Hammett, (Samuel) Dashiell 1894–1961
Hammett, an outstanding American crime novelist, was best known for The Maltese Falcon, The Glass Key, and The Thin Man.
Hammett, who created the most powerful of [the] new heroes in Sam Spade, had been a private detective and knew the corrupt inner workings of American cities. But Sam Spade was a less obvious projection of Hammett than detective heroes usually are of their authors. Hammett had got his early romanticism under strict ironic control. He could see Spade from outside, without affection, perhaps with some bleak compassion. In this as in other respects Spade marks a sharp break with the Holmes tradition. He possesses the virtues and follows the code of a frontier male. Thrust for his sins into the urban inferno, he pits his courage and cunning against its denizens, plays for the highest stakes available, love and money, and loses nearly everything in the end. His lover is guilty of murder; his narrow, bitter code forces Spade to turn her over to the police. The Maltese falcon has been stripped of jewels….
The ferocious intensity of the work, the rigorous spelling-out of Sam Spade's deprivation of his full human heritage, seem to me to make his story tragedy, if there is such a thing as dead-pan tragedy. Hammett was the first American writer to use the detective-story for the purposes of a major novelist, to present a vision, blazing if disenchanted, of our lives. Sam Spade was the product and reflection of a mind which was not at home in Zion, or in Zenith.
Ross Macdonald, "The Writer as Detective Hero" (copyright © 1964 by Show Magazine, Hartford Publications, Inc.; reprinted by permission of Harold Ober Associates Incorporated), in Essays: Classic and Contemporary, edited by Richard W. Lid, Lippincott, 1967, pp. 307-15.
Seven detective stories by Dashiell Hammett, written between 1923 and 1930, are collected in "The Continental Op."…
[The stories] tend to be fast and neat, flickering with static, rudimentary scenes—like the panels of a comic book—in timeless drama. For example, the narrator says, "That day was Thursday. Nothing else happened that day." His week is made of days as a list is made of items in required sequence, with no ordinary human feeling of passing time. Sentences move this way too—at a brisk, consistent pace, with no wasted moves in syntax or sense…. Facts and sharp pictures accumulate, not impressionistic complexities.
The characters in these stories tend to be types or caricatures, wittily constructed of psychological and physical peculiarities. They are stuck rigidly in themselves—exactly as the narrator insists they are….
[For example, when] Porky Grout [previously termed a coward] shows the virtue of courage—because he falls in love with an evil woman and tries to stop the narrator from capturing her—he is smashed to death by the narrator's speeding car. Thus the narrator determines, if nothing else, that his original description of Porky Grout can never be refuted.
Like days of the week, events of the plot are automatically sequential, but they are no mere progression of cause and effect; they can seem to be expressions of colossal hatred.
The narrator says when he realizes fully that he has just run over and obliterated (or murdered) a courageous Porky Grout: "'That was Porky. That was Porky.' It was an amazing fact." The important thing, then, is not whether or not that was Porky, but that a fact is a fact, more or less amazing.
Characters usually exchange information with the narrator, rather than conversation, and everyone tends to be as logical as Aristotle even when they lie, which is often. Mainly they live in a theoretical city called San Francisco. It has specifically named streets and specific addresses, but in these detectival places (analogous perhaps to mysterious, potentially exciting places of the human body) there is no authentic ambience, sensuous reality or anything that threatens to confuse the lucid presentation of plot. But it might be more accurate to say these stories present problems, not plots, and they are developed or organized like essays intended for intricate understanding, not made like stories for intuitive apprehension. (Sooner or later someone will compare them to the fiction of Kafka, Beckett, Handke, et al., if somebody hasn't already made that mistake.)
Despite strenuous organization, these stories are usually absurd—unintentionally absurd, I think. Nevertheless, they create a feeling of strict, antiseptically determinate form, and they show remarkable variations within it. They are then remarkable and interesting, but if these adjectives appear in an advertisement for the book, tell your friends the stories are not worth reading unless they please you: They are a special, literate experience. It takes place in a mental region where subterranean impulses are cultivated and a species of imaginative vegetation seethes into shape, feeding on its own sick juice.
