The core of Hammett's art is his version of the masculine figure in American society. The Continental Op constitutes the basic pattern for this figure, which in the body of Hammett's work undergoes a revealing development.
The older detectives of literature—exemplified most unequivocally by the figure of Sherlock Holmes—stood on a firm social and moral basis, and won their triumphs through the exercise of reason…. The question of his motives never arises, simply because it is answered in advance: he is one of the great army of good men fighting, each in his own way, against evil…. With Hammett, the moral and social base is gone; his detectives would only be amused, if not embarrassed, by any suggestion that they are "doing their duty"—they are merely doing.
The Op is primarily a job-holder: all the stories in which he appears begin with an assignment and end when he has completed it. To an extent, competence replaces moral stature as the criterion of an individual's worth. The only persons who gain any respect from the Op are those who behave competently—and all such, criminal or otherwise, are accorded some respect. This attitude is applied to women as well as men. In The Dain Curse, the Op is attracted deeply only to the woman who has capacity and realism—and he fears her for the same reason. So Woman enters the Hammett picture as desirable not merely for her beauty, but also for her ability to live independently, capably—unmarried, in other words.
But the moral question is not disposed of so easily. Hammett's masculine figures are continually running up against a certain basic situation in which their relation to evil must be defined. In Red Harvest, for instance, the detective doing his job is confronted with a condition of evil much bigger than himself…. Through some clever prompting by the Continental Op, the gangsters—whose rule is the evil in Red Harvest—destroy each other in their own ways. But it becomes a very bloody business, as the title suggests. And the Op's lost alternative, of perhaps having resolved the situation—and performed his job—with less bloodshed, grows in poignancy. He begins to doubt his own motivation: perhaps the means by which a job is done matters as much as the actual accomplishment of the job.
One of the most suggestive aspects of this situation is that the Op's client hinders rather than aids him in resolving the evil…. If the Op were not simply employed—that is, if he were really concerned with combating evil—he would have to fight against his client directly, to get at the evil's source. As it is, he confines his attention to his "job," which he carries out with an almost bloodthirsty determination that proceeds from an unwillingness to go beyond it. This relation to the job is perhaps typically American.
What is wrong with the character of the Op—this American—is that he almost never wrestles with personal motives of his own. The private eye has no private life. He simply wants to do his job well. (pp. 469-70)
It is interesting, in view of the importance of job-doing to the detective, to remark the reasons for this lack of personal motivation. What the Op has as a substitute for motives is a more or less total projection of himself into the violent environment of crime and death. And by "projection" I mean that he surrenders his emotions to the world outside while dissociating them from his own purposeful, responsible self; he becomes a kind of sensation-seeker. So, despite all the Sturm und Drang of his life, it remains an essentially vicarious one, because the moral problem—the matter of individual responsibility or decision-making in a situation where society has defaulted morally—is never even faced, much less resolved. The question of doing or not doing a job competently seems to have replaced the whole larger question of good and evil. The Op catches criminals because it is his job to do so, not because they are criminals….
Hammett must have felt the lacks in the Op, for the detective figures that follow—Sam Spade in The Maltese Falcon, Ned Beaumont in The Glass Key, and Nick Charles in The Thin Man—all represent attempts to give his character a more genuine human motivation. And this attempt to intensify the meaning of his detective was also, naturally, an effort on Hammett's own part...
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The chief characteristic of Hammett's stories was the hero, the hard-boiled private eye. The kind of hero who, almost a commonplace until the 1930s, is almost an anachronism in the 1960s. He was not an existentialist, for he made choices and felt responsible for individuals. He was not a nihilist, for although he saw the bottom of life, he did not believe that life was entirely empty, that all men were absurd, that the universe was necessarily indifferent, that death had to be meaningless. He fought to live, and he challenged death to keep others alive. (p. xiii)
The hero about whom Hammett wrote was a part of a continuous tradition that began on the frontier in the early part of the nineteenth century. This American literary hero started with Brom Bones in the pages of Washington Irving, continued in the tales of Augustus Longstreet, Charles Webber, Joseph Baldwin, and Alfred Arrington, appeared constantly in the dime novels of the House of Beadle and Adams, and was ready-made for such "Western" writers of the twentieth century as Owen Wister and Zane Grey. By the time Hammett picked him up in the pages of Black Mask, in the early 1920s, his heroic characteristics were clearly established: courage, physical strength, indestructibility, indifference to danger and death, a knightly attitude, celibacy, a measure of violence, and a sense of justice. (pp. xiii-xiv)
Dashiell Hammett's heroes—the Continental Op,...
