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Hammett, (Samuel) Dashiell 1894–1961
Hammett was an American detective-story writer whose Sam Spade books are considered to have created and established the standards for hard-boiled detective fiction.
[Hammett's] books tell you more about the States than many with more high-minded intentions, like Upton Sinclair's. They also have that air of moral lobotomy that seems so to preoccupy us nowadays. Above all, with their elegant plots and stripped, clean writing, they have their own unwavering kind of perfection. Only one of them fails: The Dain Curse, which is wandering, melodramatic, a bit silly and, with its supernatural trimmings, not at all typical….
It is a curious history: a lifetime's literary output which did not begin until he was thirty-five years old and had already finished when he was forty; obscurity before it, silence after. It is almost as if he weren't interested in writing as such, only in making his fortune; and when that was done he retired, as though from a business. Yet that explanation clearly won't do when faced by the purity and concentration of his style. Nor will the classical Freudian line: the laconic, tough-guy hero—who was utterly Hammett's invention, however, much he has since been copied—was a compensation for his own failing health. The books are neither that simple nor that self-satisfied, and have to do with a good deal more than toughness.
They also have little to do with conventional detective routine: crime, complication of suspects and clues, and final neat solution by the omniscient, omnipotent sleuth. In Hammett's books the actual finding of the murderer is almost by the way. When Nick Charles does a particularly slick bit of summing-up at the end of The Thin Man, his wife gets the last word: 'That may be,' Nora said, 'but it's all pretty unsatisfactory.' Hammett seems to have felt that way too. As often as not he gets the straight who-done-itry out of the way early and then goes on to something else, or at least to further, casual who-done-its which add up to something else. The crime puzzle matters less than the mentality, the habit of crime. Even in The Thin Man, which is smarter, more deliberately sophisticated, and also more conventional than the rest (its hero, like Hammett himself, has already made his pile and given up sleuthing), the main interest is its view of New York just after the crash, with its nervy, slanderous parties, sporadically violent speakeasies, disintegrating boozing and permanent hangovers. It might have been written by some sour-mouthed Scott Fitzgerald who was never for a moment taken in by the dizzy glamour of it all.
But his best novels, Red Harvest and The Glass Key, are not really detective stories at all. They are political; they are about what happens and how it feels when the gangsters take over….
Hammett exaggerated nothing; indeed, he may even have toned down the realities. Yet his massacres are intriguing neither as social history nor because they cater so nicely to our sadistic fantasies—as do his imitators, in descending order from Raymond Chandler to Mickey Spillane. The fascination of Hammett's writing is that it makes the killing somehow different: accepted, habitual, part, as he says, of 'the day's work'. It has the ordinariness of real nihilism. And this makes him seem peculiarly close to us, though we now accept violence on a grander scale and expect our politicians not to be owned by gangsters but themselves to behave like gangsters….
It is his steady refusal to expect anything beyond the immediate, and usually rather nasty, situation, or to presume on any values anywhere, that makes for the curious distinction of his style: the wit, the flair for essential details, the suppressed, pared-down, indifferent clarity. His achievement is to have evolved a prose in which the most grotesque or shocking details are handled as though they were matters of routine, part of the job. Granted, Hemingway's simplicity was devoted to much the same end and was capable of far greater subtleties; but it was also a deeply literary device, almost dandified at times, something he had learned the hard way from Gertrude Stein. Hammett, too, was a writer of considerable deliberation and skill, but he made his taut style, like his ear for gangsterese, sound as though it were something he had come by in the grind of being a Pinkerton's agent. He seems less to have evolved his style than to have earned it.
Maybe this is what makes him so sympathetic. At the moment, the serious arts are faced with gloomy choices: either they are tense with despair at the confusion of all the values on which they were traditionally based, or they are anxiously—and suicidally—scrambling aboard the pop wagon. Dashiell Hammett, who had no cultural pretensions at all, provides a hard-minded alternative: his books have artistic concentration without literariness, they achieve their purity from their absence of values. They are meticulous, witty, authentic and utterly nihilistic. It may not be high art, but it is a relief.
