A Personal Checklist by James Sandoe
Originally compiled in 1952 for his friend Arthur Lovell, a Chicago bookseller, and intended to be distributed exclusively as a gift to some of Lovell’s close friends and a few select customers, JAMES SANDOE‘s suggested reading list of hard-boiled private eye novels that he personally deemed worthy has been reprinted (and revised) several times, but remains a highly regarded early overview of the genre.
At times snarky and bitchy (but always intriguing), it later popped up in the January 1968 issue of The Armchair Detective, and in The Mystery Story (1976; edited by John Ball), which is where I lifted the following version from. Sloppy at times (the syntax and the formatting are all over the place) and breath-takingly opinionated at others, the list is still well worth reading, and a great lead-in to some writers you may not have heard of.
I’ve tried to clean up and standardize the formatting a little, but here goes…
Dupin, Holmes, Father Brown and Philo Vance are all, in one sense, private eyes in that their salaries do not come from city hall. But that is not the sense in which we understand the phrase. It begins in Black Mask, explodes into Dashiell Hammett, and probably dies out with Mickey Spillane. Lew Archer persists, so laden with laurels that they may account for his weariness. So does Travis McGee.* Scarred and given to bouts of meditation, McGee is a little bemused by his own knight errantry. (“Maybe I could be stirred only by the wounded ducklings.” Bright Orange … , Fawcett, 1969, page 51.) There have been British imitators (all, so far as I know, negligible) and so few notable latter-day practitioners worth remembrance that the vein seems to have been worked out. Happily, such prophecy is dangerous. Witness the revival of the Gothic as Phyllis Whitney reports it, or the tolling of bells for the mystery as a whole which began, as Howard Haycraft shows before the nineteenth century was out.
So, living, dead, or due for resurrection, what is a “private eye”? The Continental Op works for an agency (as Hammett worked for Pinkerton); Sam Spade has Effie see to the erasure of Archer’s name from the door; Chandler’s Philip Marlowe, like Macdonald’s Archer, has been a cop but is now a loner. McGee is a “salvage expert” drawn past his reluctance into action against malefactors.
There are others who should and will be evoked but these are preeminent. So what makes them all, diversely, “private eyes”? After all, there is great disparity among them.
Perhaps they are all, in their diverse ways, knights errant. Even the Op whose heart (or sensibilty) is engaged even when it’s just another assignment (“It was a wandering daughter job”) from the old man.
Describing the private eye is like executing a collage. Certain elements seem constant, for all that they actually weren’t: the shabby office with buzzing flies–except for the dead ones on the windowsill–down the corridor from a creaking elevator with a sulky and aged operator, a bottle of booze in the desk drawer, a shabby restaurant nearby serving leaden eggs and greasy bacon, and the streets of San Francisco or Los Angeles stretching away toward the mountains and the ocean. A sense of used paper cups and of looks still sharp from tired eyes. Integrity, along with knight errantry, is their common possession-even with the awful Spillane. That, and a sense of operating alone. The Op may lean on the agency for special informaion, but in practice he works by himself. The entirely egregious Mike Hammer, whose sensibility was reflected in the title of his first novel, I, The Jury, is a poor relation, smug and priggish even when cutting his killers, preferably women, to slow death.
But there has to be more than flyblown offices, integrity, and a California setting to distinguish the private eye. “Hard-boiled” may help a bit for all that Chandler seems sometimes soft-boiled to the point of being underdone. (McGee, like Marlowe, seems to observe this without being able to alter his convictions.)
The private eye must be willing to assume the bop in the alley, the cop at his door at three o’clock in the morning, the shabby bungalow with a bleary and sullen drunk trying to catch him across the forehead with a wine bottle. He will have a wearily suspicious sense of the shallow lifting stairs to the elegant door of the elegant house on the other side of town.