I was hypnotized by the energy of these stories and pleased by their deft, technical achievements. For example, rapid description of character: "… he was the kind of man who combs his hair before he shaves, so his mirror will show an orderly picture." Or: "… a little man whose meek face had the devil-may-care expression of a model husband on a tear." (p. 1)
[However, a description of a beautiful and aristocratic-appearing woman] suggests the conjunction of physical presence and class ideal, which, in the same story, through a verbal tumble, becomes racist and vicious: "loafing Mexicans" and a "greasy orchestra." This is … from Hammett's detective (not Hammett)….
The woman described is really a lady. She is … British and rich. Unfortunately, she loves somebody and, like Porky Grout, she is hideously murdered. Again, Hammett's detective, the narrator in these stories, seems too much an author of these stories. Perhaps—despite his racial slurs, his respect for superior classes, his slimy eroticism based on a woman's dark or white or yellow type, his contempt for artiness in men—he is, ironically, just as democratic and decent as Hammett himself, in his fundamental conception of human beings. Classy or greasy, if they feel, they die.
The stories, then, are not only the achievements of form, but are overcontrolled by Hammett's detective. Virtually everyone he describes in graphic psychological, physical or stereotypical detail seems fated to suffer just for having been seen by him. The stories are, for this reason, only ambiguously controlled by Hammett. He might not know everything he might be saying, through his detective, about himself. So much of the pleasure, meaning and value of these stories is surrendered to such a creep. However, whatever it is Hammett says through his detective, it is exciting and ugly; and the important point remains—that the way he says it, through his detective, is interesting insofar as it tends to be strangely and ambiguously inevitable. (p. 10)
[The] stories might be compared, in their formal character, to games in which a detective must invent horrible applications of the rules. While those who need him are dropping all around, he goes about intimidating, dominating, manipulating, analyzing, and at last arranging events so that they have the result he requires—the solution, or the dissolution of the story and its problem. It is hardly noticeable, but the solution can matter little to the people who were, in the first place, most concerned; they are usually dead.
It may be slightly too much to say that, insofar as this detective sees people precisely he tends to see them as morally disgusting; but it does seem to be his personal problem to make events prove that people are what he sees. The revelation of courage in Porky Grout was an embarrassment—amazing, but trivial really because, as the detective says, "he wasn't even human." At least the events he makes do prove that people get theirs whenever he thinks he gets their number. Hammett's achievement, in these stories, is to have fixed the aura of paranoia in literate forms. (p. 14)
Leonard Michaels, in The New York Times Book Review (© 1974 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), December 8, 1974.
Written over forty years ago, these stories [collected in The Continental Op] of the tough, nameless, dryly witty war-horse of the Continental Detective Agency still make Hammett's imitators and competitors look like fugitives from a kindergarten. (pp. 122-23)
Phoebe Adams, in The Atlantic Monthly (copyright © 1975 by The Atlantic Monthly Company, Boston, Mass.; reprinted with permission), February, 1975.
In the early Fifties, when I first read Dashiell Hammett, he seemed to fit perfectly an image my friends and I had then of a writer who had made being a writer into a romantic occupation. He had lived in "the real world," he had suffered years of obscurity and poverty as he learned to write a clean, honest prose, he had written books that were out of print and hard to find, he had gone to Hollywood and drunk too much and stopped writing, he had chosen to go to jail rather than talk at a communist conspiracy trial, he had some undetailed beautiful relation with Lillian Hellman. Compared to that, Fitzgerald and Hemingway were too gaudy, available for anyone's romancing.
About Hammett's writing, I now see, we held an ambivalent attitude that bespoke an uneasiness we could not recognize. On the one hand we pointed to the battered paperbacks we had struggled to find and said: "There, with Op and Spade and Nick Charles, is the real thing, serious writing about crime and detection." On the other hand we implicitly diminished that achievement by dreaming that in the intervening years Hammett had been struggling to write a great, a "mature" novel that would show the world he was as good as we wanted to claim he was. When pressed, I would admit to preferring Raymond Chandler, even to hankering after new young toughs like John D. MacDonald and John Ross Macdonald. But Hammett was the first, and the years of writing stories for Black Mask had to be honored somehow….
