Hard-boiled First Lines

Dashiell Hammett along with Raymond Chandler and James M. Cain are considered founders of hard-boiled detective fiction. It is no surprise that many of their novels became popular movies, often quoted, that continue to delight us. What sets these writers apart for me is that they have real human stories to tell while entertaining us with a mystery or suspense.

Whether delivered first person or third, a sharp narrative unfolds the story and reveals the character of the protagonist. These stories have a unique crisp pacing. The protagonists are realists and tough guys. Tough guys with principles. They get into dangerous situations but never frivolously. They aren’t careless. They don’t like to be messed with and when they hire on to do a job they believe in it and want to see it through to its conclusion. They also roll with the punches literally and figuratively. When facts morph and the job is not what it seemed they continue on to do what they believe is the right thing. There are exceptions of course where protagonist melds into antagonist, principles aren’t as strong and as circumstances evolve they find themselves not just on the edge, but over it.

In any case, these three writers offer up some great first lines.

Dashiell Hammett:

“I first heard Personville called Poisonville by a red-haired mucker named Hickey Dewey in the Big Ship in Butte.”

Right away we know something about Hickey Dewey, his humor or sarcasm, his way of speaking in this opening line of Red Harvest (1929), Dashiell Hammett. The protagonist goes on to say that Dewey also called a “shirt a shoit”. We learn about the people from the viewpoint of an operative of the Continental Detective Agency out of San Francisco. We learn about him from the way he views other characters and we learn about his own principles. We go along as he deals with corruption in “Poisonville” but we never learn his name. We know him as “The Continental Op” and he appears in other Dashiell Hammett stories. Hammett himself had been an operative of the Pinkerton Detective Agency, experience to draw from for his hard-boiled fiction. This book, Red Harvest, has been ranked in the top 100 English-language novels written between 1923 and 2005.

“It was a diamond all right, shining in the grass half a dozen feet from the blue brick walk.”

The Dain Curse (1929), Dashiell Hammett. The Continental Op paints a striking image of diamond bright, green grass and blue brick. I’m not a big fan of diamonds, but I’m hooked by the imagery in just a few words.

Switching from the detective with no name meet the well-known Sam Spade:

“Samuel Spade’s jaw was long and bony, his chin a jutting v under the more flexible v of his mouth.”

The Maltese Falcon (1930), Dashiell Hammett. Sam Spade may be best known as played by Humphrey Bogart in the great John Huston’s 1941 movie of the same name. Of all the wonderful movies made based on hard-boiled fiction, this movie is phenomenal in its faithfulness to Hammett’s novel. John Huston himself wrote the screenplay and he knew when a line had punch. Read the book, then watch the movie or the reverse. Beyond brilliant casting, the movie adaptation is almost perfect scene-for-scene, line-for-line. Some of my favorite quotes derive from this story, like this one word-for-word from the book, delivered with perfection by Sydney Greenstreet:

“You see, I must tell you what I know, but you will not tell me what you know. That is hardly equitable, sir. No, no, I do not think we can do business along those lines.”

And by Bogart to Mary Astor who is a dynamite Brigid O’Shaughnessy:

“You’ve got to convince me that you know what it’s all about, that you’re not simply fiddling around by guess and by God, hoping it’ll come out all right in the end.”

I’ll stop. There are numerous one-liners that are personal favorites but I’ll get back to first lines…

“Green dice rolled across the green table, struck the rim together, and bounced back.”

The Glass Key (1931), Dashiell Hammett. Another great hard-boiled novel that contains social commentary, gritty sharp dialog nicely adapted for the screen in 1942, directed by Stuart Heisler with a great cast. I first saw this on late-night TV with my mom when I was a kid, she was a big Veronica Lake fan and wow, what a performance…there were two other film versions done, but perhaps due to first experiencing this one with mom it will always be a favorite. Sweden has honored this book annually since 1992 with the Glasnyckeln (The Glass Key) Award. An award for the best crime novel by a Scandinavian writer.

“I was leaning against the bar in a speakeasy on Fifty-second Street, waiting for Nora to finish her Christmas shopping, when a girl got up from the table where she had been sitting with three other people and came over to me.”