His eyes will look narrowly at gaming tables and past them to the door in the wall that opens rarely during the evening. He may be the angrily ineffective shepherd of the dependent lamb at his side whose claws reach at money while her richly lipped mouth speaks a lie that has a muddling truth in it. He drives wearily but warily, doggedly wondering if there are still any orange groves in Arcata and then remembering that there aren’t. He is wearily awake and if there is always, somewhere, the bed, he is never sure what will be in it. Meanwhile he drives down mean streets and, as the litany demands, Turk, Geary, Fillmore, Sepulveda, Wilshire, Lexington, Fifth and Mason, Beekman Place, Cay West, and Biscayne Boulevard, until they reach a glimpse and a gasp of the ocean or a brush of the thin air at Tahoe where they have slot machines on all four corners and another in the center of the street.
If the .38 is in his shoulder holster, he may find himself trying to remember whether or not it’s loaded. He is pressed dully by the possibility that he might need to use it, but he is more aware of the hairpin curves that lead to the shabby cabin with the sagging porch always up the hill from the road.
Another bond between these disparate characters is a sense of imminent violence, of a lurking of evil often overlapping another such premonition and blurring the picture. There is also a promise (often more than a promise) of tired beds. Money is generally a factor, although the eye himself never has much of it and may indeed wonder how he’ll pay the bills gathering dust above the drawer with the booze in it.
I am persuaded that the private eye who flourished from the twenties into the sixties is by now an endangered species (a sophomore sociologist could give us charts, graphs and tables to show why the aardvark is more active). Therefore, I have ventured to reprint the contents of a booklet which the iate Arthur Lovell some years ago asked me to prepare as a sort of Christmas card for his friends. Barzun and Taylor (page 610) have thought well of it perhaps in part because it is as candidly personal as their judgments (with which it is often a fine game to disagree). On this occasion I have ventured to add some further notes and the sincere regret that many of the books cited are long out of print and difficult to come by.
First and last, I return with most admiration to Hammett, then warm to Chandler but wish that he didn’t vitiate himself in part by self-doubts and a boyish excess of romanticism. Ross Macdonald is, after all, a synthetic and Archer an allegation. John D. MacDonald has, in spite of a formula he outwits very astutely, a vitality that will probably continue to be underestimated, because, like McGee, he is his own man. I remember as an ex-librarian, some years back, giving as nearly a full set of John D. MacDonald as I could assemble to our university library with the stipulation that, however uncomfortable for the system, the paperback originals should be catalogued as though they were in hardcover. I doubt that MacDonald himself worries much about preservation in university libraries which, twenty years ago, might have scrapped Black Mask if anyone had offered them a file of it. By now it has become a valuable research item.
* And more the private avenger than the private eye, as Barzun and Taylor neatly remark in A Catalog of Crime, page 292.
Here with some titles and my assessments of them:
- Adams, Cleve F(ranklin). Sabotage (1940).
Adams’ first book, by all odds his best and the only one I know to recommend with the exception of “John Spain’s” Dig Me a Grave, q.v.
Detective: Rex McBride.
- Ard, William. The Diary ( 1952).
Sex and sadism after the latter-day mode, but set forth with some sense of style.
Detective: Timothy Dane.
- Avery, A. A. Anything for a Quiet Life (1942).
A thriller, derived in some degree from the McKesson/Robbins scandal of 1940; a long and involved chase rather remarkably sustained.
- Ballard, W(illis) T(odhunter). Dealing Out Death (1948).
About Bill Lennox, executive vice-president of General-Consolidated (films), who doesn’t have to flex his biceps to prove that he’s strong. A little corpse-heavy at the end.
Detective: Bill Lennox.
- Berkeley, Anthony, pseud. “The Policeman Only Taps Once” in Six Against Scotland Yard (1936).
The happy consequence of Mr. Berkeley’s reading of James M. Cain and his faux naif passes at fate.
- Black, Thomas B. The 3-13 Murders (1946).
Familiar and competent pre-Spillane pyrotechnicality with an avoidance of incidental cliches. Irritating habit of referring to women as “hairpins.”
Detective: Al Delaney.
- Brackett, Leigh. No Good From a Corpse ( 1944).
Chandleresque and a sound chase which bogs down so mew hat in plot be fore it stops. It is worth adding that Chandler liked Brackett.
Detective: Edmond Clive.
- Cain, James M(allaham). The Postman Always Rings Twice (1934).
