Discussion Topics (Magill's Survey of American Literature, Revised Edition)
What life experiences inspired Dashiell Hammett to invent a new kind of detective novel?
Contrast the typical ingredients of the Edgar Allan Poe and Hammett detective stories, respectively.
How does Hammett use humor to satirize the traditional detective story?
What narrative techniques employed by Hammett fostered the successful film adaptation of The Maltese Falcon?
How do Hammett’s most famous detectives, Sam Spade and Nick Charles, differ?
Other Literary Forms (Critical Survey of Short Fiction, Second Revised Edition)
Dashiell Hammett’s published works include five novels and approximately twenty-five short stories, which he refused to republish during his lifetime. During the 1930’s, he wrote “continuing story cartoons,” creating “Secret Agent X-9” to compete with “Dick Tracy.” His five novels have been filmed, and director John Huston’s version of The Maltese Falcon (1941), starring Humphrey Bogart as Sam Spade, has been called “the best private-eye melodrama ever made.” The Thin Man (1934) with William Powell and Myrna Loy as Nick and Nora Charles was the first in a series of “comedy-thrillers” which became for a time a minor film industry.
Achievements (Critical Survey of Short Fiction, Second Revised Edition)
Publishing short stories mainly in Black Mask magazine during the 1920’s, Dashiell Hammett had become the preeminent writer, perhaps even the originator, of “hard-boiled” or realistic, action-oriented detective fiction even before he produced any of his novels. Though Carroll John Daly introduced two private eyes in Black Mask some months earlier, Hammett’s Continental Op generally is considered the prototypical one, a credible and unheroic man with whom readers could identify. Drawing from his experiences as a private investigator, Hammett created a thoroughly professional detective: dedicated to his job and usually—though not always—successful at it; more concerned with obtaining facts than with engaging in violent confrontations; and willing to cooperate with the police when necessary. Set in realistic urban America and written in a terse style and often cynical tone, the Continental Op stories to a large extent set the pattern for all subsequent American private eye fiction. Hammett is the first in a continuum that includes Raymond Chandler, Ross Macdonald, Robert B. Parker, and Bill Pronzini.
Other literary forms (Critical Survey of Long Fiction, Fourth Edition)
Dashiell Hammett (HAM-eht) first attracted critical attention as the author of short detective fiction published in Smart Set and Black Mask magazines as early as 1923. The best of his stories werenarratives told in the first person by the nameless “Continental Op,” a fat, balding operative working out of the San Francisco office of the Continental Detective Agency. The Continental Op is also the narrator and principal character of Hammett’s first two novels, both of which were published in magazines before their appearance in book form. A number of his short stories were anthologized in The Continental Op (1945) and, after Hammett’s death in 1961, The Big Knockover: Selected Stories and Short Novels (1966).
Achievements (Critical Survey of Long Fiction, Fourth Edition)
Together with his contemporary Raymond Chandler(1888-1959), Dashiell Hammett is credited with defining the form, scope, and tone of the modern detective novel, a distinctly American genre that departs considerably from the earlier tradition inspired by the British. Chandler, although six years Hammett’s senior, did not in fact begin publishing detective fiction until 1933 and readily acknowledged the younger writer’s prior claim. Together, both authors have exerted considerable influence upon later exponents of the detective genre, notably on Ross Macdonald, their most distinguished successor. Hammett’s work in particular has served also as a stylistic model for many novelists working outside the detective genre, among them Ernest Hemingway andJohn O’Hara.
Unlike his predecessors in the mystery genre, Hammett adopted a starkly realistic, tough-minded tone in his works, sustaining an atmosphere in which questions outnumber answers and no one is to be trusted. Hammett’s reputation ultimately rests on his creation of two characters who embody the moral ambiguities of the modern world: Sam Spade (The Maltese Falcon) and Nick Charles (The Thin Man). Widely popularized through film adaptations of the novels in which they appear, Spade and Charles are among the most famous American detectives, known even to those with little more than marginal interest in the mystery genre. Tough-minded if occasionally softhearted, both characters may be seen as particularized refinements of Hammett’s Continental Op, professional detectives who remain true to their personal code of honor and skeptical with regard to everything and everyone else.
Partially because of declining health, Hammett wrote no novels after the age of forty. His reputation, however, was by that time secure; even in the following century, his five novels would remain landmarks of the genre, a model for future novelists and a formidable standard of comparison.
Contribution (Critical Survey of Mystery & Detective Fiction, Revised Edition)
Dashiell Hammett’s fundamental contribution to the genre is the virtual creation of realistic detective fiction. Unlike the eccentric and colorful amateur detectives of the British school following in the tradition of Sherlock Holmes, Hammett’s distinctively American protagonists are professionals, working against professional criminals who commit realistic crimes for plausible motives. Raymond Chandler observed that Hammett “took murder out of the Venetian vase and dropped it into the alley” where it belonged.
Hammett established the hard-boiled school of characterization and perfected an almost entirely objective narrative style. Even his first-person narrators such as the Continental Op and Nick Charles (in The Thin Man, 1934) restrict themselves to the reporting of observed actions and circumstances, revealing their own thoughts and emotions only between the lines, telling the reader no more than they reveal to other characters through dialogue. This style became fast, crisp, and idiomatic in Hammett’s hands. In the third-person narratives, particularly in The Glass Key (1930), this technique is developed to the extent that the reader can do no more than speculate as to the protagonist’s motives and feelings. Such a style is perfectly suited to the depiction of the hard-boiled detective, a man who pursues criminals ruthlessly and with professional detachment, using any means that come to hand, including violent and even criminal behavior. The detective is bound not by the law but by his own private code of ethics, which keeps him one step removed not only from the criminals but also from the corrupt political and social world of Hammett’s fiction.
Bibliography (Magill's Survey of American Literature, Revised Edition)
Bruccoli, Matthew J., and Richard Layman. Hardboiled Mystery Writers: Raymond Chandler, Dashiell Hammett, Ross MacDonald. New York: Carroll and Graf, 2002. A handy supplemental reference that includes interviews, letters, and previously published studies. Illustrated.
Dooley, Dennis. Dashiell Hammett. New York: Frederick Ungar, 1984. A particularly useful study for those interested in Hammett’s short fiction, which makes up half of this book. His major novels are also discussed in the context of his life and his works considered in the context of their times. Contains notes, a bibliography, and an index.
(The entire section is 980 words.)