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Hammett, Dashiell

Page history last edited by Jon 11 years, 1 month ago

Dashiell HammettSource: Wikipedia


Samuel Dashiell Hammett (May 27, 1894 – January 10, 1961) was an American author of "hard-boiled" detective novels and short stories. Among the enduring characters he created are Sam Spade (The Maltese Falcon), Nick and Nora Charles (The Thin Man), and the Continental Op (Red Harvest, The Dain Curse).


"Hammett gave murder back to the kind of people who do it for a reason, not just to provide a corpse; and with means at hand, not with handwrought dueling pistols, curare, and tropical fish." - Raymond Chandler, in The Simple Art of Murder.


Hammett was born in St. Mary's County in Southern Maryland on the Western Shore of Maryland. His parents were Richard Thomas and Annie Bond Dashiell (the name being an Americanization of the French De Chiel). "Dash" left school when he was 13 years old and held several jobs before working for the Pinkerton National Detective Agency. He served as an operative for the Pinkerton Agency from 1915 to 1921, with time off to serve stateside in the Motor Ambulance Corps. However, the agency's role in union strike-breaking eventually disillusioned him. In Butte, Montana, a leading union organizer named Frank Little was viciously murdered. Pinkerton agents were thought to be involved, although the crime was never solved.


During World War I, Hammett enlisted in the U.S. Army and served in the Motor Ambulance Corps. However he became ill with the Spanish flu and later contracted tuberculosis. He spent the war as a patient in a hospital in America.


After the war, he turned to drinking, advertising, and eventually, writing. His work at the detective agency provided him the inspiration for his writings. His work was published primarily in the pulp magazine Black Mask under the editorship of Joseph Shaw. Hammett's first story published in Black Mask was "The Road Home" under the pseudonym of Peter Collinson in December 1922. The Continental Op was introduced in the October 1923 issue of Black Mask in a story titled "Arson Plus." The Continental Op would eventually appear in 28 stories and two novels. In 1932, he also wrote the comic strip Secret Agent X-9, which was drawn by Alex Raymond.


Many of his books were adapted to film, most notably The Maltese Falcon (the 1941 film version, directed by John Huston). The dialogue in his novels was often incorporated verbatim into the screenplay. He was also asked to doctor scripts for Hollywood, which brought him even more money than his novels; however the situation of a script writer, as described in the essays of Raymond Chandler and in the film Barton Fink, was a source of deep frustration to him.


His own favorite among his novels is said to have been The Glass Key. His most bloody and macabrely humorous work is Red Harvest, a story of political corruption and gang war in the town of "Poisonville".


In 1931, Hammett embarked on a thirty-year relationship with playwright Lillian Hellman. He wrote his final novel in 1934, and devoted much of the rest of his life to left-wing activism. He was a strong anti-fascist throughout the 1930s and in 1937 he joined the American Communist Party.


In 1942, Hammett enlisted in the United States Army after the United States entered World War II. Though he was a disabled veteran of WWI, and a victim of tuberculosis, he pulled strings in order to be admitted into service. He spent most of WWII as a sergeant in the Army in the Aleutian Islands, where he edited an Army newspaper.


After World War II, Hammett joined the New York Civil Rights Congress, a leftist organization that was considered by some to be a communist front. When four communists related to the organization were arrested, Hammett raised money for their bail bond. When the accused fled, he was subpoenaed about their whereabouts, and in 1951, he was imprisoned for 6 months for contempt of court after refusing to provide information to the court.


During the 1950s he was investigated by the Congress of the United States. Although he testified to his own activities and was blacklisted, he refused to divulge the identities of American communists.


Hammett died in Lenox Hill Hospital in New York City. As a veteran of two World Wars, he was buried at Arlington National Cemetery.


In 1975, writer Joe Gores published Hammett, a novel in which a fictional version of the writer was sought out by an old Pinkerton associate to help him solve a case that drags him through the seamy underbelly of 1936 San Francisco. In 1982, a film version directed by Wim Wenders was released.