It seems absurd to note Anthony Berkeley’s “The Policeman Only Taps Once” withom acknowledging its debt to Cain, who, in the original list, was one of the celebrated names left intentionally unmentioned. Mr. Cain’s reputation has never seemed to me equalled by his prose.
- Cain, Paul, pseud. (Peter Ruric). Fast One (1933).
Leanly observed violence centering about one Kells, a fast man with a gun. Sheer narrative astonishingly maintained. Cain’s Seven Slayers (Hollywood, Saint Enterprises, 1946) is a paperback collection of short stories in much the same mode.
- Chandler, Raymond. The High Window (1942), The Lady in the Lake (1943) and The Little Sister (1949) with The Simple Art of Murder (1950) containing one essay, Chandler’s apologia, and twelve short stories.
Detective: Philip Marlowe (although in the short stories he is sometimes given other names). It is usual to cite Chandler’s earlier novels, The Big Sleep (1939) and Farewell, My Lovely ( 1940). They are as clearly readable as they are apprentice pastiches through which Chandler was developing, past the pastiche and a ·nervous-tic of purple similitude, to the assurance of The High Window. Because Chandler’s writing has particular interest it may be useful to list the earlier paperback collections of his stories, all published by Avon: Finger Man, and Other Stories (1947: including “The Simple Art of Murder,” and one fantasy “The Bronze Door”); Five Murderers ( 1944); Five Sinister Characters ( 1945); these last two were reshuffled and “The Man Who Liked Dogs” (in Shaw, J. T., ed., The Hardboiled Omnibus, 1946) was reworked in part for sequences in Farewell, My Lovely and No Crime in the Mountains in Anthony Boucher’s Great American Detective Stories (1945) for parts of The Lady in the Lake.
Since this was written, much scholarship has been spilled upon Chandler, as upon Hammett. A discreet sampling of his letters, Raymond Chandler Speaking, edited by Dorothy Gardiner and Katherine Sorley Walker (Harnish Hamilton, 1962) omits much of their bite, including his candid judgment of Erle Stanley Gardner and his anger at naval pressure to alter the film script of The Blue Dahlia, as well as absorbing notes on the trial of Florence (Chandler) Maybrick.
It is worth noting that The Big Sleep, read yet again, is as good as anything he wrote, and embarrassing to note the awful cuteness of Farewell, My Lovely, which exhibits Marlowe clad mostly in smartypants. Playback (1958) is bitterly titled by the man absurdly anguished at “cannibalizing” his work.
- Cheyney, Peter. Dark Duet ( I 943).
Three related novelettes about Michael Kane and Ernest Guelvada, secret agents, and the only volume of Mr. Cheyney’s many I’ve found any reason to keep. Chandler agreed, a harmony of opinion which may well account for the only British entry in this list.
- Dent, Lester: see Shaw, Joseph T., ed., The Hard-Boiled Omnibus.
There are probably more of Dent’s tales worth rediscovery if only on the evidence of “Angelfish” in Black Mask for December 1936.
Detective: Oscar Sail.
- Dodge, David. Death and Taxes (1941), Shear the Black Sheep (1942) and It Ain’t Hay (1946). Detective: James Whitney, CPA.
- Finnegan, Robert, pseud. (Paul Ryan, alias “Mike Quin”). The Bandaged Nude ( I 94 7) and Many a Monster ( 1948).
Detective: Dan Banion.
- Gunn, James. Deadlier than the Male (1942).
A story of murder rather than of detection.
- Hammett, Dashiell. The Maltese Falcon (1930); preferably in the Modern Library edition which contains Hammett’s introduction, and The Glass Key (1931).
Detectives: Sam Spade and Ned Beaumont, respectively. These seem to me decidedly the best of his novels and choosing between them is impossible. Most readers will want to find the other novels and the volumes of short stories which Ellery Queen has collected (0 blessed editor).
