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I first read the books of Dashiell Hammett after reading Raymond Chandler. Chandler’s essay The Simple Art of Murder, and some of his letters, give Hammett his due as one of the most influential authors of the 20th century. Although Chandler evolved his own style, he would probably have written very differently if the two writers hadn’t encountered each other in the pages of Black Mask.
I didn’t like Hammett’s stories much, perhaps because I was then too much under the spell of Chandler, who gives a much more romantic view, though a fatalistic one, of the world of crime and criminals.
But just recently I’ve begun on Hammett again, this time under the influence of reading Joe Gores’ Hammett (1975), which combines a biography of Hammett with a pastiche of a 20s crime story set in Hammett’s haunts in San Francisco; and which I had to be prised away from for necessary tasks like eating and sleeping. Gores is a very good writer in the oddly called “hard boiled” style.
Mystery or crime stories have one disadvantage in common. They all have a puzzle element, a crime, clues and suspects, and so, finish with a contrived ending in which all is explained. They’re what Graham Greene called ‘entertainments’, and are to the novel, which can contain insight into human behaviour, what the limerick is to the sonnet. The only author who ever avoided this limitation was Edgar Allen Poe, and he was a genius.
What the hard boiled school did was to keep the puzzle element of the story, but removed the focus from its solution to one on the depiction of milieu. In many ways San Francisco is the hero of his stories for Hammett, just as Los Angeles and its towns are for Chandler and Ross Macdonald.
I think that Hammett’s The Glass Key was one of the best American novels of the 30s (it was his favourite of the books he had written). But this read I started with The Thin Man, which I remembered from the William Powell/Myrna Loy film of 1934. The film retains much of the dialog of the book (published five months before the film’s release, in January).
The book is not concerned with locale (despite my comments above, Hammett looked like taking the mystery story to new places: and didn’t; he just stopped writing after this book) and is in many ways autobiographical, the story of an urbane, intelligent ex detective who had come into a lot of money. Its world is the smart set of 20s New York, and lots more drinking goes on than detection when a man disappears and is believed to have committed murder.
What impressed me was that virtually the whole novel and its story is done through dialog. In extreme contrast to a work like The Maltese Falcon, which relies for its brooding effect on exact description, The Thin Man relies on dialog both to tell the story and to reveal character. I’ve never seen this before in mystery stories and as I practically never put the book down till it ended I’d class it as one of the best mystery novels ever written. It’s worn better than the film, once one of my favourites, but now a bit faded (I don’t think now Powell had the character quite right, though he was amusing – but Loy had hers spot on).
There are passages like this all through the novel.
“Yes. I want a drink please. That is, it was like that when I knew them.”
“Why don’t you have some breakfast first? Was she in love with him or was it just business?”
“I don’t know. It’s too early for breakfast”.(Ch III)
“I put an arm around her and made what I hoped were comforting sounds. She cried on my lapel. The telephone on the bed began to ring. In the next room Rise and Shine was coming through the radio. My glass was empty. I said: ‘Walk out on them’. “ (Ch IV).
The novel proceeds in short staccato sentences like these, advancing the plot, explicating character, and giving a picture of the relationship between ex detective Nick Charles and his wife Nora. It’s very like the cinematic jump cut. Nick tells the story and he’s the ‘I’ who is quoted. Like Hammett, like a good detective, he is very observant, and his descriptions of people and events are concise and exact. What I admire about the writing most is its pacing. It moves so quickly, yet nothing is left obscure, except the ’solution’ at the end, which is the usual tidying up of loose ends and revealing of the culprit. But Nick Charles doesn’t miss a drink, and neither, at that time, did Hammett.
The Thin Man is more a novel of crime, as The Glass Key was one of political corruption, than a conventional mystery or crime story and is really about Nick and Nora (read Hammett and Lillian Hellman). A masterpiece.
Then I turned to The Maltese Falcon, also a famous 1941 film by John Huston with Humphrey Bogart, Mary Astor, Sydney Greenstreet and Peter Lorre. The book dates to 1930, and apparently every building and street mentioned in it can be traced in the San Francisco of that time. The film overshadows the book, mainly I think because of Lorre and Greenstreet, but also because it is a rather grimy, repellant book, a gritty anti romance and a meditation on treachery and corruption.
