Dashiell Hammett Hammett, Dashiell (Short Story Criticism) - Essay


(Short Story Criticism)

Hammett, Dashiell 1894-1961

(Full name Samuel Dashiell Hammett) American novelist and short story writer.

A celebrated author of American crime fiction, Hammett is widely considered the originator of the "hard-boiled" detective story. Writing in a terse prose style frequently compared to that of Ernest Hemingway, Hammett featured callous, cynical private detectives who became the archetype for scores of similar protagonists in American television, popular literature, and film. The style Hammett pioneered beginning in the early 1920s was a radical departure from that of the traditional English mystery story, replacing genteel sleuths such as Sherlock Holmes with workmanlike detectives who operate in the violent and seedy world of urban crime. Generally recognized as an important contribution to American literature—a status rarely achieved by the works of popular genre writers—Hammett's best fiction features stylized prose, intricate plotting, and an original type of hero who confronts the lawless nature of American society in the 1920s and 1930s.

Biographical Information

Hammett was born in St. Mary's County, Maryland, and attended school in Baltimore until the age of thirteen. Beginning in 1915, he was employed by the Pinkerton National Detective Agency, but his career as a private detective was interrupted by service in World War I. Hammett never saw action in Europe during the war but contracted tuberculosis while stationed in the United States. He returned to the Pinkerton Agency in 1919, but additional hospitalization for the disease ensued, and he eventually left the detective firm around 1921 to concentrate on writing. Success as a fiction writer made Hammett a hot property for Hollywood producers in the 1930s; many of his novels were adapted into films, and he continued to work on screenplays when his prolific output of fiction diminished after 1934. In the latter part of the 1930s, Hammett became increasingly involved with leftist causes, and it is believed by some scholars that he became a member of the Communist Party of the United States at that time. Following service in World War II, Hammett's political activities drew the attention of anti-communist politicians; he served a six month sentence for refusing to divulge information about suspected revolutionaries, and after he was released from prison all royalties from his writings were seized for back taxes. The final years of his life were spent in poverty and ill health. He lived often with friends, including the playwright Lillian Hellman, his longtime companion, until his death from lung cancer in 1961.


Major Works

The majority of Hammett's short stories feature the nameless Continental Op, a detective for the Continental Detective Agency. The Op stories date from early in Hammett's writing career and continued to be written until he made the transition to long fiction several years later—though the character of the Op was also featured in Hammett's first two novels. Most of the Continental Op stories first appeared in Black Mask, a pulp fiction periodical that fostered the growth of hard-boiled detective fiction. From 1923 to 1927, over thirty of Hammett's stories appeared in Black Mask, fitting well with the magazine's emphasis on action-oriented plots and realistic detail. Hammett's innovations began with the character of the Op, a slightly overweight detective who is most often depicted as middle-aged and prone to the ailments and routines of many men in mid-life. The character was initially based on Hammett's boss at the Pinkerton Agency, and the author likewise made use of his own detective experience to create the stories. As a result, violent underworld criminals populate his fiction. The story "The Whosis Kid," for example, features a team of greedy jewel thieves who turn against one another in a bloody free-for-all that results in four murders. The Op, in turn, does not shy away from violence, and killing foes is frequently a part of his job. He will also break the law when it stands in the way of his goals, but his actions are guided by a personal code of conduct that he does not violate. Other characters are not so virtuous; "$106,000 Blood Money" reveals one of the Op's fellow detectives in league with criminals, and Hammett frequently depicts high society figures associating with wrongdoers. The greatest threat to the Op's code comes from women. A favorite Hammett situation involves a seductive female criminal who attempts to use her allure to elude the detective or entice him to join her side. The Op often confesses his attraction for these women, but his response to Princess Zhukovski in "The Gutting of Couffignal" is a typical rebuff: "You think I'm a man and you're a woman. That's wrong. I'm a man-hunter and you're something that's been running in front of me. There's nothing human about it." Setting the precedent for other hard-boiled detectives, the Op is far removed from emotion of all kinds. His cool demeanor is portrayed in large part through the first-person narration employed in all of the stories. The Op relays events in an objective tone, reporting only what he sees and hears, placing emphasis on surface details rather than underlying feelings. This approach, along with the short declarative sentences used in the stories, have led to the frequent comparisons between Hammett and Hemingway. The unemotional aspects of Hammett's writing are offset, some critics note, by more sensitive characteristics, such as the detective's stubbornly defended code of honor. The Op's tenacious pursuit of solutions to crimes has also been viewed as the behavior of a romantic hero and is often compared to a knight's quest for the Holy Grail in medieval literature.

