Hammett, (Samuel) Dashiell 1894–1961
An American novelist, short story writer, and author of scripts for film and radio, Hammett is known for his development of the realistic crime novel. A former detective himself, he is perhaps most famous as the creator of Sam Spade. His use of dialogue and terse literary style are often compared to Hemingway's. (See also CLC, Vols. 3, 5.)
[The complex, ambiguous, and problematic] permeate Hammett's work and act as formative elements in its structure, including its deep structure. Hammett's work went through considerable and interesting development in the course of his career of twelve years as a writer. He also wrote in a considerable variety of forms and worked out a variety of narrative devices and strategies. At the same time, his work considered as a whole reveals a remarkable kind of coherence. In order to further the understanding of that coherence, we can propose for the purposes of the present analysis to construct a kind of "ideal type" of a Hammett or Op story. Which is not to say or to imply in the least that he wrote according to a formula, but that an authentic imaginative vision lay beneath and informed the structure of his work.
Such an ideal-typical description runs as follows. The Op is called in or sent out on a case. Something has been stolen, someone is missing, some dire circumstance is impending, someone has been murdered—it doesn't matter. The Op interviews the person or persons most immediately accessible. They may be innocent or guilty—it doesn't matter; it is an indifferent circumstance. Guilty or innocent, they provide the Op with an account of what they know, of what they assert really happened. The Op begins to investigate; he compares these accounts with others that he gathers; he snoops about; he does research; he shadows people, arranges confrontations between those who want to avoid one another, and so on. What he soon discovers is that the "reality" that anyone involved will swear to is in fact itself a construction, a fabrication, a fiction, a faked and alternate reality—and that it has been gotten together before he ever arrived on the scene. And the Op's work therefore is to deconstruct, decompose, deplot, and defictionalize that "reality" and to construct or reconstruct out of it a true fiction, i.e., an account of what "really" happened.
It should be quite evident that there is a reflexive and coordinate relation between the activities of the Op and the activities of Hammett, the writer. Yet the depth and problematic character of this self-reflexive process begin to be revealed when we observe that the reconstruction or true fiction created and arrived at by the Op at 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. What Hammett has done—unlike most writers of detective or crime stories before him or since—is to include as part of the contingent and dramatic consciousness of his narrative the circumstance that the work of the detective is itself a fiction-making activity, a discovery or creation by fabrication of something new in the world, or hidden, latent, potential, or as yet undeveloped within it. (pp. 370-71)
When a fiction becomes visible as such it begins to dissolve and disappear, and presumably should reveal behind it the "real" reality that was there all the time and that it was masking. Yet what happens in Hammett is that what is revealed as "reality" is a still further fiction-making activity—in The first place the Op's, and behind that yet another, the consciousness present in many of the Op stories and all the novels that Dashiell Hammett, the writer, is continually doing the same thing as the Op and all the other characters in the fiction he is creating. That is to say he is making a fiction (in writing) in the real...
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Along with Raymond Chandler … Hammett was one of the giants who established an American voice and style that stood in opposition to the British-dominated country-house school. His criminals were habitual wrongdoers, not insane spinsters, vicars, or retired colonels. His detectives were hardworking professionals, not gentlemen amateurs solving murders for lack of a more edifying hobby. He wrote about killings committed with the weapons men routinely use for murder, not exotic poisons or knives made of ice. Most importantly, Hammett set his crimes in a believable and recognizable environment.
This use of environment makes Hammett worthy of discussion as a serious American novelist and short story writer. His achievements in crime fiction have tended to obscure his genuine literary talents…. (p. 196)
Hammett's vision of America was that of a man staring at a vast wasteland. He shared with Sinclair Lewis the belief that the nation's traditional leaders lacked integrity, that the balance sheet had replaced ethical codes of conduct. Like F. Scott Fitzgerald, Hammett saw the children of the rich as spoiled seekers after illicit thrills. With Faulkner, he wrote of society's dregs, the misfits condemned to live out a nightmare existence with no hope of escape. Hammett was one more writer of the 1920's and 1930's who took the naturalism of Dreiser and Norris as a received fiction technique and applied it to life around him.
None of these comparisons should suggest that Dashiell Hammett belongs among the giants…. His writing is flawed. He fit too well into the Black Mask ambience. His strained metaphors and thieves' argot come across as stylized and artificial…. Hammett's characters are often flat, distinguished from one another only by colorful nicknames, physical descriptions, and police records. Because pulp fiction demanded lots of action, his plots dominate all other story elements.
There are many points for comparison between [John] Gay and Hammett. They lived in different centuries and different cultures; one wrote for the stage, while the other wrote mass fiction, yet both found incontrovertible proof that the seamy underbelly of society is an honest reflection of the dishonest upper stratum…. Hammett's attack on his corrupt society was part of an honorable literary tradition.
Nonetheless, Hammett was unique to his time and place. In choosing to write...
(The entire section is 1007 words.)