The book could be about Hammett and partner (Nell Martin – mode cynical rather than tender). Hammett’s first name was Samuel (Dashiell was his mother’s family name) and Sam Spade’s somewhat obscure relationship with Brigid O’Shaughnessy may express some of the distrust Hammett felt at times.
The novel makes great play of being objective. Descriptions of places and people are detached, precise and detailed throughout the book, and it reads rather like a science report of an experiment. There is no engagement with the anti hero Spade, towards whom the narrative expresses the same ambivalence it does towards O’Shaughnessy. She it is, compulsive liar that she is, who forms the model for a thousand ‘femme fatales’ of the future genre.
Hammett sets the scene exactly.
“The tappity-tap-tap and the thin bell and muffled whirr of Effie Perine’s typewriting came through the closed door. Somewhere in a neighbouring office a power driven machine vibrated dully. On Spade’s desk a limp cigarette smouldered in a brass tay filled with the remans of limp cigarettes. Ragged grey flakes of cigarette-ash dotted the yellow top of the desk and the green blotter and the papers that were there. A buff-curtained window, eight or ten inches open, let in from the court a current of air faintly scented with ammonia. The ashes on the desk twitched and crawled in the current”. (Ch I)
This kind of writing is not easy to do. It’s not what you write but what you leave out that make the difference. Here is a picture you can see, hear and smell. James Joyce (or Stephen) mentions the difficulty in his Portrait (or its predecessor). Hammett had made a giant stride from the Black Maskish Dain Curse of the previous year, just as he did with his next two books.
One of the extraordinary things about Hammett is the speed with which he developed as a writer. Sad he never saw it’s how you write not what you write that matters and wasted time trying, like Chandler, to write ‘literature’, whatever that is.
The Maltese Falcon is a book filled with villains, from the savage medieval Hospitallers to sleazy cops like Dundy looking for an easy frame, to the novel’s cast of main characters, Spade, Archer, both out for what they can get, O’Shaughnessy, compulsive liar and deceiver, Thursby the hired thug, Cairo, effete and corrupt, and the oily Gutman, marvellously captured on film by Sydney Greenstreet.
“‘We begin well, sir’, the fat man purred, turning with a proffered glass in his hand. ‘I distrust a man that says when. If he’s got to be careful not to drink too much it’s because he’s not to be trusted when he does’”. (Ch XI)
The scene at the end of the book where Spade turns O’Shaughnessy over to the police for his partner’s murder falls a bit flat because of the novel’s detachment towards its characters. Spade says “I won’t play the sap for you”, and although you can sense his integrity behind the words, and also his fear of betrayal, who knows if he really loves Brigid?
This detachment, seeing everything from the outside, not the inside as in The Thin Man, was to be a boon for film makers, and was in fact the birth of film noir, albeit in print form. The book remains an iconic hard boiled thriller to this day, the best of its kind for those who can do without a hero. The motto is, expect the worst and you won’t be disappointed. As influential as they get.
The Dain Curse of 1929, Hammett’s second novel, is a lurid melodrama with more perversions than a soap opera and more murders than Hamlet. I found it a bit silly. It’s held together by its unnamed detective and his investigations, but the mounting tally of drug addicts, religious sect frauds, fake spiritualists, murderers, psychotic killers, suicides, and brain washing leaves little room for characters, plot development or any meaning except a thrill at the next killing: I counted at least 12 murders. It went down well in The Black Mask, typical of their type of fiction. It’s overkill as a novel.
Red Harvest (1929) began all the critical fuss over Hammett, comparisons with Hemingway and so on. If you can accept the framing story of a detective who resolves to clean up corruption in a town despite his client’s wishes, there is a non stop barrage of dynamiting, machine gunning, car chases and of course murders to keep young readers happy. The writing is fairly undistinguished. The divide and conquer plot was later used by Akira Kurosawa in Yojimbo (Kurosawa was another one influenced by Hammett). Standard Black Mask fare, it gives no clue of the quantum leap that later that year was to produce The Maltese Falcon.