A. Alvarez, "Dashiell Hammett" (originally published in The Spectator, 1966), in his Beyond All This Fiddle: Essays 1955–1967 (copyright © 1968 by A. Alvarez; reprinted by permission of Random House, Inc.), Random House, 1969, pp. 208-12.
Hammett went to the American alleys and came out with an authentic expression of the people who live in and by violence….
If there is such a thing as a poetry of violence, Hammett achieved it, technically at least, in [The Red Harvest]….
For some, Dashiell Hammett wrote beyond the tradition by specifically expressing the giddy twenties and gloomy thirties. For those readers and critics his private eye spoke for men who had lost faith in the values of their society—during war, gangsterism, and depression. This view, perhaps, can be thought of as analogous to the attitude held by Eric Ambler's protagonist at the end of the thirties: looking at the body of Dimitrios Makropoulos, Latimer "saw him not as a corpse in a mortuary but as a man; not as an isolate, a phenomenon, but as a unit in a disintegrating social system."
Philip Durham, in Tough Guy Writers of the Thirties, edited by David Madden (© 1968 by Southern Illinois University Press; reprinted by permission of Southern Illinois University Press), Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1968, pp. 60, 67, 71.
Raymond Chandler, Dashiell Hammett's major successor in the tradition of the tough detective novel, Howard Haycraft, a historian of the form, and David T. Bazelon, a far from sympathetic critic, all agree that Hammett shaped the archetype and stereotype of the private-eye. Hammett's third novel, The Maltese Falcon, heads any list of tough guy novels of the thirties. The preeminence and popularity of that novel is not only due to its date of publication (1930) at the very start of the new decade, nor to the fact that eleven years later John Huston turned it into "the best private-eye melodrama ever made," according to James Agee…. And it is not only the vagaries of camp taste that have made Humphrey Bogart's Sam Spade a folk-hero a third of a century later. Sam Spade of The Maltese Falcon …, together with the nameless Continental Op of the earlier novels, Red Harvest and The Dain Curse (both 1929), and to a lesser extent Ned Beaumont of The Glass Key (1931) and Nick Charles of The Thin Man (1934) constitute a poetics of the tough guy hero of novel, film, and television script from 1929 to the present.
The characteristics of Hammett's "daemonic" tough guy, with significant variations in the last two novels, can be schematized as follows: he is free of sentiment, of the fear of death, of the temptations of money and sex. He is what Albert Camus calls "a man without memory," free of the burden of the past. He is capable of any action, without regard to conventional morality, and thus is apparently as amoral—or immoral—as his antagonists. His refusal to submit to the trammels which limit ordinary mortals results in a godlike immunity and independence, beyond the power of his enemies. He himself has under his control the pure power that is needed to reach goals, to answer questions and solve mysteries, to reconstruct the (possible) motivations of the guilty and innocent alike….
The Maltese Falcon is the most important of the novels in the development of the poetics of the private-eye because in it Hammett is less concerned with the intricacies of the detective story plot than with the combat between a villain(ess) who is a woman of sentiment, and who thrives on the sentiment of others, and a hero who has none and survives because he has none. As a result of that combat itself, the novel is concerned with the definition of the private-eye's "daemonic" virtue—with his invulnerability and his power—and with a critique of that definition….
The Dain Curse is one of the more interesting of Hammett's novels, in part because it is concerned with the implications and consequences of the mechanistic method and the mechanical world, with the difficulty of discovering, not only the motives of the actors, but the actual events that took place. As a result The Dain Curse is by far the most complicated of the novels. It consists of three separate plots concerning the events surrounding the drug-addict Gabrielle Leggett, events which eventually include the deaths of her father, mother, step-mother, husband, doctor, and religious "counselor," among others….