Mike Grost on Dashiell Hammett


Among Dashiell Hammett's works, I like the Continental Op stories best, and a few other works he wrote at the same era, such as "Nightmare Town" and "A Man Named Thin". The Op stories are available in four books, the story collections The Big Knockover and The Continental Op, and the story sequences Red Harvest (1927) and The Dain Curse (1928). The Op is an operative for the (fictitious) Continental detective agency, hence his name. Hammett began publishing the Op stories in the pulp magazine Black Mask in October 1923. The first story, "Arson Plus", shows the routine of a private investigator for a large detective agency. He interviews suspects and witnesses, inspects the scene of the crime, cooperates with the local police, and has operatives in other cities run side investigations. The story is low key and with an atmosphere of "realism": it looks like a major attempt to show the realistic investigative technique of a p.i. in detail. Later Hammett works, such as "The Scorched Face" (1924), continue in this vein. These stories strongly recall the realistic police work of Freeman Wills Crofts, then at the peak of his influence and prestige. "Arson Plus" contains other features the recall Crofts and the realist school of which he was a leader: the plot centers around that Croftsian standard, the alibi, and is implemented through that realist school technique, the "breakdown of identity". The last third of Crofts' best known novel, The Cask (1920), is dominated by the sleuthing of an English private investigator, but most of Crofts' books feature the police. Hammett's stories look like an attempt to do for the private investigator what Crofts did for the police. The detective technique of Hammett's hero, consisting of interviewing witness after witness, often fairly blindly, hoping to turn up clues after accumulating a mass of random details, also has roots in Crofts' books, where his policemen do the same thing. This technique was preserved and expanded in Hammett's successor Raymond Chandler, and has become a staple of today's p.i. novels. There are other perhaps more superficial signs of Croftsian influence in early Hammett, as well: the grotesquely appearing corpse in "Bodies Piled Up" recalls the one in The Cask, and the use of sinister basements in Crofts and Freeman is echoed in the basement finale of "The Scorched Face".


Carroll John Daly was already publishing private eye stories in Black Mask for around six months before Hammett created the Op. His heroes, Terry Mack and Race Williams, appeared in tales that were more openly adventure stories than Hammett's more "realistic" portrayals. They are full of slangy dialogue by a first person narrator, unlike Hammett's, and they have what I have called the "pulp style of plotting", which would be very popular among later pulp writers, although largely absent from Hammett's works.


Hammett was not content to be merely a straightforward purveyor of realistic investigations in the Croftsian manner, although this continued to be an important element of his writing. His work soon evolved into several uniquely personal directions.


The common plot background of most of Hammett's best stories is a region where all rule of law and authority has broken down. There are gang towns in Red Harvest, San Francisco during a mass outbreak of crime in "$100,000 Blood Money", an island taken over by gangsters in "The Gutting of Couffignal", Western Towns in "Corkscrew" and "Nightmare Town", and even a Balkan kingdom in "This King Business". This lawless setting gives Hammett's works a flavor not found in any other writer. The anarchic background seems to stand for some sort of mental breakdown as well, an anarchic letting loose of all repressed possibilities of human existence, both good and bad. The laws of human relationships seem to be redefined in such situations, too, where people do not relate to each other according to standard practices, but keep negotiating and renegotiating their positions relative to each other, as in the complex standoffs in "The Whosis Kid".


There is a profound sense of abnormality about Hammett's works, but also an exciting sense of new possibilities.


Hammett has few actual imitators, despite the popularity of his fiction. Raymond Chandler seems to be more of actual model for many current private eye writers. This is even though many people, myself included, regard Hammett as the greater writer. Hammett's works would be very difficult to imitate. They are highly grounded in plot. First an author would have to construct a background situation of anarchy. Then he or she would have to create a complex formal mystery puzzle plot - Hammett usually had these in his work. Lastly all of this would have to be woven into an adventure story. This is a tremendous job of work, and probably too complex to form a model for other authors. Chandler, whose effects of situation, character and prose style are relatively plot independent, can far more easily form a direct influence. Similarly, Hammett's brilliantly intricate dialogues would be hard for most other authors to emulate.


A Typology of Hammett's Plots


Hammett's tales break down into a series of groups. First the puzzle plot tales.




  2. Some of Hammett's puzzle plot stories show the influence of the Realist School, including alibis and/or the "breakdown of identity". These include the first Op story, "Arson Plus" (1923), and the linked pair of tales "The Tenth Clew" (1924) and "A Man Named Spade" (1932). While the very short "The Joke on Eloise Morey" (1923) is not especially in the Realist mode, Hammett later expanded upon its plot ideas to create two much more complex works in a Realist style: "The Golden Horseshoe" (1924), and "The Main Death" (1927). The latter has an especially ingenious plot.



  3. Next come a distinctly different series of puzzle plot stories, "Women, Politics and Murder" (1924), "Nightmare Town" (1925), and "Two Sharp Knives" (1934). All of these stories deal with urban corruption. These works' solutions all have key elements in common, as well, but are otherwise quite disparate as plots. "One Hour" (1924) has some similarities in approach to "Nightmare Town", as does "A Man Named Thin" (1926 ?). None of these tales have been reprinted in recent years; they form an important strand in Hammett's fiction, but one which is unfortunately hidden from today's readers. The stories in Red Harvest (1927) have both similarities to and differences from the above tales. All deal with the same corrupt urban politics. In addition, the third section of Red Harvest (Chapters 15 - 20) has the same sort of puzzle plot as the above tales; this is the most creatively plotted section of the book. The second section (Chapters 8 - 14) combines elements of the plot of "Women, Politics and Murder" with new puzzle plot elements involving a "dying message".



