The Riddle Of The Sands

When the mystery novel The Riddle of the Sands was published in 1903, readers had a difficult time of what to make of it. Not an explicitly political novel, not an adventure novel, and differing considerably from the classic detective stories of the last century, The Riddle of the Sands would today be clearly classified as a thriller. However, at the time of its publication in the early twentieth century there was no clear fictional formulae established. Following several decades after The Riddle of the Sands, the thriller novel was still an evolving genre which, although based on crime and detection, had moved away from the intrigues of the upper class onto the ‘mean streets.’ The evolution of the thriller in the first half of the twentieth century marks a drastic departure from the cerebral detective novels of the previous century which focused on refined, often haughty characters and worked to reveal rather than obscure. Differing from the classic English detective novel epitomized by Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes, the emphasis of the new thriller is not only on the collection and interpretation of evidence to solve the mystery, but upon the actions and characters themselves. Combining elements of suspense, danger and intrigue, the prime focus of the story is action, and the heroes are accordingly adventurous and aligned with the ‘street class’ rather than the gentlemanly detective. Lee Horsley says that the noir thriller is a ‘durable popular expression [of] modernist pessimism,’ which aimed at ‘undermining the essentially optimistic thrust of other popular forms’ (Horsley 1). This pessimism is expressed through the move away from refined characters and neat conclusions to an insistence on ambiguity, ‘street’ crime and lower-class characters.

Often, these new characters are, if not out and out villains, crooks and criminals who have different notions of morality from their predecessors. Daheiell Hammett’s The Maltese Falcon is famous for its mix of corrupt, deceitful, and hard-nosed villains, lower-class crooks and rugged heroes. These characters, a far cry from the debonair Sherlock Holmes or the clever heroes of Agatha Christie, have entirely their own interests in mind rather than the protection of the social and penal order. Unconcerned with the immorality or criminality of their actions, from lying or murder, the characters are decidedly dishonourable and can hardly be classified as either heroes or villains. As the main character, the detective Sam Spade, pursues the mysterious death of his partner, he finds himself drawn into a network of petty criminals, among them Miss Wonderly, the pathological liar, the obese Gutman, and the jumpy Cairo whose background is undefined. These characters represent a move to realism in the detective/thriller genre, emphasizing the underworld of street crime in which character flaws serve to the advantage of the immoral characters.

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The Maltese Falcon is a novel whose story depends on the representation of crime and corruption. Spade is held at gunpoint, drugged, stalked and tortured in an effort to glean information from him about the falcon. Although Spade resists them, he is hardly to upstanding hero of the action-adventure novel, or the morally upright and fastidious character of Doyle’s novels. Conducting an affair with Brigid in order to secretly search her apartment. Despite his protestations that he is simply restoring the balance of good over evil, Spade uses morally questionable means to capture the criminals. ‘I’m a detective and expecting me to run criminals down and then let them go free is like asking a dog to catch a rabbit and let it go’ he says, ‘No matter what I wanted to now it would be absolutely impossible for me to let you go .. I couldn’t be sure you wouldn’t decide to shoot a hole in me some day’ (Hammett 183). Spade believes that he is a detective because it is in his nature to bring criminals to justice, positioning himself as the underdog hero in a corrupt world. However, he freely admits that he pursues the crooks to save his own neck, as he wants them put away to be sure they won’t ‘decide to shoot a hole in [him] some day.’ Spade is a new breed of detective hero, one who may occupy to traditional role of protagonist, but whose character does not always differ so greatly from the criminals he is meant to pursue.

It is not simply the moral ambiguity of the characters which define and delimit the thriller as a genre, however. In the traditional detective novel, the initial crime or murder upsets the moral and social order, and the detective protagonist, by bringing the criminal’s actions to like and therefore to justice, restores the balance of good and evil. However, in Hammett’s novel there is less revelation than concealment, which leaves the moral outcome of the novel ambiguous. At the beginning of The Maltese Falcon, Spade rejects the offer from the police to view the body and murder scene of his partner, and it becomes apparent that in the new thriller genre, the emphasis is less on deduction and disclosure of knowledge than on obfuscation. He says that ‘You’ve seen him. You’d see everything I could’ (Hammett 401). Spade, as well as Hammett’s other detective heroes, do not detect in the sense of revelation, but rather cover over the crime with an inadequate explanation. This does not demonstrate the amorality of the detective per say, but rather an attempt to draw a conclusion from competing explanations. Steven Marcus, in his critical work on Hammett, describes his work as one in which the detective ‘actively undertakes to deconstruct, decompose and thus de-mystify the fictional – and therefore false – reality created by the characters . More often that not he tries to substitute his own fictional-hypothetical representation for theirs’ (Marcus, xxi). In contrast to the narratives of classical detective fiction which depend on the return to the pre-fallen social world before the crime, The Maltese Falcon reveals the unreliability of the established world of street crime, with its ambiguous conclusions and competing narratives.

Like The Maltese Falcon, Raymond Chandler’s Farewell, my lovely explores the underworld of street crime and suggests ambiguity rather than the moral stability of its predecessor the detective novel. The thriller novel exemplified by Chandler’s stories lacks what John Reilly calls ‘the neat conclusiveness of the classic story that is usually absent from real life’ (Reilly, xi). Rather than the neat conclusion of the classic tale of detection, the completion of the job by the detective leaves a residue of intrigue, an ambiguous resolution between the moral and criminal forces. The myth of the ‘mean streets’ of Farewell, my lovely imbues the protagonist with several qualities which have led to him being characterised as an immoral character. John Cawelti calls him an antihero, whose ‘commonness is a mask for uncommon qualities’ (Cawelti 145). Hammett’s Sam Spade set the pattern. The traditional detective protagonist acts in unity with his own idea of the truth and; according to Cawelti, he is ‘forced to define his own concept of morality and justice’ (Cawelti 143). Philip Marlowe exercises a personal code of justice, often in dischord with the established law. The character of the detective protagonist who follows his own rules because he is at odds with a corrupt society was a key element to Chandler’s myth of the solitary hero of the mean streets.

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