[The] modification of the private-eye character in the direction of the cynicism and timidity of self-interest prepares the way for Hammett's last novel, The Thin Man…. Nick Charles is the least daemonic of Hammett's heroes, but then he's only an ex-detective. However indifferent he may have been to death in the past, now he wants to be left out of danger, to be able to enjoy his wife, her wealth, and his whiskey. Nick Charles and his boozing is what happens to the Op/Spade when he gives up his role as ascetic demigod to become husband, man of leisure, investor in futures on the stock market. The Thin Man is perhaps less concerned with murder and the private-eye than with the people around the murder….
Hammett, in his best novels, literalizes the Hemingway mask and produces "monsters" who take the major's advice. The Hemingway mask is lifted every time the character is alone; he admits his own misery to himself—and to the reader—and exposes his inner life. The Hammett mask is never lifted; the Hammett character never lets you inside. Instead of the potential despair of Hemingway, Hammett gives you unimpaired control and machinelike efficiency: the tough guy refuses "to place himself in a position to lose." For all (or most) intents and purposes the inner world does not exist: the mask is the self. It is that "voluntary mutilation" of life that is the subject matter of these novels as much as Hemingway's stoical mask is of his. Hammett uses the relationships of Sam Spade with Brigid O'Shaughnessy, of the Continental Op with Dinah Brand and then with Gabrielle Leggett as proving grounds to indicate just how invulnerable his tough guys are. In each case the woman tries to find out what the man is; in each case the toughness is tested—and found not wanting. In the fantasy of detective novel readers and movie-goers who are themselves victims of a machine-ridden universe, loneliness is not too high a price to pay for invulnerability.
Robert I. Edenbaum, "The Poetics of the Private-Eye: The Novels of Dashiell Hammett," in Tough Guy Writers of the Thirties, edited by David Madden (© 1968 by Southern Illinois University Press; reprinted by permission of Southern Illinois University Press), Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1968, pp. 80-103.
Dashiell Hammett wrote realistically in a documentary sense. What his stories have, even the earliest and least of them, is a flavor wholly individual. This flavor comes partly from the bareness of a style in which everything superficial in the way of description has been surgically removed, partly from his knowledge of actual criminal investigation, and partly from the wistful cynicism with which he wrote. Few of the early short stories about a fat middle-aged detective called the Continental Op get further than this. They are remarkable in the way they are written, but not in the things they say. Their tersely casual characterization is attractive in a gritty way, but they are not often really memorable. Hammett's achievement rests upon his five full-length stories, Red Harvest and The Dain Curse …, The Maltese Falcon …, The Glass Key …, and The Thin Man ….
With all his innovations of form and language, Hammett kept the puzzle element from the orthodox detective story. Who gunned down Spade's partner Miles Archer in an alley, killed Taylor Henry in China Street, caused the disappearance of the thin man Clyde Wynant? The problems are composed just as skillfully as those in an orthodox detective story, but in the best of Hammett they are the beginning and not the end of the book's interest. The Maltese Falcon and The Glass Key offer a gallery of characters and scenes unexcelled in the crime story, all of them seen with a Dickensian sense of the truth in caricature….
The Glass Key is the peak of Hammett's achievement, which is to say the peak of the crime writer's art in the twentieth century. Constant rereading of it offers fresh revelations of the way in which a crime writer with sufficient skill and tact can use violent events to comment by indirection on life, art, society, and at the same time compose a novel admirable in the carpentry of its structure and delicately intelligent in its suggestions of truths about human relationships. As a novel The Glass Key is remarkable, as a crime novel unique. It was succeeded by The Thin Man, a continuously charming and sparkling performance, which was still for Hammett a slight decline. And that was the end. The books were filmed; the production of Thin Man comedy thrillers, with William Powell and Myrna Loy, became for a time a minor industry. Hammett went to Hollywood and wrote no more books. His whole writing career, outside of screen work in Hollywood, covered only ten years and the novels only five.
Julian Symons, in his Mortal Consequences: A History—From the Detective Story to the Crime Novel (copyright © 1972 by Julian Symons; reprinted by permission of Harper & Row, Publishers, Inc.), Harper, 1972, pp. 137-40.