Hammett, (Samuel) Dashiell (Vol. 19)
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 is often compared to Hemingway's. (See also CLC, Vols. 3, 5, 10, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 81-84.)
David T. Bazelon
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...
(The entire section is 1831 words.)
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,...
(The entire section is 450 words.)
John G. Cawelti
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...
(The entire section is 2439 words.)
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 hard-boiled school surely doesn't derive his tight, terse style from the ornate convolutions of Henry James at the highest phase of his mandarin prose, in that stage of his career that earned him the title of James the Old Pretender. Aside from sentence structure and diction, however, there are some important matters of technique on which the two writers appear to agree. Perhaps more important, they share a similarity of subject and vision, a mutual sense of the evil possibilities in the world they portray and the characters with which they populate it. Though the idea may shock some devotees of the Carr-Christie-Innes country house school of detective fiction, Dashiell Hammett is possibly the most Jamesian of all detective novelists....
(The entire section is 1312 words.)
Donald J. Pattow
[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 partner.
The relationship between Spade and Archer's wife, Iva, is also at first presented to the reader as one of trust and love. However, as the novel progresses we soon learn that their relationship is punctuated by mistrust and lies….
The other heterosexual love affair in the novel, between Spade and Brigid, also disintegrates as the result of mistrust and deceit….
Besides heterosexual love, the novel also shows the disintegration of a homosexual love. We are told that Wilmer and Joel Cairo were, and probably still, are lovers. But Cairo, influenced by the vision of the Maltese Falcon, agrees to turn in Wilmer to the police as a "fall guy."…
Most of the dissolutions...
(The entire section is 395 words.)
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 leans heavily on the head-heart dualism. But Hammett opposes the Hawthorne of "Young Goodman Brown" and The Scarlet Letter and the Faulkner of Light in August by rating reason over emotion. Spade's reason tells him to go against his heart, and, by acting reasonably, he survives. (p. 370)
Its eccentric form stops Falcon from being a whodunit. Falcon is a psychological novel with almost no psychology. Only at the end do its structure and motivation reveal themselves. (pp. 370-71)
[The] novel's riveting moral issue [is not] Brigid's guilt but, rather, Spade's inability to act on it. Brigid's treachery strengthens his resolve. Although he can cope with dishonesty and even murder,...
(The entire section is 531 words.)