Before Hammett laid the foundation of the modern realistic detective novel, virtually all detective fiction had been designed on the pattern established by the American writer Edgar Allan Poe in three short stories written between 1841 and 1844: “The Murders in the Rue Morgue,” “The Mystery of Marie Rogêt,” and “The Purloined Letter.” The basic ingredients of the formula were simple: a brilliant but eccentric amateur detective, his trusty but somewhat pedestrian companion and chronicler, an even more pedestrian police force, and an intricate and bizarre crime. The solution of the puzzle, generally set up as something of a game or contest to be played out between the author and the reader, called for a complex series of logical deductions drawn by the scientific detective on the basis of an equally complex series of subtle clues.
According to what came to constitute the rules of this game, these clues were to be available to the detective’s companion, who was also the narrator, and through him to the reader, who would derive interest and pleasure from the attempt to beat the detective to the solution. The canonical popular version of this classical tradition of the mystery as a puzzle to be solved is the English writer Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes series, although purists have objected that essential information available to Holmes is often withheld from the reader, which constitutes “cheating” on the part of the author. The success of the series paved the way for similar work by other English writers such as Agatha Christie. Although this classical model was invented by the American Poe and practiced by several American mystery writers, its predominance among English writers has led to its being thought of as the English school, in opposition to a more realistic type of mystery being written around the 1920’s by a small group of American writers.
Hammett proved to be the master of the new kind of detective story, written in reaction against the English model. As Raymond Chandler, one of Hammett’s most notable literary descendants, remarked in his seminal essay on the two schools, “The Simple Art of Murder,” “Hammett gave murder back to the kind of people that commit it for reasons, not just to provide a corpse; and with the means at hand, not hand-wrought dueling pistols, curare and tropical fish.” Rather than serving as the vehicle for an intentionally bewildering set of clues and an often implausible solution, the realistic story of detection shifted the emphases to characterization, action, and, especially, rapid-fire and colloquial dialogue, as opposed to the flat characters, slow pace, and stilted set speeches of the classical school.
Just as the entire classical formula was complete in Poe’s earliest stories, the essentials of the realistic model are found complete in Hammett’s earliest work, almost from the first of his thirty-five stories that feature an operative for the Continental Detective Agency, known to the reader as the Continental Op. Although Hammett’s contribution extends well beyond the codification of this model—indeed, much of his significance lies in his questioning and modifying of these conventions in his own novels—a sketch of these ingredients highlights the nature of his innovations.
Hammett’s familiarity with the classical paradigm is established in the seventy-three reviews of detective novels he wrote for the Saturday Review of Literature and the New York Evening Post between 1927 and 1930; his rejection of it is thorough. In fact, he specifically contrasted his theory of the detective with that of Conan Doyle in describing Sam Spade, the protagonist of Hammett’s The Maltese Falcon (1930), a description applicable to the Continental Op as well:For your private detective does not . . . want to be an erudite solver of riddles in the Sherlock Holmes manner; he wants to be a hard and shifty fellow, able to take care of himself in any situation, able to get the best of anybody he comes in contact with, whether criminal, innocent by-stander, or client.
Hammett’s Continental Op is distinctly unglamorous and unintellectual. The Op is pushing forty, is about five feet, six or seven inches tall, weighs one hundred and ninety pounds, and works as a modestly paid operative of the Continental Detective Agency, a fictional firm loosely modeled on the Pinkerton organization. Although certainly not stupid, the Op relies on routine police procedures and direct, often violent action rather than elaborate chains of logic to track down criminals. The colorful amateur detective is replaced by the professional, anonymous, and colorless Op, who has no history, no family, no hobbies or interests outside his work, and no social life beyond an occasional poker game with police officers or other detectives. In a 1925 short story, “The Gutting of Couffingal,” the Op gives his most extensive discussion of his ideas about his work:Now I’m a detective because I happen to like the work. . . . I don’t know anything else, don’t enjoy anything else, don’t want to know or enjoy anything else. . . . You think I’m a man and you’re a woman. That’s wrong. I’m a manhunter and you’re something that has been running in front of me. There’s nothing human about it. You might as well expect a hound to play tiddly-winks with the fox he’s caught.
Hammett humorously underscored the difference in methods in a 1924 short story, “The Tenth Clew,” which parodies the classical detective plot with a set of nine bewildering clues, including a victim missing his left shoe and collar buttons, a mysterious list of names, a bizarre murder weapon (the victim was beaten to death with a typewriter), and so on. The solution, the “tenth clue,” is to ignore all nine of these confusing and, as it turns out, phony clues and to use standard methods such as the surveillance of suspects to find the killer. The Op relies on methodical routine, long hours, and action to get results, not on reasoning alone. Rather than presenting a brilliant alternative to unimaginative police methods, the Op often follows their standard procedures.
Just as the detective is different in Hammett’s model, so are the crimes and criminals. The world of the traditional mystery is one of security and regularity, disrupted temporarily by the aberrant event of the crime. Once the detective solves the crime through the application of reason, normalcy is restored. The worldview implicit in this plot was obviously comforting for a largely middle-class English readership at the turn of the twentieth century but was remote from the experience of the generation of American readers who had just survived World War I. The world of the hard-boiled detective, as conceived by an author who had been through the horrors of that war, is one in which criminal behavior is the norm rather than the exception. There are usually several crimes and several criminals, and the society is not an orderly one temporarily disrupted but a deeply corrupt one that will not be redeemed or even much changed after the particular set of crimes being investigated is solved.
First published: 1927-1928 (serial), 1929
Type of work: Novel
The Continental Op resorts to desperate methods to clean up organized crime and political corruption in a small mining town.
Red Harvest, Hammett’s first novel, is now generally regarded as one of his best. The case begins when the Continental Op is sent to the small Montana mining town of Personville (called “Poisonville” by those who know it) at the request of Donald Willsson, the publisher of the town’s newspapers. Willsson, who had been using the newspapers as a platform from which to fight civic corruption, is murdered before the Op can meet him and find out what he was hired to do. The Op manages to persuade Elihu Willsson, Donald’s father and the owner of most of the property in the town, including the newspapers and the mines, to hire him to investigate crime and political corruption in Personville.
As it turns out, Donald Willsson’s murder was at the hands of a jealous bank teller who mistakenly believed that Willsson was having an affair with the teller’s former girlfriend,...
(The entire section is 3401 words.)