Commentary Magazine


Private Eyes

To the Editor:

Richard Schickel’s article [“Raymond Chandler, Private Eye,” February] provided a rare breath of fresh air in a dusty and neglected area of contemporary fiction. For those of your readers interested in this vital but critically slighted field, a few emendations and corrections of Mr. Schickel’s remarks may be in order. . . .

It was not Dashiell Hammett who invented the first real private eye in the modern sense (technically, Sherlock Holmes was the first); his Sam Spade followed by some years the private eye character created by Carroll John Daly in the 20’s, who worked out of his own little office for hire and who experienced all the qualms and bitterness of being boycotted to a large extent by organized society, including the police. Hammett’s Continental Op was not a true private eye; he worked for a large San Francisco detective agency, as did Hammett himself, and was under directional orders from his employer in the home office. Too, Hammett’s novel writing was not limited to four years, as Schickel has it, but to just under seven—the novels first appeared in the old Black Mask magazine (except for The Thin Man, which appeared in Redbook), and the earliest antedated book publication by some years. . . .

I would like to refer Mr. Schickel and any interested readers to the novels of Ross MacDonald and his private eye, Lew Archer (name lifted from Sam Spade’s murdered partner in The Maltese Falcon) which Knopf has been publishing for over a decade, in which the values of Hammett and Chandler have been superbly upheld by a writer of sensibility and taste. . . . In the estimation of many, including Anthony Boucher, MacDonald surpassed both Hammett and Chandler in characterization and subtlety of narrative content. Like them he is being critically ignored; unlike them, he doggedly continues writing in the teeth of critical neglect.

William E. Blackbeard
Los Angeles, California

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