Before Dashiell Hammett laid the foundation of the modern realistic detective novel, virtually all detective fiction had been designed on the pattern established by Edgar Allan Poe in three short stories featuring the detective C. Auguste Dupin: “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, was achieved through a complex series of logical deductions drawn by the scientific detective from an equally complex series of subtle clues. According to what came to be the rules of the genre, these clues were to be available to the sidekick, 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.
Such stories were structured with comparable simplicity and regularity: A client, as often as not a representative of the baffled police force, comes to the detective and outlines the unusual and inexplicable circumstances surrounding the crime; the detective and his companion investigate, turning up numerous confusing clues that the narrator gives to the reader but cannot explain; finally, the detective, having revealed the identity of the criminal, who is ideally the least likely suspect, explains to his companion, and thus to the reader, the process of ratiocination that led him to the solution of the crime.
The canonical popular version of this classic tradition of the mystery as a puzzle to be tidily solved is Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes series, though purists have objected that essential information available to Holmes is frequently withheld from the reader to prevent his victory in the game. The success of the series paved the way for similar work by other British writers such as Agatha Christie, whose Hercule Poirot books are virtually perfect examples of this formula. Though this classic model was invented by the American Poe and practiced by many American mystery writers, its dominance among British writers has led to its being thought of as the English model, 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 this classic model. As Raymond Chandler 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 colloquial dialogue, a resource limited in the English model to the few highly artificial set speeches needed to provide background and clues and to lead to the detective’s closing monologue revealing the solution. The essentials of the realistic model are found complete in Hammett’s earliest work, almost from the first of his thirty-five Op stories, just as the entire classical formula was complete in Poe’s first short stories. Though Hammett’s contribution extends well beyond the codification of this model—his significance for literary study rests largely on his questioning and modifying of these conventions in his novels—a sketch of these essentials will clearly point up the contrast between the classical and the realistic mystery story.
Hammett’s familiarity with the classical paradigm is established in the seventy-odd reviews of detective novels he wrote for the Saturday Review and the New York Evening Post between 1927 and 1930, and his rejection of it is thorough. In fact, he specifically contrasted his notion of the detective with that of Doyle in describing Sam Spade (a description that is applicable to the 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.
Rather than a tall, thin, refined, and somewhat mysterious amateur such as Sherlock Holmes, who relies entirely on his powers of reasoning and deduction to clear up mysteries, Hammett’s Continental Op is distinctly unglamorous and anti-intellectual. The Op is nearing forty, about five and a half feet tall, and weighing 190 pounds; he works as a modestly paid employee of the Continental Detective Agency, modeled loosely on the Pinkerton organization. Though certainly not stupid, the Op relies on routine...
(The entire section is 2098 words.)