  4. "Zigzags of Treachery" (1924) and "The Assistant Murderer" (1926) both have elements of the "breakdown of identity" in their solutions, although not for the purpose of creating alibis, and both go on to include elaborate criminal schemes of similar types. To say more would spoil their mysteries. They are perhaps related to the "Nightmare Town" series of stories above. These tales have also been long out of print. Other elaborate criminal schemes in his work, perhaps distantly related to the above two stories, are the brief con game finale of "The House on Turk Street" (1924), and the cult group Part II of The Dain Curse (1928). The crime plot of "Woman in the Dark" (1933) also seems like a simpler version of the approach in "Zigzags" and "Assistant Murderer", although its complex network of personal relationships seems closer to those of The Glass Key (1930). A non puzzle plot tale perhaps related to "Woman in the Dark" is "Laughing Masks" (1924).



  5. Hammett wrote a series of tales in which the detective tracks down the source of a series of anonymous letters or phone calls. These include "The Nails in Mr. Cayterer" (1926), the first section of Red Harvest (Chapters 1 - 7), and The Glass Key (1930).



  6. Like Red Harvest, "Corkscrew" (1925) is a story in which the Op plays warring factions of a town against each other to destroy them. Like the first and last sections of Red Harvest, this work contains a pure, but very simple, whodunit plot. The early story "Bodies Piled Up" (also known as "House Dick") (1924) has a similar mix of gang warfare and a simple puzzle plot. The novella "This King Business" (1928) completely lacks a puzzle plot, but otherwise resembles "Corkscrew" in that it deals with competing factions, this time in a Balkan kingdom.



  7. The largest group of Hammett's puzzle plot stories all deal with threats to a victim, in which the Op or other detective tries to intervene. These stories also tend to have some common approaches in their solution. One series of such tales is "Night Shots" (1923), "The Farewell Murder" (1930), and "They Can Only Hang You Once" (1932); the last two of these stories use plot material from the first. Closely related in style to these stories are such individual works as "The Creeping Siamese" (1926), and "Death and Company" (1930). Finally we have the related stories in which the Op looks for a woman who is kidnapped: "The Gatewood Caper" (1923), or missing: "Fly Paper" (1929). Both of these classic stories have much to say about personal relationships. Related to these is a series of stories which began with "Who Killed Bob Teal?" (1924). The solution to a murder in "The Gutting of Couffignal" (1925) belongs here, although not its main robbery plot. There is a simple whodunit plot woven into his novel The Maltese Falcon (1929): the mystery of the murder of Spade's partner, Miles Archer; it derives from the ideas in "Bob Teal", as well.



  8. Hammett's puzzle plot stories about large scale robberies: "Tom, Dick, or Harry" (1925), "The Gutting of Couffignal" (1925). These works have solutions related to the above "threat" tales. They also show signs of influence from the Realist school. "The Big Knockover" (1927) is a non puzzle plot story, about the same sort of large scale robbery as "Couffignal". The early non puzzle plot "The Green Elephant" (1923) also contains a brief robbery that shows similarities in the ones in the above stories.



  9. Hammett wrote some stories with suspicious looking female characters. In these tales, the events of the story keep getting different explanations. These multiple explanations are simpler and more uniform than the multiple solutions favored by Golden Age writers such as E.C. Bentley, Anthony Berkeley, and Ellery Queen, usually concentrating instead on different explanations, motivations and guilty parties for a single crime. Still, they can show ingenuity. Oftentimes the different solutions involve elements of framing. These tales include two of Hammett's weakest short stories, "The Girl with the Silver Eyes" (1924), and "Dead Yellow Women" (1925); and the multiple stories told by Brigid in The Maltese Falcon (1929).



  10. Stories which involve continuous detection, such as "The Scorched Face" (1924), and "Too Many Have Lived" (1932). In these stories the mystery is solved bit by bit, like peeling away the layers of an onion. These stories are mysteries, and they are superbly plotted, but they do not quite contain a puzzle plot, in the sense of a initial, well defined riddle which is given a solution at the end of the tale.



Now for the non puzzle plot stories. These also fall into series.




  2. Some of Hammett's works deal with a complex standoff among a group of disparate characters. These works include "The House on Turk Street" (1924), "The Whosis Kid" (1925), and "Ruffian's Wife" (1925). The great bulk of the novel The Maltese Falcon (1929) also falls into this category, the parts dealing with the intrigue over the Falcon itself. In this category we could also include such rather distantly related tales as Hammett's early Western, "The Man Who Killed Dan Odams" (1923), and Hammett's late mainstream story, "Nightshade" (1933).



  3. Hammett wrote two stories about boxing: Chapter 9 of Red Harvest (1927), which functions essentially as a standalone short story in that work, and "His Brother's Keeper" (1934). These works have many similarities in plot. The love life of the characters, and big city politics, also converge in the later tale, in a way reminiscent of Red Harvest and "Women, Politics and Murder". In some ways these boxing stories are related to the standoff tales above. The fighting in the ring is similar to the fighting the characters do in rooms in the standoff tales, and the characters in the boxing stories are often renegotiating their positions with each other, just as in the standoff stories.