[Lillian Hellman's] 1965 memoir, which may well be the best thing either of them ever wrote, did much to make Hammett into the heroic figure we had all vaguely created years earlier; it was then published as the introduction to ten Continental Op pieces called The Big Knockover, and that volume, plus The Novels of Dashiell Hammett, which had been published a year earlier, gave his best work the permanence it deserved….
The Continental Op [is] a new book of seven stories selected and introduced by Steven Marcus…. The stories are inferior work—Marcus might well have done better by rescuing the few minor tales that have never been reprinted from Black Mask—and those who come to Hammett for the first time via this volume will get only snatches that show why anyone should read him. With a writer who is very limited at his best, this kind of exposure is especially unwelcome.
Yet one can see what Marcus has in mind, perverse though it seems to be. He wants to take those stories which have almost no interest either as conventional fiction or as conventional detective fiction and to claim that this is where you find Hammett pure…. Then:
It should be quite evident that … the end of the story is no more plausible—nor is it meant to be—than the stories that have been told to him by all parties, guilty or innocent, in the course of his work. The Op may catch the real thief or collar the actual crook—that is not entirely to the point. What is to the point is that the story, account, or chain of events that the Op winds up with as "reality" is no more plausible and no less ambiguous than the stories that he meets with at the outset and later.
Thus Hammett becomes a candidate for existential sainthood. What makes Marcus's point useless is that in so far as it is true it is mostly a sign of the mediocrity of the stories. We assume, and the Op assumes, that in each case his job is like that of the classic detective: winnow true from false, fact from fiction. We do not assume that a nameless and faceless figure, operating out of a named but equally faceless San Francisco, will act like Philo Vance or Ellery Queen. Nor does Hammett offer his characters in such a way that anyone can care who did what to whom. But if the Op's account of events isn't plausible, it's meant to be, even if it isn't tidy or illuminating. If it isn't to the point that he catch the real thief, then his whole demeanor as an operative—who seeks no reward for himself, who is never violent wantonly—is a fraud. When it doesn't matter what the Op or anyone else does, and that is certainly true in many pages here if not true of whole stories, it makes for very dull reading. (p. 20)
The Op is like the queen in chess, able to move both straight and diagonally, as it were, in a world of pawns, bishops, and rooks. But he is a piece, more truly within his world than are most detectives.
This is precisely what's wrong. When the cast is cardboard, when the relations among the characters are devoid of interest, when the Op succeeds by allowing for no human motive except the most simply conceived greed and lust, when the plot moves these figures around like wind-up dolls, there is nothing to make any of it matter. No theory, furthermore, true or false, that Marcus can supply can create an interest by saying "But that's the point" and by going on about contingencies and fiction-making detectives. Hammett was not a hero to himself, but he took himself seriously, and Marcus's way of making him pretentious only has the effect of making him trivial. (pp. 20-1)
[Hammett] was pretty thoroughly committed, from habit or design, to the idea that human beings were not very interesting, so no character he could invent could hold his interest. Now and again he came up with a good plot which could give his writing some purpose, but since he had to keep writing, good plot or no, there was little for him to attend to most of the time but the prose itself. When that happens, the prose becomes stylized almost immediately, words are pieces in a jigsaw. (p. 21)
To do [his best work] he needed someone besides the Op, whose anonymous integrity had worn pretty thin, and he assayed three different characters with three different styles in his last three novels: Sam Spade in The Maltese Falcon, Ned Beaumont in The Glass Key, and Nick Charles in The Thin Man. It is at this point that we can turn to the otherwise deflecting question of which is the best book.
Hammett himself preferred The Glass Key, and so, to judge by what he later did with the private eye form, did Chandler; there is much to be said for the preference. The Maltese Falcon isn't all that much different from the Op novels, and if Spade is a clearer figure it is mostly because he is more openly selfish and nasty, and there isn't much Hammett can do except let him bark away. The Thin Man is silly fun, warmed by the relation of Nick to Nora, warmed as Hammett himself was by his new relation with Lillian Hellman, but otherwise an inconsequential effort to make a casual virtue out of casual plotting. Yet The Glass Key is the best because Hammett here tries to make the style of his hero matter; Ned Beaumont's poses are poses, capable of costing something. It is a fumbling book because Hammett wouldn't commit himself enough to what he was doing, wouldn't try to assess how much Beaumont dummies up because of his feeling for a friend, or how much it matters to him that he seem more a gentleman than a thug.