One of the things I love about The Glass Key, published in 1931, is that it describes body language. Like The Maltese Falcon of the year before, characters are described objectively, and we never see inside them; but we get the same hints the people they speak to do as to what they are feeling. Eyes are friendly or stony, eyebrows are raised or lowered, noses are pinched tight, cheeks have red glows or turn pale, shoulders are shrugged. Characters respond almost exclusively to others’ conversation, but know a lot more is going on, much of it ambivalent, by observing these signs.
Passages such as: “A startled look came into Ned Beaumont’s dark eyes. He took his arm out of the shorter man’s hand and stepped back. Then a corner of his mouth twitched under his dark moustache and he said: ‘It’s a bad time, Walt, and – well – you’ll save yourself disappointment by not looking for much before November’. His eyes were narrow again and watchful”. (Ch I) reveal Ned’s skill at managing people, and also his alertness for betrayal, but the situation is not revealed till later in the book. First we have to know what kind of man he was.
The Glass Key is about politics. Not just handsome, distinguished people making promises on a TV screen; but about contractors who gain a fortune by making inflated bids for city contracts, then use their wealth to bribe police and other officials while running for office, so they can further line their pockets, and forcing newspaper editors to do their bidding. More profits come from underworld rackets they share in. And the only objection is from competitors who want to have these profits for themselves, and who rake up what scandal they can to discredit their opponents. Never trust ‘reformers’.
Hammett may have had inside knowledge of corruption in San Francisco from his activities as a Pinkerton Agency operative, but the situation has been endemic to politics for long before Periklean democracy right up to the present.
Ned Beaumont, the book’s hero, is a long way from the morally ambivalent Sam Spade. He’s tough, and is in a position where he must choose his villains, but all along he believes in loyalty to friends and feels gratitude for their help. So he ends up a fixer for one of two men, both slum children who have learnt that winning is the only thing that counts. Ned’s not faultless; he’s a compulsive gambler and always in need of money. But he is more intelligent that the politicians who are maneuvring for power and can see more than several steps ahead in the game of power. That, in the book, gets him nowhere.
Although the book is about crime and corruption it’s not really a mystery story; the setting is realistic, and the crime and its solution not that important.
The real achievement of The Glass Key is that it avoids melodrama. Every book and film you read and see is a melodrama, where types abound and there is a conflict between good and evil, which is resolved by the end. That’s unreal: life’s not like that. We are motivated by emotions, not all of which we understand. We give others mixed messages which they misinterpret. We change our minds, regret our decisions, reconsider our relationships. Hammett tried in this novel to reproduce some of this ambiguity, and to a great extent succeeded. It’s a powerful achievement.
Hammett was an operative for the Pinkerton Detective Agency 1915 (he was 21) to 1922. Then ill health (he had TB) caused him to turn to a writing career, which lasted 1922-1934. Wealthy from a screen writing career based on his book The Thin Man, Hammett next turned to anti fascist activities, conflicted with Congress and in the 50s was investigated, jailed for contempt of court, and stripped of his assets for back taxes. He was now blacklisted, couldn’t place stories anywhere, ill, and poverty stricken. He died 1961.
His Continental Op stories for Black Mask magazine 1923-1927 were the foundation of Hammett’s novels. He began linking stories to form episodic novels. The first was called Red Harvest, November 1927 – February 1928, published in book form by Knopf February 1929. Next was The Dain Curse (November 1928 – February 1929), published in book form July 1929. The Maltese Falcon came out in February 1930. The Glass Key was published April 1931, and The Thin Man January 1934. Hammett spent time in Hollywood in the 30s, but, like Chandler, Fitzgerald and Faulkner, it dd nothing but provide him with a lot of money, an opulent lifestyle, and lots of booze.
In 1929 Hammett invented, or compellingly bought to people’s attention, what we know as the Private Investigator; the police procedural; the underworld crime novel; and the outsider, in the person of Sam Spade. In 1930 he bought out a realistic novel of personal relationships amid political corruption that pulls no punches; and in 1933, despite Hollywood, a crime novel based not on crime but on a marriage relationship. All this was new, and might have led to greater things. But, like Fitzgerald, the damage had been done, and from the end of the 30s he was a seriously ill man, and wrote no more, though he made several attempts. It was only three great novels, but it was enough. The fiction and film we know today would not be the same without his example and influence.
©2017 Original material copyright Phillip Kay. Images and other material courtesy Creative Commons. Please inform post author of any violation.