  4. Two early, very short mainstream stories that anticipate the romantic triangles of The Glass Key (1930) are "The Barber and His Wife" (1923) and "The Dimple" (1923). Both of these tales are minor.



  5. There are the circular fables. These are very short stories in which the protagonist undergoes a change of attitude or point of view, one that involves a disconcerting shift in his life. Often times, he ends up not liking it, and reverting to his original position. These include "The Road Home" (1922), Hammett's first story; "The Green Elephant" (1923); and the Flitcraft episode, in Chapter 7 of The Maltese Falcon (1929). The brief "Albert Pastor at Home" (1933) is related to these, although it is both less circular, and more plot oriented than the above. All of these stories involve a change of city, and traveling around of the characters. "Ber-Belu" (1925) is a very short non-mystery tale that shows some affinity to the circular fables. It involves their exotic locations, and their movement of the hero out and back into of his original position. However, the hero does not undergo a drastic change of orientation, unlike the true fables.



  6. Two of Hammett's novels contain dream sequences. These are found in Chapter 21 of Red Harvest (1927), and Chapters 8.4 and 10.3 of The Glass Key (1930). The first involves the endless pursuit of "The Road Home", and the change of cities found in all the fables. The second dream (in The Glass Key) perhaps symbolizes the change of attitude or life that is so troubling to the protagonists of the fables. Both dreams, like the Flitcraft episode, are inserted as basically non sequitur material in their novels; such an insertion signifies the books are participating in a Modernist literary aesthetic. However, a room rented by the murder victim and its keys plays a role in the puzzle plot of The Glass Key, and perhaps the dream sequence surrealistically echoes this plot.



  7. "The Sardonic Star of Tom Doody" (1923) and "Itchy" (1924) are short tales of crooks who develop new personas. They are ingeniously plotted, and are at the borderline between Hammett's puzzle plot and non puzzle plot fiction. As close-up looks at transformations in the lives of small time crooks, they resemble "The Green Elephant" (1923) and the other circular fables. They also seem related to "Nightmare Town" (1925) and its neighbors among the puzzle plot stories.



  8. There are also the sort of fact filled nonfiction articles that Hammett wrote, including "From the Memoirs of a Private Detective" (1923), and the 1930 newspaper columns reprinted in Richard Layman's Hammett biography, Shadow Man. A fiction story in the same style, full of ingenious legal tidbits, is "The New Racket" (also known as "The Judge Laughed Last") (1924). This work is barely fiction, concentrating on its legal ideas instead.



Some points might be added. First, Richard Layman in his Hammett biography, noted several of these connections: "The Tenth Clew" (1924) and "A Man Named Spade" (1932); "The Joke on Eloise Morey" (1923) and "The Golden Horseshoe" (1924); "Night Shots" (1923) and "They Can Only Hang You Once" (1932). Similarly, William F. Nolan pointed out the relationship between "Who Killed Bob Teal?" (1924) and The Maltese Falcon (1929). The above typology builds on their discoveries here.


Second, the typology looks at the plots of Hammett's tales, especially his mystery plots and their construction. An analysis of Hammett's stories in terms of common patterns of theme or character would uncover a different pattern of connections.


Third, even in terms of plot, Hammett's tales show other interrelationships as well, across these boundaries. The wife-girlfriend-maid triumvirate of "Women, Politics and Murder" later shows up again in "The Main Death". So do incidents and events from the plot. However, the central puzzle plots of the two stories are radically different from each other. Similarly, the initial situation of "The Golden Horseshoe" is echoed in "Two Sharp Knives". And plot material is reused, and thoroughly reworked, between "The Creeping Siamese" (1926), and "Too Many Have Lived" (1932). Both stories, for example, contain a middle aged executive in the film distribution business.


Fly Paper


Hammett's "Fly Paper" (1929) at first glance seems like an intricately plotted thriller, but not one connected with his theme of social organization breaking down. But further reflection convinces that it is. The "social organization" of the story is not a government somewhere, but rather the institution of marriage. The four suspects in the story go through every possible permutation of how the institution of marriage can be subverted. (Of course, they are just "romantic" couples, not legally married people in the tale, but the idea is the same.) Hammett shows his great plotting skills in this tale. Although some critics like to claim Hammett as a "literary" figure from a different tradition than most mystery writers, it is important to note that here, as elsewhere, Hammett gets his major effects through his plotting. It is the plot that conveys the ever growing complexity of the relationships among his principals, bizarre relationships that subvert all our notions of romantic bliss. Hammett's skill with plotting is in the tradition of popular fiction in general, and Golden Age mystery fiction in particular.


