When I was a writing student in college, I came across a how-to manual called The Essence of Fiction, by Malcolm McConnell. It was not like most other writing books I had read before or have read since. My professor, to whom I showed it, was mildly appalled at its strict focus on the mechanics of story construction, and indeed, The Essence of Fiction has no clever exercises a la John Gardener’s The Art of Fiction, nor does it inspire you to live a life devoted to creativity a la Natalie Goldberg’s excellent Wild Mind. Essence is plain and direct and even, to my old teacher’s point, rather crude, but one of its precepts has stuck with me over the years: the rule against “cigarette action.”
Cigarette action is McConnell’s term for the meaningless physical business a writer will assign a character in order to pace a scene. When writing a dialogue scene, you can’t simply follow one speech with another and then another: it gets fatiguing to read, and the scene gradually loses its sense of place, its physicality. (Not that that stopped Elmore Leonard.) So writers solve this by having their characters do … something. Get up and look out the window. Check themselves out in the mirror. Change positions on the couch. And, of course, light cigarettes.
McConnell’s beef with all these people lighting up was that having a smoke doesn’t reveal anything about a character or lend any insight into the dynamic of a scene. It’s filler action, something you have a character do without thinking about it. But of course, there are other ways of achieving this end. Instead of lighting a cigarette, what about having that character repeatedly look at his watch? Or pick up the other person’s glass and put a coaster under it? Or try to scratch a stain out of his necktie? There are countless ways of opening a small window onto a character’s personality. Avoiding cigarette action really just means making sure your story is economical, that you’re taking every opportunity to reveal or develop your characters — and that, more importantly, you actually understand who your character is and how she reacts. Good advice worth remembering.
I don’t write much fiction anymore, but what brought McConnell and his rule back to mind was when I finally got around to reading The Maltese Falcon. I am an amateur student of the golden age of pulp fiction, and Raymond Chandler in particular may well be my favorite fiction writer, genre or otherwise. Dashiell Hammett and Chandler are the twin titans of the American detective story and of American pulp fiction in general, and while I am intimately familiar with the latter, Hammett’s work has been largely unknown to me. Hammett was the pioneer: a real detective who turned his own experiences into fiction and redefined mystery writing almost at a stroke. His no-nonsense prose is often compared, in both style and influence, to Hemingway’s. So I finally sat down and cracked Hammett’s best-known book, featuring his best-known creation, private detective Sam Spade.
It’s a rollicking little book. If you’ve seen the film — and you ought to have seen the film — you know the story of the rare, gem-encrusted bird and the colorful, dangerous people for whom finding it and/or keeping it is the obsession that shapes their lives. It’s impossible to dip into this story without getting hooked. But the writer in me noticed one thing very quickly. When Spade parries with the treacherous Brigid O’Shaughnessy, he rolls a cigarette. When he toys with Cairo, he rolls a cigarette. When puts off the lovesick widow of his partner, Miles Archer, or gingerly negotiates with the ruthless Kasper Gutman, Spade rolls a goddamn cigarette. A quick recap through the text finds no fewer than 24 instances in which Spade rolls and then smokes a cigarette, and the overall effect of them is numbing. “Spade winked at him and went on rolling a cigarette.” “He took tobacco and papers from his pocket and began to make a cigarette.” “Spade rolled and smoked cigarettes and moved, without fidgeting or nervousness, around the room.” At one point, shortly after Spade’s partner is killed, Hammett shows us this:
He took tobacco and cigarette papers from his vest pockets, but did not roll a cigarette. He sat holding the papers in one hand, the tobacco in the other, and looked with brooding eyes at his dead partner’s desk.
That example aside, Spade never, say, fumbles the tobacco, or lets the paper slip through his fingers — never suggests any emotional or mental state to counter his relentlessly flat surface. And that, for better or worse, is the whole point.
The Maltese Falcon is not a story of good guys and bad guys — like all good Modernist fiction, it depicts an amoral and undetermined universe in which everyone is compelled to make their own way and find their own truth. Far from being an incorruptible white knight, a la Chandler’s Philip Marlowe, Spade is just one more person trying to survive in a world seemingly without rules, and his inscrutability is the chief source of the book’s suspense. We know almost from the get-go that Brigid O’Shaughnessy is a liar and a manipulator; we know that Gutman and Cairo will do anything to get their hands on the titular bird. Spade is the real mystery: while ostensibly on the side of law and order, he is also carrying on an affair with his partner’s wife, to whom he lies with impunity, and is openly contemptuous of the police. The narrator even compares Spade’s appearance to Satan — in the very first paragraph. Will Spade throw in his lot with Gutman? With Bridget? Or will he outfox them all and keep the bird for himself? We are able to wonder this because Hammett shows us a great deal of Spade, particularly his smoking habits, without ever revealing anything about who the man is. This keeps Spade mysterious … and makes him a little dull in the process.
(A brief digression. John Huston’s film adaptation of The Maltese Falcon is rightly considered one of the best movies ever made, and Humphrey Bogart brings a real verve to the character of Sam Spade. In fact, I have no hesitation in pronouncing the film superior to the book, and moreover, I suspect that much of the book’s continued positive reputation is reflected glory from the film. Read The Maltese Falcon now, and it is impossible not to imagine Peter Lorre and Sydney Greenstreet giving their career-defining performances as Cairo and Gutman; Huston has essentially done much of your work for you.)
Hammett and Raymond Chandler, as I said above, defined the American private eye novel, so it is natural enough to compare them: like Chaplin versus Keaton or the Beatles versus the Stones, they represent one of those enduring binaries of taste in which one is expected to take a side. The comparison is perhaps not altogether fair: Chandler followed Hammett and so had his example to learn from. (It should also be pointed out that The Maltese Falcon is rarely regarded as Hammett’s best book.) Beyond that, they were very different men with very different ideas of what a detective story could be. Hammett, as Chandler acknowledged in his seminal essay “The Simple Art of Murder,” gave murder “back to the kind of people who commit it for reasons, not just to provide a corpse,” yet his language “had no overtones, left no echo, evoked no image beyond a distant hill.” This is where Chandler sought to leave his mark, and his prose is as evocative and witty as Hammett’s is reserved and terse. Here is Marlowe in conversation with new acquaintance Ann Riordan, pausing for a smoke:
I filled a pipe and reached for the packet of paper matches. I lit the pipe carefully. She watched that with approval. Pipe smokers were solid men. She was going to be disappointed in me.
So what’s going on here? At the risk of pointing out the obvious, this funny little passage is charged with Marlowe’s personality and reveals something of his sardonic view of the world, or at the very least himself. Unlike Spade, Marlowe has no adoring secretary or best friend’s wife to admire him or sleep with him; he’s a lonely man, and that little joke above subtly underscores that loneliness — he knows that nobody as nice and as decent as Ann Riordan is going to want to be close to him. You’ve got wit and you’ve got character, all in the guise of someone lighting a pipe. That, friends, is how you do cigarette action.