Back in the day, most undergraduates took at least one English literature course. Sometimes it was Shakespeare, 19th century English novelists, or the American Transcendentalists. I took a modern novel course in which we read James Joyce’s Ulysses, Thomas Mann’s Magic Mountain, Remembrance of Things Past, and several others––a heavy load for a one semester course. The key lesson in all of these courses is that while it’s possible to read solely for enjoyment additional layers of understanding are available when you analyze and compare each work with others by the same author as well as books by other writers.
A few decades ago the Frederick Ungar Publishing Company launched a line of books about genre authors called Recognitions. The series on Detective and Suspense novels included works on Raymond Chandler, P.D. James, Dorothy Sayers, and others. Isaac Asimov, Ray Bradbury, Ursula Le Guin, and other science fiction writers were covered in a second series. Both series featured titles focusing on specific aspects of genre fiction, such as “Critical Encounters: Writers and Themes in Science Fiction” by Dick Riley and “The Murder Mystique: Crime Writers on Their Art” by Lucy Freeman.
While each volume in this series was designed to further readers’ enjoyment of genre fiction, they can also be valuable reads for authors. Probing how these accomplished authors did their craft can’t but help a writer see how to improve his/her writing. That brings me to the study of Dashiell Hammett by Dennis Dooley.
Do readers of mystery fiction today know or appreciate the role Hammett played in advancing the detective novel from the armchair analyst to the engaged P.I. whose personal interactions with both clients and suspects played a major role in his stories? Starting with his short stories, which featured the nameless detective known as the Continental Op through the protagonists of his five novels, Hammett’s detectives struggled with temptations of the flesh not to mention the danger into which they placed themselves in order to do a job. The resulting tension kept the reader in doubt as to whether justice would in the end be served.
The best known of Hammett’s detectives is Sam Spade of The Maltese Falcon, a story that was made into a radio adaptation and three movies. The 1941 movie starting Humphrey Bogart is seen as the archetype of film noir. Hammett’s spare third person narrative, which omitted any description of Spade’s motives or thoughts, launched the ‘hard boiled’ writing style featured by many successors and epitomized in the Dragnet TV series by Detective Joe Friday’s line, “Just the facts, ma’am. Just the facts.”
Hammett’s portrait of Sam Spade is unlikely to work for today’s readers who want to know the hero’s every thought. Yet there’s a justification for his approach. It forces the reader to judge the character’s motivation based on what he says and does. In the end, isn’t what someone does what truly counts?
By taking us through Hammett’s evolution as a mystery writer, Dooley helps us not only see Hammett’s role in advancing the mystery genre but also helps us understand the cultural milieu of post-World War One America. His detectives had to balance the requirements of the job against their personal standards of justice at a time when the country was living through the bifurcated world of the Roaring Twenties and Prohibition. Hammett’s detectives often worked cases for greedy capitalists who hired a detective agency to cover up the consequences of crimes committed against their own families or associates. With social authority at a minimum, the detective was the last barrier to a lawless world where money and power held sway, and the little guy didn’t have a chance.
To truly understand Hammett and the times, Dooley convincingly explains, one needs to read his short stories, which started to appear in pulp fiction magazines in 1922. Featuring the nameless detective, these stories got at the essence of a society that had lost its moorings. Inserting details from his own career working for the Pinkerton Agency, Hammett’s stories brought an authenticity to the genre that had been lacking and eventually increased readers’ demand for his style of writing.
As the demand for his fiction increased, he produced five novels in a short time period. The first two featured the Continental Op, who Hammett portrayed as an average person––short, frumpy and not particularly good-looking––in contrast to the heroes of most mystery fiction at the time. Beginning with The Maltese Falcon, he created three very different protagonists: Spade, the rootless “poker player at life,” Ned Beaumont, the gambler protagonist of The Glass Key, and Nick Charles, the retired detective of The Thin Man.
Each protagonist portrayed the evolution of Hammett’s view of the world, beginning with Spade playing the odds, Beaumont showing loyalty where it was not deserved, and Charles who tried to distance himself from his past life, echoing perhaps Hammett’s own career path. What’s left in a society dominated by corruption and greed, Hammett seems to be saying, but the sole individual doing his job despite the odds, knowing chance’s role in his success.
Today’s mystery readers demand authenticity, which means we want our heroes to be human, possessing average ability, but above average determination and grit. Dooley reminds us that it was Dashiell Hammett who began that trend, and is therefore still worth reading.
For those interested in probing Hammett’s early short stories, there’s The Continental Op (1975); his later stories have been collected in The Big Knockover (1972).