The plot of "Fly Paper" is not only designed to explore unusual relationships. It also forms one of Hammett's stories which involve complex patterns of negotiations and interactions among a group of characters. The classic story here is "The Whosis Kid" (1925). Like that archetypal Hammett work, "Fly Paper" is also designed as an intricate dance, one in which the characters move in and move out in complex and beautiful ways.


The Gatewood Caper


"The Gatewood Caper" (1923) (also known as "Crooked Souls") has been filmed many times over the last twenty years as an episode of TV cop shows, without credit to Hammett. You have to wonder: when producers and writers in story conference decide to remake this kidnapping story or Woolrich's "Nightmare" or Fleischer's "The Narrow Margin" one more time, do they refer to these stories by name? Or has even the origin of these works been lost to Hollywood tradition? In any case, this tale is generally considered the best of the early Continental Op tales. Hammett's early fiction has an austere quality, compared to that of his colleague and predecessor Carroll John Daly. The lurid events of the tale are narrated in a deliberately dry tone by the Continental Op, who has seen it all, and who is Not Emotionally Involved. More than just tone, however, the austerity is conveyed by the plot. The story focuses on a strong, plain symmetric plot pattern, and strips all irrelevant detail away to reveal that plot. There is something contemplative about the story: it exists mainly to unveil a certain pattern, and hold it up to the reader's and author's gaze for contemplation.


"Fly Paper" and "The Gatewood Caper" are linked. The later story seems to grow out of plot elements of the earlier. Everything, especially the personal relationships among the younger characters, has grown more complex in the later tale. Hammett's storytelling in 1929 is much more fluid. It sweeps the reader along pleasantly.


A Loss of Feeling


Several characters in Hammett's stories seem to lack all emotion. These include the beleaguered farm wife of "The Man Who Killed Dan Odams" (1923), the promiscuous girlfriend in "Women, Politics and Murder" (1924), and the Old Man, the chief of the Detective Agency, in the Continental Op stories. The Old Man has had all emotion burned out of him by his work. It is partly all the violence he has seen, but Hammett also intimates that it is the Old Man's manipulativeness that has drained him of feeling. He is used to arranging the lives of other people for his personal gain, or that of the Agency's. His lack of feeling helps him do this, but Hammett hints that the converse is true: that exploiting others has caused his feelings to die. "Die" is the operative word here: in the Old Man's case it is clearly a spiritual death. Hammett's treatment of this is close to J.G. Ballard's in the 1970's. One of Ballard's persistent themes in that decade was what he called the "death of affect" - a global loss of the ability to feel anything even in the face of the most sinister catastrophes. Ballard ascribes this loss to everybody, part of a change in human nature during the 20th Century, whereas Hammett restricts it to certain characters. The farm wife in "Dan Odams" has so many problems that her loss of feeling seems "natural", but the Old Man is clearly seriously flawed as a person. Hammett does not explicitly ascribe any cause to the girlfriend's lack of emotion in "Women"; my linking it to her casualness in sexuality might be an effect, not a cause, of her loss.


Hammett is perhaps more interested in this effect, anyway. One of Hammett's fundamental themes is that of social institutions breaking down. In stories like "Fly Paper" (1929), and also to a degree in "The Creeping Siamese" (1926), this includes the institution of marriage, and in fact all romantic couplings. Here the heroine's lack of feeling allows her to treat adultery with a reductive casualness that goes beyond almost anything seen in literature. It reminds one of Hawthorne's account of the institution of marriage being melted down by the Shakers in such stories as "The Canterbury Pilgrims" and "The Shaker Bridal", and the abandonment of all human institutions in "Earth's Holocaust". Hammett's treatment is not simple coldness, and it completely lacks the selfishness or manipulativeness often found in moralists' condemnation of adultery. Rather it focuses on a lack of feeling, and its logical consequences. This logic is pushed to almost philosophical dimensions - one feels some logical paradox is being evoked. This use of logic is typical of Hammett: all his stories of the collapse of institutions push to an ingenious logical extreme the consequences of some unique breakdown, usually one the reader has never before imagined, let alone experienced. This aspect of the story reaches its peak when the heroine describes why she broke up with the (dead) hero.


In all of these stories, it is the actual content of the relationships described by Hammett that is the key element. This web of relationships imagined by the author sets forth Hammett's concepts. It is this actual content, not any literary style or tone, that conveys Hammett's ideas. This web of relationships is essentially a matter of plot.