John Huston’s brilliant screenplay of The Maltese Falcon was, in effect, ready for him in the text with its sharp camera eye, always as suggestive as it is ambiguous, observing events and (especially) observing expressions. Hammett seems always to have written as the detached observer, alert but uncommitted. It is worth noting that Marlowe, Archer, and McGee all swim self-alertly through the narrative. The curious, especially those who feel unsteady at reading a mere “mystery story,” might be induced to discovery of The Glass Key by the suggestion that they approach it as a study in aspects of loyalty and friendship. But some trout are not worth tickling.
NOVELS: The Dain Curse (1929), Red Harvest ( 1929), and The Thin Man (1934). One of the most satisfactory evaluations of the hard-boiled sort is Anthony Boucher’s note in The New York Times of Sunday, August 10, 1952, marking the appearance of the latest of the collections of Hammett’s short stories, The Woman in the Dark (q.v., below). We have his permission to quote it in part for its relevancy here:
“Both the admirers and the detractors of the current blood-bosoms-and-brandy [or, may I add, parenthetically, boom-lay-boom-lay-boom-lay-boom-J.S.] school of fictional detectives trace such capers back to Dashiell Hammett, and Mr. Hammett is alternately praised for recreating the detective story or damned for destroying it. Most of these critics seem completely unaware of what Mr. Hammett’s work is really like.
“It is possible, it is true, to see some faint foreshadowing of the current private eye of books, screen and air in Sam Spade of The Maltese Falcon; but Spade appeared only in that novel and three short stories. The bulk of Mr. Hammett’s detective writing was devoted to the anonymous Continental· Op, who is the central character of three novels and at least twenty-five short stories and novelettes.
“In these Op stories Mr. Hammett did indeed revitalize the detective story, not only by the quality of his objective and realistic writing, but also by trying to depict believably the actual work of a private operative. And almost every characteristic of these stories has vanished completely from the work of the contemporaries who claim to be ‘of the school of Hammett.’
“The Op is fortyish and a little heavier than he should be. He appears only in cases which might logically be brought to a private detective. He is on excellent terms with the police. He carefully avoids emotional involvements with the people in a case. He stays sober when working. He is no lone wolf, but a cog in a large and efficient organization. He is tough in self-defense, but completely devoid of sadism. Many of his cases involve no physical violence; in those which inevitably do, the violence is written with understatement. He describes one of his own most dangerous situations as ‘a game that made up in tenseness what it lacked in action,’ and the description fits most of his adventures.”
NOVELETTE: $106,000 Blood Money (1943, reprinted from Bl.ack Mask, 1927, and since reprinted as Blood Money and The Big Knockover).
SHORT STORIES (with introductions by Ellery Queen): The Adventures of Sam Spade, and Other Stories (1945); “Too Many Have Lived,” “They Can Only Hang You Once,” “A Man Called Spade,” “The Assistant Murderer,” “Nightshade,” “The Judge Laughed Last,” “His Brother’s Keeper.” (Also issued as They Can Only Hang You Once.)
The Continental Op (1945); “Fly Paper,” “Death on Pine Street,” “Zigzags of Treachery,” “The Farewell Murder.” The Creeping Siamese ( 1950); “The Creeping Siamese,” “The Man Who Killed Dan Odams,” “The Nails in Mr. Cayterer,” “The Joke on Eloise Morey,” “Tom, Dick, or Harry,” “This King Business.”
Dead Yellow Women (1947); “Dead Yellow Women,” “The Golden Horseshoe,” “House Dick,” “Who Killed Bob Teal?” “The Green Elephant,” “The Hairy One.” Hammett Homicides (1946); “The House on Turk Street,” “The Girl with the Silver Eyes,” “Night Shots,” “The Main Death,” “Two Sharp Knives,” “Ruffian’s Wife.”
Nightmare Town; “Nightmare Town,” “The Scorched Face,” “Albert ·Pastor at Home,” “Corkscrew.”
The Return of the Continental Op (1945); “The Whosis Kid,” “The Gutting of Couffignal,” “Death and Company,” “One Hour,” “The Tenth Clue.”
Woman in the Dark (1952): “Arson Plus,” “Slippery Fingers,” “The Black Hat that Wasn’t There,” “Woman in the Dark,” “Afraid of a Gun,” “Holiday,” “The Man Who Stood in the Way.”
