a hardliner about this but really love you some Cthulhu mythos, let me introduce you to the race theories of one H.P. Lovecraft.
But back to our business at hand. Which of our dicks is the least racist, macho, homophobic piece of shit? Spade, clearly. Marlowe is the absolute worst. He regularly uses racist terms, including the N-word on occasion. And I don’t mean in the meta-narrative, but in actual dialogue. Just reading the first act of Farewell My Lovely, which takes place along L.A.’s Central Avenue of the 1940s made me feel contaminated enough that it took reading four, maybe five of Walter Mosley’s Easy Rawlins books just to balance out a bit. And while Spade definitely takes pleasure in smacking Joel Cairo around I think that’s based as much on Cairo’s weaseley character than the fact that he’s gay. I’m oversimplifying here, I know. But this post is already about twice as long as it’s supposed to be. As an aside, in the novel, Cairo’s sexual orientation is much more obvious, especially as he fawns over Wilmer the gunsel, than it is in the Breen Code tamed film. On the other hand, Marlowe has outright contempt and disgust for gay characters. He takes pleasure, not only in punching their lights out, but also in reveling in what a one-sided contest such an opponent presents in a fistfight, as in The Big Sleep. No subtle coding necessary.
As women go, neither one is Keanu Reeves. But again, Spade is a wee bit less bad. Women throw themselves at Marlowe with greater frequency than Frogger encounters logs and alligators. He regards them all strictly as clients or as someone to have a nice snog with and that’s about it. Spade has his receptionist Effie Perrine. He clearly exploits her loyalty to him from time to time, asking her to hide clients, or to leave her house at all hours of the day and night to, say, retrieve a package that may or may not be THE titular Maltese Falcon. Okay, it could be a tad paternalistic, but still a way more genuine human connection than any woman Marlowe interacts with.
But the real difference here is Spade’s sincere feelings for Brigid O’Shaughnessy. Spade falls for her in a way the Marlowe never would. At the end (yes this is a bit of a spoiler, but I’m not worried about spoiling a 90+ year-old story) Sam is truly torn over what to do about Brigid – if that is her real name. Throw her over or not? The ensuing (mostly) monologue is one of the greats, “All we’ve got is that maybe you love me and maybe I love you . . . I won’t argue about that.” His heart’s all-in with Brigid, but he knows he’s been played and doesn’t’ want to be the patsy. Over the course of the closing chapters he must say, “I won’t play the sap for you” about 157 times. Coincidentally that is also the same number of times I say the same thing whenever McDonald’s announces the return of the McRib. But Spade is more resolute than I could ever be. And although you can practically feel his heart rending, he sends Brigid over.
So, which dick is less of a dick? Spade, I mean, he’s a dick. But a relatable, human dick that sometimes feels bad about it.
Most of us a have seen the films, The Maltese Falcon and The Big Sleep. So, most of us think we know what Spade and Marlowe look like. They both look like Humphrey Bogart. Now, that’s not a bad way to look. I love Bogey, and if you don’t we might just throw hands over it. But we’re talking about the novels. By virtue of the first-person narrative, Marlowe is never specifically described. I mean, who describes themselves in any depth? He’s a strapping man that dames seem to find irresistible. That seems like an automatic win. But Spade? According to the very first paragraph of Falcon, “He looked rather pleasantly like a blonde Satan.” Game over. Spade takes this one.
There’s no way I’m going to split this baby. I mean, if I have to go based on the semi-click-baitish format I’ve imposed on this post, Sam Spade is the clear winner. But c’mon. This was clearly me just having a go. Marlowe is WAY funnier. But, you know, also way more racist. It’s really up to you, man. Also, if this is well and truly just a semi-click-baitish formatted blog post to lure you to my website, then I must divulge my real motivation which is to suggest that you keep a look out for my novel Murder in Greasepaint, featuring Detective Rock Cobbler, which should be out in Spring of 2022! And, in the meantime, maybe check out my short story collection The Devil’s Own Piss and Other Stories. Thanks for coming to my private dick talk.