The code always said that one doesn't talk about such things, and the success or failure of The Glass Key—and all Hammett, all Chandler, all Ross Macdonald, too—depends on how well the hero's relation to this code is handled. Hold to it completely, act as if there were no prices for so doing, and you have the boring Op; begin to act as if there were prices to be paid and inevitably self-pity begins to creep in: I kept my word, and I took my beating, etc. can lead to some dreary and immoral posing. What Hellman has shown us, however, is that Hammett himself believed in the code, and suffered because he did; the dignity with which he was willing to do so tinged his life with greatness. Better, then, to let the self-pity come in if it must, better to deal with it openly as best one can. Better to say life matters, especially if you really think it does.
Hammett cannot handle all this in The Glass Key, but he tries…. The writing in this book is on the edge of all Hammett himself could not write about, but that is not a bad place for his writing to be….
No need to complain that [the early] stories are crude, primitive, effortful; no need, either, to elevate these very qualities into high art. He did quite a bit in his ten years of writing, and he was a real pioneer. If the best of Chandler and MacDonald and Macdonald is better than his best, if the middling stuff of quite a few writers is better than his middling stuff, there isn't one who doesn't know how much he made them possible. (p. 22)
Roger Sale, "The Hammett Case," in The New York Review of Books (reprinted with permission from The New York Review of Books; copyright © 1975 NYREV, Inc.), February 6, 1975, pp. 20-2.
Dashiell Hammett created the American Private Eye in 1923 when he sent his first Continental Op story to Black Mask. Probably the best introduction to Hammett, The Big Knockover, contains a number of these stories as well as Lillian Hellman's beautiful description of their author; their love affair was legendary, and continued until Hammett's death in 1961. But his writing life had lasted only ten years. Tuberculosis, drinking, some Communism, some months in prison during the McCarthy era, and finally cancer—these just begin to explain the long silence. Perhaps the clue lies in the way Hammett abandoned the Op for three new detectives in his last books: Sam Spade in The Maltese Falcon, Ned Beaumont in The Glass Key, Nick Charles in The Thin Man. Perhaps what he had to say began to change too fast for any character to keep up with it. Perhaps he had too much to write about.
The Continental Op contains, along with an introduction by Steven Marcus, seven more stories about the Op. Unfortunately, Marcus makes Hammett sound like Borges or Pirandello, juggling the evanescent planes of subjective reality; supposedly the Op, who starts out to unravel a reality not of lies, ends up by constructing another, "no more plausible and no less ambiguous," that is equally fictional. Surely, this over-cerebral interpretation demeans the Op, who does actually succeed in finding the truth behind the phony setup. If Marcus means only that the Op deliberately ignores some crimes, and will send up a crook for the wrong crime if he can't get him for the one he did commit, then Marcus is confusing the Op's "fiction-making" actions with the Op's certain knowledge of the truth. Hammett's hero sees a dirty world; he doesn't need to invent it all over again. (p. 2)
The stories in The Continental Op are almost all among Hammett's first, long on ballet and short on music. But it would be a mistake to view this collection as history; every story is, if not memorable, at least highly readable. The Op—even early Op—hasn't dated.
When Hammett was finished with the Op, he created Sam Spade, who lives beyond the code. He swims in corruption like an eel in a rockpile, or rather, wears it like a used suit that he discards only when he finds it doesn't fit. Without it he seems naked and anxious for another dirty wardrobe….
Hammett was, like Mark Twain, a natural; he created his own style and his own characters out of dirt and junk, and had to work hard to keep them from slipping back into the slime. (p. 3)
Charles Nicol, in Bookletter (copyright 1975 by Harper's Magazine; reprinted from the March 31, 1975 issue by special permission), March 31, 1975.