Other Early Stories


"The Green Elephant" (1923) is a minor tale, about a crook plagued to the point of collapse by psychological feelings of fear and stress after a job. This was a favorite theme of slick magazine tales of the era: see Sinclair Lewis' "The Willow Walk" (1918), and many of Octavus Roy Cohen's stories about Jim Hanvey (circa 1922), both of which appeared in The Saturday Evening Post. The whole theme always seemed very dubious and implausible to me, but its moralism undoubtedly appealed to the middle class editors of the day: a crook brought low by the psychological effects of his own ill gotten gains. Hammett's story duly appeared in The Smart Set, a magazine with slick pretensions. One gets the feeling here of the author mechanically following a popular literary convention. More personal is Hammett's look at the life of crime as just another business; most of the crooks in the story have part time or temporary jobs to tide them over. Hammett also shows interest in a brief but exciting street robbery. Both the robbery and the criminal economics focus on Hammett's chief subject, an area where crime has taken over and broken down social institutions. The robbery anticipates the one in "The Big Knockover" (1927), and so does the huge size of the loot.


"The House on Turk Street" (1924), like the later "The Whosis Kid" (1925), deals with a series of standoffs between a gang of crooks and the Op. These stories are thrillers, or adventure stories, and do not have mystery puzzle plots. Hammett shows plenty of plot ingenuity, however, in coming up with different combinations of confrontations between the characters. Each character in the story is constantly using some other character to neutralize or destroy some third character. Lies and ingenious schemes abound. Each character has a very different personality, strengths and weaknesses; Hammett weaves these into their schemes. After the main story in "Turk Street" is over, a brief coda describes the con game the characters were working before the Op captured them. This introduces a whole new set of permutations and roles for the characters to play. This con game anticipates in some aspects the one that forms the main plot of "The Scorched Face" (1925). There is the same psychological manipulation of the victims, and the same sense of social shame.


A character in the sequel, "The Girl with the Silver Eyes", is Porky Grout, the sleazy, unreliable underworld informer. He had previously appeared in "Bodies Piled Up" and "Zigzags of Treachery".


"The Creeping Siamese" (1926) has an unusual opening, right in the front office of The Continental Detective Agency itself. It shows the Op talking to the cashier, and other routine business of the Agency going on. We also meet Tommy Howd again, the Agency office boy who showed up earlier in "The Whosis Kid" (1925); Howd is also referred to in "The Main Death" (1927). While Hammett's successor Frederick Nebel often took us inside Cardigan's detective agency, this sort of inside look is much rarer in Hammett. The Op also cracks a funny wisecrack in this tale to the police, another rarity. The Op's humor is usually pretty dry; Hammett had little use for the exuberantly wisecracking detective later made popular by Raymond Chandler.


This story also shows an approach common in Hammett's work: the characters constantly discuss elaborate adventures they have had in their previous lives, which took place in exotic ports all over the world, but the actual action of the tale never leaves San Francisco. "Ber-Belu" (1925) (also known as "The Hairy One") is sometimes described as a mainstream story; it is definitely not a mystery. It actually falls into the tale of exotic adventure. Set among the Sula Islands in the South Pacific, it is full of exotic detail that Hammett presumably acquired in his reading. John Russell published a then well known collection of quite similar South Sea tales, Where the Pavement Ends (1919), and the pulp magazine Adventure specialized in such stories in the 1920's. So Hammett's story falls into what was then a well defined category of genre fiction. The much longer "This King Business" (1928) is similarly a tale of Balkan adventure and revolution. "Ber-Belu" is consistent with Hammett's theme of a region where law and order has broken down. In Hammett's, and Russell's, version of the South Seas, there is no law and order at all. The region is full of violent macho men who fight and attack whomever they please, and whenever their passions and emotions are aroused. Since no one actually gets hurt in Hammett's story, we are in the realm of wish fulfillment fantasies for men, a place where Real Men can fight whenever they feel like it. This sort of fiction is essentially a macho fairy tale, a story which seems to be menacing, but which really provides a form of emotional gratification for the reader.


The Big Knockover


"The Big Knockover" (1927) is best in its first half, which details the big crime and its aftermath. The ingenious plot here comes out of the big caper tradition - or does it create that tradition? It is hard to tell, but it is the first such story known to me. Unfortunately, the second half of the story is just one violent action scene after another. These resemble a bit Carroll John Daly's "Three Gun Terry" (1923). These sort of action scenes would become a cliché in later Black Mask tales: in Horace McCoy's "Frost Rides Alone", for example, the hero has to fight his way out of a crowd, just as in Hammett's "Knockover". Unlike much of Hammett's work, this tale never builds up a puzzle plot. The work as a whole is far more of a piece of straightforward, linear storytelling than is much of Hammett's fiction. The plot of the story is consistent with Hammett's theme of social institutions breaking down, and crime reigning supreme. But this breakdown is much less subtle than in many Hammett stories: the criminals just take over the streets here.