A Man Named Thin ( 1962). Hammett has suffered almost as much scholarly inquiry as Chandler in recent years and we have had telling glimpses of him from the remembrance of Lillian Hellman in An Unfinished Woman (1969) and Pentimento (1974). And that absorbing first draft of The Thin Man(from which he salvaged only the name Wynant) has been published in City of San Francisco, November 4, 1975, pages 32A-33 (pages 1-12 separately paged). It is sound, spare Hammett and teasing. Although less spare, Joe Gores’s excellent novel, Hammett (Putnam, 1975) suggests that Gores one day might continue it to its conclusion without Nick, Nora or Asta.
- Heberden, M(ary) V(iolet). Murder of a Stuffed Shirt ( 1944).
Competent and relatively restrained among the Desmond Shannon tales, as is Subscription to Murder ( 1940). See also Leonard, Charles L., pseud.
Detective: Desmond Shannon.
- Herrington, Lee. Carry My Coffin Slowly (1951). Barney Moffatt, chief investigator for a Midwestern country attorney, investigates a very rapid series of incidents indeed. The rush of business is nicely plotted and sustained.
Detective: Barney Moffat.
- Homes, Geoffrey, pseud. (Daniel Mainwaring). Build My Gallows High ( 1946).
The brief history of a wary if doomed cat’s-paw.
Detective: Jeff Bailey.
- Kane, Henry. A Halo for Nobody. ( 1947)
Peter Chambers’s first case and the only one in which I could discover any pleasure.
Detective: Pete Chambers.
- King, Sherwood. If I Die Before I Wake ( 1938).
- Leonard, Charles L. (pseud. of M. V. Heberden, q.v.). The Stolen Squadron ( 1942).
Wildly silly but so rapidly managed from little excitements to large-scale ones that you’re sufficiemly bound up with the personnel to gulp down the absurdities. The author wrote less-successful thrillers with her hard-boiled private eye (the despairing expedient of Military Intelligence) and she wrote much soberer and more probable pieces in which he was involved. (Search for a Scientist, 1947, or Sinister Shelter, 1949.)
- Macdonald, John Ross, pseud. (Kenneth Millar). The Way Some People Die (1951) and The Ivory Grin (1952), with at least an agreeable nod at The Moving Target ( 1949) and The Drowning Pool (1950).
Like Chandler, Mr. Macdonald began in pastiche and appeared for a time to grow into his own statement. Even Anthony Boucher was persuaded finally that Ross Macdonald had overtaken Chandler, and William Goldman, among others, has presented him as winner of the race. But rereading persuades me again that, after some promise, he is simply a clever master of pastiche. I am bewildered most of all by those perceptions able to meet Lew Archer as more than a name, a few attributes (almost bowdlerized from Marlowe in Chandler’s tales), and a hiccup of similes which appear to be obligatory.
Detective: Lew Archer.
- Masur, Harold Q. Bury Me Deep (1947).
Fast and tough by rote, but played so effectively that it slips past the eyes.
Detective: Scott Jordan
- Millar, Kenneth (see above, John Macdonald, pseud.). The Three Roads (1948).
Not to be confused with anything Mr. Millar produced before it, least of all with a hard-boiled phoney called Blue City.
- Miller, Wade, pseud. (Robert Wade and William Miller).
Max Thursday’s adventures in Guilty Bystander (1945), Fatal Step (1948), Murder Charge (1950), and Shoot to Kill (1951); synthetic but effective.
Detective: Max Thursday.
- Morgan, Murray C. The Viewless Winds (1949).
Violence in a coastal logging town, more thriller than mystery, but conceived and set down with bite.
- Nielson, Helen. Obit Delayed (1952)
Which I found considerably more persuasive in its plot and management than its predecessors.
- Perelman, S(idney) J(oseph). “Somewhere a Roscoe” in Crazy Like a Fox (1945) and “Farewell, My Lovely Appetizer” in Keep It Crisp (1946).
Two devastatingly perceptive notes on the hard-boiled detective story, the first in its Spicy Detective version, the second discerning almost unbearable sentimentality beneath the brassy exterior of Hammett and (especially) Chandler. Two vital little exercises that no admirers of the hard-boiled school (nor any of its enemies) should miss.