Critical Reception

While Hammett's novels such as The Maltese Falcon and The Glass Key are recognized as notable literary accomplishments, his short fiction has received a more moderate reaction. Critics generally concede that Hammett surpassed other crime fiction writers of his time; as Edward Margolies writes in Which Way Did He Go?, Hammett "wrote better than most, his narratives were more inventive, and he possessed a sense of humor." Noting weaknesses in his stories, some commentators have charged that Hammett's characterization in these works often relies on clichés—racial, sexual, and otherwise—resulting in one-dimensional figures, especially among the criminals that face the Continental Op. Other critics have objected to the extreme violence and implausible plots of the stories. Leonard Michaels, writing in the New York Times Book Review, sounded this complaint, declaring that events in the short works "tend to be absurd—unintentionally absurd." Hammett's intentions have become a frequent concern with contemporary reviewers. Several critics have noted that the Op frequently reaches conclusions that are hard to believe, but they offer different reasons for this. Some accuse Hammett of flawed story writing, of creating improbable resolutions without laying the necessary groundwork within the narrative. Others, such as Steven Marcus, declare that Hammett intentionally created the Op's improbable deductions. In this analysis, Hammett intended the Op to be a character who constructs his own fictions within the story much as an author creates a fictitious narrative. In this fashion, some critics reason, Hammett used his work to comment on and draw attention to the storytelling process, an approach that would later become important to many experimental writers, especially in the 1960s and 1970s. Despite differing interpretations, the bulk of critical commentary is largely agreed on two points regarding the author's short fiction: as Hammett's earliest work, it is the stories that first illustrated his important innovations in the crime fiction genre, and served as a training ground where Hammett worked out many of the techniques that he later refined in his novels.

Principal Works

(Short Story Criticism)

Short Fiction

$106,000 Blood Money 1943

The Adventures of Sam Spade, and Other Stories 1944

* The Continental Op 1945

A Man Called Spade, and Other Stories 1945

The Return of the Continental Op 1945

Hammett Homicides 1946

Dead Yellow Women 1947

Nightmare Town 1948

The Creeping Siamese 1950

Woman in the Dark: More Adventures of the Continental Op 1951

A Man Named Thin, and Other Stories 1962

The Big Knockover: Selected Stories and Short Novels 1966

* The Continental Op: More Stories from 'The Big Knockover" 1967

* The Continental Op 1974

Other Major Works

The Dain Curse (novel) 1929

Red Harvest (novel) 1929

The Maltese Falcon (novel) 1930

The Glass Key (novel) 1931

Secret Agent X-9 (comic strip) 1934

The Thin Man (novel) 1934

Watch on the Rhine (screenplay) [adapted from the play by Lillian Hellman] 1943

*The three books entitled The Continental Op are different story collections.

"The novella Woman in the Dark was first published serially in Liberty Magazine in 1933.

‡An earlier, serial version of Red Harvest entitled The Cleansing of Poisonville was published in Black Mask beginning in 1927.

Ross Macdonald (essay date 1964)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: "Homage to Dashiell Hammett," in Mystery Writers' Annual, April, 1964, pp. 8, 24.

[Macdonald, a highly regarded author in the crime fiction genre, was the author of numerous books, including a series of novels featuring private investigator Lew Archer. In the following excerpt, he notes some minor shortcomings of Hammett's fiction, but praises him as an effective and innovative writer.]

I have been given some space to speak for the hard-boiled school of mystery writing. Let me use it to dwell for a bit on the work of Dashiell Hammett. He was the great innovator who invented the hard-boiled detective novel and used it to express and master the undercurrent of...

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Philip Durham (essay date 1965)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: "Hammett: Profiler of Hard-Boiled Yeggs," in Los Angeles Times, November 21, 1965, "Calendar" section, p. 1.

[In the following review of The Novels of Dashiell Hammett, Durham notes the importance of Hammett's short stories and their influence on his novels.]

What can one say about the novels of Dashiell Hammett except that they are as superbly written as one remembers them from more than 30 years ago? Here are five novels, all familiar to my generation: Red Harvest, The Dain Curse, The Maltese Falcon, The Glass Key and The Thin Man. But for the present generation—whose only contact with Hammett may be through a television rerun of "The...

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Newsweek (essay date 1966)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: "Continental Op," in Newsweek, Vol. XVIII, No. 4, July 25, 1966, p. 93.

[In the following review of The Big Knockover, the critic discusses characterization in the Continental Op stories.]

Like his literary contemporaries—Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Faulkner, Nathanael West—Dashiell Hammett was a kaleidoscope of the contradictions of the American character, contradictions that were marshaled into great writing only rarely even by the greatest of that generation. Hemingway had his stoic Hemingway heroes, Fitzgerald his ravaged idealists and Hammett had his detectives, the super-professional private cops who turned the human quest into a manhunt and...