The Thin Man (1934), Dashiell Hammett. Meet Nick Charles who, along with his wife Nora and their dog Asta, inspired a whole series of delightful movies in the 1930s that combine wit, detection, love and a Wire Fox Terrier (Asta). The Thin Man movie was directed by W.S. “One Take” Van Dyke and stars William Powell and Myrna Loy–a powerhouse combination. This was so popular the pair continued with five more, three of these also directed by Van Dyke. Though based on the characters developed by Hammett none of the subsequent movies were directly from Hammett stories.

Raymond Chandler:

“The first time I laid eyes on Terry Lennox he was drunk in a Rolls-Royce Silver Wraith outside the terrace of The Dancers.”

Philip Marlowe introduces us to Terry Lennox, met under a circumstance that may or may not be usual, but it feels unusual–drunk in a Rolls outside of a place called “The Dancers”, so what has driven him there? The Long Goodbye (1953), Raymond Chandler has been praised by writer and anthologist Bill Pronzini as “arguably the first book since Hammett’s The Glass Key, published more than twenty years earlier, to qualify as a serious and significant mainstream novel that just happened to possess elements of mystery”. Chandler combines social criticism with detection in this Philip Marlowe novel. As I said, I love this genre and Chandler is one of the masters. We have the depression to thank: Chandler turned to writing detective stories after losing his job as an oil company executive. Oh and his first “attempt”? Just a little story called The Big Sleep (1939), ranked 96th in Le Monde’s “Top 100 of the Century” list.

“It was about eleven o’clock in the morning, mid October, with the sun not shining and a look of hard wet rain in the clearness of the foothills.”

Here Marlowe pulls us right into the mood with the sun that is NOT shining and the “look of hard wet rain”. The Big Sleep is used in writing courses as an example of creating great openings for novels and story telling. Chandler is also looked to for examples of perfect chapter structure.

The 1946 Howard Hawks movie adaptation begins with the scene of an unidentified finger pressing the front doorbell of a mansion. The door is answered by a butler and then Bogart’s first line:

“My name’s Marlowe. General Sternwood wanted to see me.”

Here is another wonderful read that was adapted for the big screen twice: in 1946 directed by Howard Hawks with Humphrey Bogart as Philip Marlowe and again in 1978 directed by Michael Winner with Robert Mitchum playing a creditable Marlowe. I’m not a fan of remakes, but as an alternate adaptation of Chandler’s work I find this one almost as enjoyable as the 1946 Hawks classic.

James M. Cain:

“They threw me off the hay truck about noon.”

This is the cadence of protagonist, more accurately, antagonist Frank Chambers of The Postman Always Rings Twice (1934), James M. Cain. Frank treats “the woman” in the story rough and she’s up for it. Less than twenty pages in they plan to murder her husband. I can’t put my finger on what keeps me reading this story. I don’t feel much sympathy for the main characters. Maybe it is wanting justice for the hapless likable but soon dead husband. At the same time this is a hard-boiled love story between these murderers Frank and Cora who seemed genuinely hooked on one another…someone for everybody?

“I drove out to Glendale to put three new truck drivers on a brewery company bond, and then I remembered this renewal over in Hollywoodland.”

Walter Huff, insurance man, begins recording the story of his own death in Double Indemnity (1943), also by Cain. Fascinating way to unfold a story. Unlike Frank Chambers there is something sympathetic to Walter Huff. Murder is not forgivable, but there is a sense that Huff was just caught up at a weak moment where a woman seeps into a slight flaw in his character like water freezing in a crevice his character, like rock, succumbs to the pressure and cracks.

James M. Cain was a long-time writer before coming out with his hard-boiled novels. He was a reporter serving with the army in WWI and continued as a news reporter after the war. The Postman Always Rings Twice hit the bestseller list, followed by equally popular Double Indemnity. Both of these, along with Mildred Pierce were brilliantly adapted to the big screen, all three classics.

This is a great genre to read and watch. I’ll break again from first lines to the lines introducing Brigid O’Shaughnessy in one of my favorites, The Maltese Falcon:

“There’s a girl wants to see you. Her name’s Wonderly.”
“A customer?”
“I guess so. You’ll want to see her anyway: she’s a knockout.”
“Shoo her in darling,” said Spade. “Shoo her in.”

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