- Philips, James Atlee. Pagoda ( I 951).
A fierce, abrupt, fragmentary little thriller set in Hong Kong and Rangoon, and probably one of its predecessors, Suitable for Framing (1949), which shares the same untidy ferocity.
- Presnell. Frank G. No Mourners Present ( 1940).
The best of the disorderly cases of John Webb, an unscrupulous attorney-at-law.
- Quinn, E(leanor) Baker. One Man’s Muddle ( 1937).
Told by “James Strange,” whose toughness of mind is compellingly evident and unexpectedly trans-Atlantic in flavor, and whose acrid observation is a curious amicipation of Chandler.
- Reeves, Robert. Dead and Done For (1939).
Celebrating Cellini Smith, detective, and a considerable improvement over his first case.
Detective: Cellini Smith.
- Shaw, Joseph T(hompson), ed. The Hard-Boiled Omnibus (1946).
Stories selected from Black Mask by its most distinguished editor. The author include J.J. des Ormeaux (Forrest Rosaire), Reuben Jennings Shaw, Dashiell Hammell, Ramon Decolta (and his alter ego, Raoul Whitfield), Raymond Chandler, Norbert Davis, George Harmon Coxe, Lester Deni (whose “Sail” is as exciting as anything in the volume), Charles G. Booth, Thomas Walsh, Roger Torrey, and Theodore Tinsley. Not all of the writers are represented at their best and a number of them have not since published novels or novels in the hard-boiled tradition.
- Spain, John, pseud. (Cleve F. Adams). Dig Me a Grave ( 1942).
Bill Rye, related to Hammett’s Ned Beaumont, is the leg man in this. It is as fast, hard, and credible as its sequel (Death Is Like That, 1944) is not.
Detective: Bill Rye.
- Spicer, Bart.
Mr. Spicer seems one of the more considerable writers in the vein for a series of substantially sound tales about Carney Wilde, a detective with muscles and a conscience, a nice set of wits (a little too much given to spend themselves in the wisecrack), and no clear determination to stay within the ·boundaries of the hard-boiled son although his first novel was sound and independent of allegiances in striking degree: The Dark Light (1949), Blues for the Prince (1950), The Golden Door ( 1951 ), and The Long Green (1952) are all worth attention but the ·first and latest are perhaps most effective.
Detective: Carney Wilde.
- Stuart, William L. The Dead Lie Still ( 1945).
A thriller compounded of but dashing successfully through its clichés, and Night Cry ( 1948) about an angry cop in grave difficulties.
- Walsh, Thomas. The Night Watch (1952)
About a cop’s slip and fall. By the author of a good many Black Mask stories and a lot of softer ones in The Saturday Evening Post, as well as an admirable melodrama called Nightmare in Manhattan (1950).
- Whitfield, Raoul. Death in a Bowl (1931 ).
Try this one just after Chandler’s Farewell, My Lovely and see if its toughness isn’t more compelling. The bowl is Hollywood’s and the death that of a motion-picture director. Whitfield, a prolific and vigorous contributor to the pulps, published two other novels, Green Ice (1930) and The Virgin Kill (1932), neither as satisfactory as this one.
Detective: Ben Jardinn.
These then are the hard-boiled tales which a couple of decades of reading and a dangerous number of years at reviewing have called into memory as worth the coursing. The writers and tales noted here are themselves of very unequal merit and it’s quite possible that the quality which appeared to me to rescue an otherwise routine imitation from boredom will not affect another reader in the same way. Still the notes may be useful for simplifying the appalling process of rooting out the weeds and at the very least they provide a plump sitting duck for blasting.
I shall of course regret this omission or that other one as soon as the list is irretrievably beyond my care, just as I shall be dogged by the doubt that X or Y warranted admission after all. And this self-constituting torment may be some relief to the reader who finds himself particularly resentful of an omission or an inclusion.
— James Sandoe
- “The Hardboiled Era: A Checklist, 1929-1960” By Geoffrey O’Brien