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Frederick H. Gardner (essay date 1966)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: "Return of the Continental Op," in The Nation, New York, Vol. 203, No. 14, October 31, 1966, pp. 454-56.

[In this excerpt from a review of The Big Knockover, Gardner comments on Hammett's literary style and imaginative use of the detective fiction genre.]

Fitzgerald said he was haunted by the conviction that Ring Lardner "got less percentage of himself on paper than any other American author of the first flight." Hammett got even less on paper, so much less that his rank is uncertain. His use of language is, certainly, "first flight." He did for American slang—the argots of hobos, cowboys, seamen, boxers, longshoremen, miners, Wobblies, and, of course,...

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Walter Blair (essay date 1967)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: "Dashiell Hammett: Themes and Techniques," in Essays on American Literature in Honor of Jay B. Hubbell, edited by Clarence Gohdes, Duke University Press, 1967, pp. 295-306.

[In the following excerpt, Blair offers an overview of Hammett's career, noting many similarities between the works of Hammett and Ernest Hemingway.]

The influence of subliterary works (sentimental fiction and poetry, popular humor, melodrama, and the like) on literary works, or the ways literary works shape subliterature often are fascinating. Without Gothic fiction Poe and Hawthorne would have been impossible; without Scott and Dickens nineteenth-century American humor, with all its...

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Steven Marcus (essay date 1974)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: An introduction to The Continental Op by Dashiell Hammett, edited by Steven Marcus, Random House, 1974, pp. ix-xxix.

[In this excerpt Marcus discusses the philosophical underpinnings of Hammett's work; he also finds that Hammett's protagonists are often involved in a "fiction-making" activity that establishes them as unique figures in the crime fiction genre. For a rebuttal to Marcus's assertions, see Roger Sale's essay dated 1975.]

I was first introduced to Dashiell Hammett by Humphrey Bogart. I was twelve years old at the time, and mention the occasion because I take it to be exemplary, that I share this experience with countless others. (Earlier than this,...

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Roger Sale (essay date 1975)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: "The Hammett Case," in New York Review of Books, Vol. XXII, No. 1, February 6, 1975, pp. 20-2.

[Sale is an American educator and the author of several books, including Discussions of the Novel (1960) and Literary Inheritance (1984). The following review provides a response to Steven Marcus's introduction to The Continental Op (see excerpt dated 1974), debating Marcus's assertions about the "fiction-making" activities of the Continental Op. Sale also finds the stories in the collection to be inferior examples of Hammett's talent.]

In the early Fifties, when I first read Dashiell Hammett, he seemed to fit perfectly an image my friends and I...

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H. H. Morris (essay date 1978)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: "Dashiell Hammett in the Wasteland," in The Midwest Quarterly, Vol. XIX, No. 2, Winter, 1978, pp. 196-202.

[In the following essay, Morris notes similarities between the works of Hammett and those of several other writers who have depicted corruption in society.]

Critics of the subgenre long ago recognized Dashiell Hammett's impact upon crime and detective fiction. Along with Raymond Chandler, who, coincidentally, wrote one of the first essays discussing this impact, 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...

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William Marling (essay date 1983)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: "The Short Stories," in his Dashiell Hammett, Twayne Publishers, 1983, pp. 19-46.

[Marling is an American educator and poet whose books include William Carlos Williams and the Painters (1982) and Raymond Chandler (1986). In the following excerpt, Marling presents a detailed analysis of the author's short fiction, emphasizing the allegorical aspects of the stories.]

Hammett's Early Short Stories

Hammett's stories rise above the efforts of his fellow Black Mask writers because they are framed by Hammett's own almost insupportable tensions. On the one hand, writing afforded him a way of maintaining his aloofness and...

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James Naremore (essay date 1983)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: "Dashiell Hammett and the Poetics of Hard-Boiled Detection," in Art in Crime Writing: Essays on Detective Fiction, edited by Bernard Benstock, St. Martin's, 1983, pp. 49-72.

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Further Reading

(Short Story Criticism)


Layman, Richard. Dashiell Hammett: A Descriptive Bibliography. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1979, 200 P.

Bibliography of Hammett's work with reproductions of first edition dust jackets.


Hellman, Lillian. Introduction to The Big Knockover: Selected Stories and Short Novels of Dashiell Hammett, edited by Lillian Hellman, pp. vii-xxi. New York: Random House, 1966.

Memoir of Hellman's life with Hammett.

Layman, Richard. Shadow Man: The Life of Dashiell Hammett. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1981, 312 p.

Frequently cited...

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