Codes of Violence

Dashiell Hammett, The Maltese Falcon and Raymond Chandler, The Lady in the Lake.
Codes of Violence. You’ve certainly noticed the escalating violence in the hard-boiled novel—and not just violence committed by a central criminal, but also by other characters, and even by Sam Spade and Philip Marlowe. Up to this time, a willingness to engage in violence has always been the mark of the criminal. If the detective is not to seem criminal, too, there must be something about his use of violence that makes it different. But what is that difference?
To answer this question, you might consider the following related questions. When does each detective engage in violent behavior? How is the detective’s violence justified—by the situation, by the author, by the detective himself? Are there times when the detective uses violence in ways that aren’t justified? If so, how do you account for his actions? Does the detective resort to violence in specific times or ways? If so, can you use his pattern of violent actions to define the detective’s ethical code? Both Marlowe and Spade are considered quintessential hard-boiled detectives; do they share the same ethics related to their use of violence?
Use these questions as a springboard for writing an essay in which you examine and compare these detectives’ “codes of violence.” This doesn’t mean you have to agree with the violence, or even agree with how the books justify it. Your goal is to examine how the books themselves make sense of it—or fail to do so. You’ll want to look at specific instances of violent action, but don’t stop there. Instead, use these specifics to support conclusions about these detectives and the meaning of their violent acts.

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