The story's sequel, "106,000 Dollars Blood Money" (1927), is uninspired. These two stories show Hammett's first attempt to write a really long fiction: they are just about half as long combined as each of Hammett's five novels. The survivors and peripheral characters of the first tale assume center stage in the second, including the mastermind of the first story, who slips through the detective's fingers at the end of the first tale. This is precisely the technique that will be used by other Black Mask writers to create serial stories. Erle Stanley Gardner did similar things in his Ed Jenkins tales, as did Raoul Whitfield. So little early Black Mask fiction is available from the 1920's that it is hard to know if Hammett created this technique, or whether he was merely following well defined Black Mask practice. Hammett used a similar approach in the earlier two part series consisting of "The House on Turk Street" (1924), and "The Girl with the Silver Eyes" (1924).


The Op has a friendship with young Jack Counihan in "The Big Knockover". It is easy to hear the pride in the Op's voice at this young man's college education. Hammett makes all of this end tragically in "Blood Money", but I have never liked this. This relationship gets replayed in the Madvig-Beaumont partnership in The Glass Key, which also pairs a vital older man of working class origins with a good looking younger man with a college degree; but that novel's obscuritantist narrative technique makes it colder and less involving. A precursor here is the handsome young cowboy Milk River the Op meets in "Corkscrew" (1925). The Op takes on Milk River to work as his detective partner, just as he took on Jack Counihan in "The Big Knockover". There is always something a bit sinister about these young men; most are crooks of one sort or another. The likable Milk River is described as one of the rowdiest and most ruffianly of the local troublemakers; Ned Beaumont in The Glass Key is a crooked political fixer in Baltimore. Before all these are the well polished young men in "The Scorched Face" (1925), such as the automobile salesman Wayne Ferris, and real estate salesman Raymond Elwood. The working class Op immediately wonders what is lurking behind their facade. Similar young men in the Op stories include Eric Collinson in The Dain Curse, Lionel Grantham in "This King Business", and Bob Teal in "Who Killed Bob Teal?" All of their descriptions stress the perfect "regularity" of their handsome features; they are instantly recognizable as versions of a common character. One also notes the character of glamorous Larry Ormsby in "Nightmare Town" (1925), and his friendship with the tough hero Steve Threefall. Another tough detective - good looking young man pair is Alec Rush - Hubert Landow in "The Assistant Murderer" (1926). The relationship between the brothers in "His Brother's Keeper" (1934) also falls within this pattern: there is the tough but sincere pugilist who narrates the story, and his slick, good looking, and somewhat crooked brother who manages his prize fighting career. These relationships between men, all of a common pattern, are the most important relationships in Hammett's stories. They are the emotional heart of his work.


Hammett's "Laughing Masks" (1924) is a minor adventure thriller without a puzzle plot. It uses that cliché, a hero who must rescue the heroine from the clutches of the villain. Here the villain is a sinister Russian aristocrat, exiled to the USA by the Russian Revolution. Such aristocratic villains were not uncommon in American popular fiction of the time: the best known is probably the evil count in Richard Connell's "The Most Dangerous Game" (1924). Such aristocrats represent archaic survivals of the ancien regime, cruel men with absolute power over life and death in their domains, and absolute loyalty from their servants, who have the psychology of traditional vassals or serfs. Such domains are in Hammett's tradition of a region where all law and order has broken down. Connell and Hammett both exploit fears on the part of modern democratic readers that the horrors of aristocratic rule might somehow return. Later, John Dickson Carr will evoke such fears in the mock supernatural atmosphere of his novels. In both Connell's and Hammett's tales, the heroes are regular American guys, men who represent modern American democratic and common man traditions. Hammett's story also resembles Connell's in that both villains patrol their fiefdoms with packs of man-eating hounds. Hammett will return to the mood of this story later on with "Woman in the Dark" (1933). Here the wealthy villain Robson is an all powerful man who controls everything within his territory, police included. He is hardly a foreign aristocrat like the menace in "Laughing Masks", but he shares his absolute power and sinister desire to control. "Laughing Masks" and "Woman in the Dark" also share non-series heroes with similar psychology. Both heroes are trying to recover from a life of crime: Brazil in "Woman in the Dark" is a just released ex-convict, while the hero of "Laughing Masks" is a small time gambler and petty errand boy for the mob who wants to go straight. Both men have real self esteem problems. Hammett's work is full of young glamorous men who are rather innocently involved in a life of crime. These men are usually romanticized to the max. Here, the young heroes of "Laughing Masks" and "Woman in the Dark" are more realistic and less glamorous. Their life of crime has simply made them unemployable, u marriageable, and in general outcasts from a society they would like to join.


The most creative scene in "Laughing Masks" is the one in which the hero is threatened with a knife. It involves role reversals. Only Hammett could have come up with something this paradoxical. All the traditional relationships in this scene are turned completely inside out, and made exactly opposite of what they are in conventional works. Later in tales like "Fly Paper" (1929), Hammett will similarly invert the conventions of romantic relationships. Hammett had a very ingenious mind, and such transformations of relationships are a key element in his fiction.


