Television Review

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The Independent Culture
NIGEL WILLIAMS started last night's edition of The Great Detectives (BBC2) where any critic of Raymond Chandler must start, at Dulwich College where Chandler spent his formative years. But rather than linger in suburban south London, he zipped off (and who can blame him?) to California. There, he visited a mansion very much like the one where General Sternwood lived in The Big Sleep, and drove through the part of Los Angeles that provided the setting for the opening scenes of Farewell, My Lovely. He met a Santa Monica policeman who talked about police corruption in Chandler's day and explained that he disguised Santa Monica as "Bay City".

This was agreeable stuff, but the relationship to Chandler seemed vague: there appeared to be a dearth of real places with definite associations. Then Williams moved on to Dashiell Hammett, Chandler's great predecessor in the field of private-eye fiction, and the travelogue became less abstract. In San Francisco, Hammett's town, you can see the very spot where, as a plaque puts it, "Miles Archer was done in by Brigid O'Shaughnessy" in The Maltese Falcon, and the apartment where he wrote that novel still exists, preserved as a shrine by one of his fans. The office where Hammett worked still looks exactly like the kind of office you picture Sam Spade working in.

This concreteness is not coincidental. Hammett wrote closer to reality than Chandler: he had actually been a detective, had actually been hit over the head with a brick by somebody he was trailing. Hammett fans, interviewed by Williams, laughed at Marlowe's quixotic tendencies - returning money to clients, feeling hurt when they lied to him! A real detective like Spade would expect his clients to lie to him. (The same fans who praised him for his realism turned up wearing Thirties-style trench-coats and wide-brimmed hats - which suggests that escapism plays its part in their affection for him.)

Williams drew a number of parallels between Chandler and Hammett: both hated their fathers; both started out wanting to be poets; and both were drunks - Chandler's life ended in a wasteland of des-pair. Where Chandler was distinctive was in his blend of the hard-boiled with what Williams identified as English "gentility and literariness". Thoughtful and enjoyable though the programme was, I wished Williams had hung around Dulwich a little longer, because while Chandler had a lot in common with Hammett, he had just as much, if not more, in common with fellow Dulwich old boy, PG Wodehouse.

Years ago, Benny Green wrote an essay claiming to trace in both writers the influence of a particular classics master (I think it was classics). They share a gift for trenchant simile - it's not far from Chandler's description of the gaudily dressed Moose Molloy in Farewell, My Lovely, looking "about as inconspicuous as a tarantula on a slice of angel food" to Jeeves's cough, "like a sheep clearing its throat on a distant hillside". Both have a nice ear for understatement: Molloy is "not more than six feet five inches tall and not wider than a beer truck"; a Wodehouse character is "if not actually disgruntled, far from being gruntled". In Philip Marlowe and Bertie Wooster, both have heroes constantly landed in the soup by their knightly instincts, their unwillingness to let a lady suffer. (Marlowe started life as Malory, a name that immediately points to Le Morte d'Arthur.) And, frankly, Chandler's mean streets, his hero "neither tarnished nor afraid", bore about as much resemblance to reality as Wodehouse's moneyed, leisured idylls did to the England of depression and appeasement.

Correspondent (Sat BBC2) looked at the state of policing in New York, where the policy of "zero-tolerance" has reduced crime dramatically. In central Manhattan, people testified to the transformation of city life, but their joy isn't shared in poorer areas. Three incidents have led to questioning of police tactics: the killing of the unarmed Amadou Diallo by four policemen, who pumped a total of 41 bullets into him; the choking to death of Anthony Baez, after he had let a football bounce against a police car; and the torture and sodomisation of Abner Louima in a police cell. Retired cops spoke bitterly of public distrust of the police; black men, one a cop, complained of rampant racism and brutality in the force. Men who are neither tarnished or afraid: it's still an appealing fantasy.