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In contrast to most hard-boiled detective writers who tend to employ the same detective and the same essential story over and over, Dashiell Hammett's work is extremely various. Each of his novels presents a different kind of problem and pattern of action. His first two full-length books, Red Harvest and The Dain Curse, feature an anonymous professional detective known as the Continental Op, who is also the central figure of most of Hammett's short stories. Though they share the same detective, these two novels are nonetheless very different in character. Red Harvest is westernlike in its setting and in its violent and chaotic narrative of gang warfare. The Dain Curse resembles a gothic novel with its eerie atmosphere of family curses, drugs, strange religious cults, and twisted motives. Hammett's third novel, The Maltese Falcon, develops a new detective, Sam Spade, who bears some resemblance to the Continental Op but is younger, wittier, and more of a ladies' man than his predecessor. His story too is different, shaped like a classical detective story complete with complex mystery and hidden treasure. The Glass Key goes beyond the detective story altogether to become a study in political power and corruption. Finally, in The Thin Man, Hammett invents still another detective, the private investigator Nick Charles, newly married to an heiress and transformed into a socialite and successful businessman but still capable of a good bit of detection between parties. Despite this manifold inventiveness, a distinctive Hammett quality pervades all his works. Most critics have summarized this characteristic as the importation into the detective story of a new "realism." (pp. 162-63)
That there was a new quality in Hammett's detective stories is certainly the case. Hammett, more than any other person, invented the hard-boiled detective…. It was he who licked the new story into shape, gave it much of its distinctive style and atmosphere, developed its urban setting, invented many of its most effective plot patterns, and, above all, articulated the hard-boiled hero, creating that special mixture of toughness and sentimentality, of cynical understatement and eloquence that would remain the stamp of the hard-boiled detective, even in his cruder avatars.
The claim that Hammett's contribution to the detective story was primarily a new kind of truth or accuracy about people who commit murders and the individuals who find them out is dubious on two counts. First, Hammett's stories are not that much more realistic than many classical detective stories and, second, Hammett's power as a writer does not lie in his greater fidelity to the realistic details of crime and punishment but in his capacity to embody a powerful vision of life in the hard-boiled detective formula. (p. 163)
[Is] it really the case that a Hammett novel like The Maltese Falcon, which revolves around a mysterious age-old treasure, eccentric villains, and complex webs of intrigue, is more "realistic" than the detective novels of Dorothy Sayers with their ordinary settings, their relatively plausible motivations, and their rich texture of manners and local color? Such an assertion surely exemplifies that American literary tendency to identify the "real" with the violent, the sordid, and the brutal aspects of life…. If one approaches the Hammett canon without accepting the premise that toughness and violence are supremely real, the fantastic nature of most of his stories becomes clear…. To say that [Hammett's] characters, actions, and settings are more realistic than the advertising agencies, country villages, or university quadrangles of Dorothy Sayers cannot withstand serious scrutiny.
Far from being a straightforward realist who rescued the detective story from sterile littérateurs and gave it back to the actual world, Hammett was an extremely literary writer. His work shows both an awareness of earlier literary models and a continual interest in such literary effects as irony and paradox. One of his earliest published works, "Memoirs of a Private Detective," though based on Hammett's own experiences as a Pinkerton operative, implies a perspective shaped as much by the elegant, fin-de-siècle cynicism of writers like Ambrose Bierce as by the direct perception of life. Though Hammett probably had more practical experiences as a detective than any other writer of mystery novels, his presentation of his own career takes the form of brief, delicately turned paradoxes that have a flavor something between The Devil's Dictionary and an O. Henry story….
As he developed as a writer, Hammett lost some of the aroma of the décadence, not so much because his attention focused more directly on life, but because his literary models changed. Hammett's early stories grew directly out of the pulp tradition and many of them, like Red Harvest, resemble westerns as much as they do detective stories. Even at this time Hammett occasionally experimented with the transformation of other traditional literary types into his own hard-boiled mode. This became a standard practice in his later novels. Thus, The Dain Curse makes use of a wide variety of gothic traditions—the family curse, the mysterious temple with its secret passages and ghosts, religious maniacs, the tragedy on the beetling cliffs—while The Maltese Falcon reflects the great tradition of stories of hidden treasure like "The Gold-Bug" and Treasure Island with Cairo and Gutman playing the role of Long John Silver. The Thin Man embodies a more contemporaneous literary tradition, the novel of high society and urban sophistication. The quality of its dialogue, setting, and general tone of breezy hauteur suggests that it was at least partly modeled on the novels and stories of F. Scott Fitzgerald.
In part Hammett may have felt that his employment of the...
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In an essay on Henry James, James Thurber recounts a night in a "New York boite de nuit et des arts called Tony's," where Dashiell Hammett announced that "his writing had been influenced by Henry James's novel The Wings of the Dove." Although confessing his inability to find "many feathers of The Dove in the claws of The Falcon," Thurber discovers a few useful parallels: a fabulous fortune at the center of both books, two designing women who lose their lovers, and a final renunciation scene. (p. 108)
Hammett may seem the least likely writer to be influenced by the Master of the novel, and indeed the two seem to occupy no obvious common ground. The ace performer of the...
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[In the many critical analyses of The Maltese Falcon] one structural device … has received little if any attention—the use of pairings. Through the introduction of traditional pairings (lovers, business partners, etc.) Hammett sets up the appearance of order. As the novel progresses, however, the order is revealed to be illusory, a facade masking a world in which no one can be trusted, a world in which emotion and greed rule, a world, in short, of disorder.
The first pairing presented in the novel is also the title of the first chapter, "Spade and Archer."… However, we soon learn that Spade is having an affair with Archer's wife and that he really doesn't think very highly of his...
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More than two generations of readers have made Dashiell Hammett's Sam Spade their model of the hard-boiled private eye. They have enshrined Spade without knowing much about him. What they have overlooked is his heart. His toughness is leavened by both tenderness and subtlety; he has a feminine sensitivity to atmospheres and textures. Though basically a man of action, he doesn't exhaust his personality in man-talk or high-speed movement….
Hammett's complexity of insight brought new depths and tints to Black Mask fiction. These make Falcon a subtle study of moral behavior and of degrees of emotional commitment and stress. (p. 367)
Like much of American fiction, Falcon...
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