Nightmare Town


Among the many Hammett short stories that are not easily available today, the best one that I have read is "Nightmare Town" (1925). A non-series tale, written at the peak period of Hammett's creativity with the Continental Op stories, it is another look at a Western town where law and order has broken down, like "Corkscrew" and Red Harvest. The hero of the tale is both more drunken, and a lot more emotionally vulnerable than the Op. The tale has one of Hammett's best constructed mystery situations.


Many of the Op stories unavailable today are puzzle plot works. These fairly short tales remind one of nothing so much as the short stories Agatha Christie was writing during the same period. Hammett did not consider his work as separate from mystery fiction of his day; as a mystery reviewer, he covered the whole gamut of Golden Age authors. The first Op tale, "Arson Plus" (1923), falls into the puzzle plot category. It develops another Hammett theme, illusion vs reality. Many of Hammett's stories involve elaborate illusions created by the bad guys in the tales. Eventually the detective and the reader discover that the underlying reality is ingeniously different. The characters in the story are often playing very different roles than one would first guess. The whole effect is philosophically similar to those Hammett tales where social institutions breaks down; here it is the whole world which seemingly exists that breaks down. Just as characters often take on new roles in the social institution stories, subverting conventional social concepts, so in these illusion tales the characters' roles are fluid and unstable. Such works as "The Assistant Murderer" also fall in this category.


The Sam Spade Short Stories


In 1932 Hammett wrote three short stories about Sam Spade for slick magazines. Spade's only other appearance in Hammett's fiction was in The Maltese Falcon. The stories are reprinted in David Willis McCullough's anthology, Great Detectives (1984). Two are traditional Golden Age style stories, with puzzle plots, wherein Spade investigates murder among the upper middle classes: "A Man Called Spade", and "They Can Only Hang You Once" .


"A Man Called Spade", is the first, longest, and weakest of the three works. As Richard Layman has pointed out, Hammett reused the initial situation of his early Op tale "The Tenth Clew" (1924) in this story. "A Man Named Spade" has all new characters, and all new writing - it does not reuse any of the text of the earlier story. Even odder, it has a brand new puzzle plot, different from the one in the original tale. Both stories' puzzle plots, while completely different from each other, show the influence of Freeman Wills Crofts.


In "The Tenth Clew" (1924), the Op has a friendly relationship with a policeman, Detective Sergeant O'Gar of the San Francisco Police Homicide Detail, with whom he shares the investigation essentially as a partner. Hammett puts a great deal of emphasis on the realistic depiction of both police and private eye detectival investigations in the story. Their skills are shown as different and complimentary. The whole portrait recalls Anna Katherine Green's similar depiction of police and amateurs working together in Book 2 of The Leavenworth Case (1878), although one doubts Hammett had this in mind as a model. In the Op tales, Hammett likes to show the Op using the resources of the Continental detective agency. He sends out telegrams to agents in other cities, has operatives shadow suspects, and uses the agency's files. Like the Op, O'Gar is middle aged and experienced; at 50, he is somewhat older than the Op. O'Gar is described in "Women, Politics and Murder" (1924) as squat, blue eyed, with a bullet shaped head, and grizzled. In Part II of The Dain Curse, we learn in passing that O'Gar is a good Roman Catholic, not surprising in that he is that sociological cliché of the 1920's, an Irish policeman. In his Hammett biography, William F. Nolan says that O'Gar first appeared in "The Gatewood Caper" (1923). He returns in such later stories as "Zigzags of Treachery" (1924), "Women, Politics and Murder" (1924), "The Golden Horseshoe" (1924), "The Creeping Siamese" (1926), "The Big Knockover" (1927), "Fly Paper" (1929), and Part I of The Dain Curse (1928), where he is partnered with Pat Reddy, the young cop of "The Scorched Face" (1925). It is good to see the solitary Op having a friend.


Spade also works closely with the police in the in the later work. The single cop of the earlier Op series, is expanded into a pair, Lieutenant Dundy and Sgt. Tom Polhaus, and there are other named policemen too. They played a prominent role in The Maltese Falcon, and show up again as continuing characters in a subsequent Spade story, "They Can Only Hang You Once". The basic setup of the two short tales is pretty much the same as S.S. Van Dine's Philo Vance books, with the detective acting as friend and consultant to a well characterized squad of police. It is quite different from the earlier Op work. In the Spade tales, the equal relationship between the private eye and the police has disappeared. Instead the police are shown as being basically in a supporting role to Sam Spade, who functions as a genius detective in the Philo Vance tradition. The police here are honest, and do routine investigative tasks, with Spade coming up with the ultimate answers as to whodunit. Unlike the Op, the solitary Spade has no agency to call on, and does little private detective work. Instead he mainly helps the police question suspects, and then solves the case.


"They Can Only Hang You Once" (1932) seems to be Hammett's attempt to write an intuitionist, Golden Age style detective story. It involves an upper middle class family of suspects, including a lawyer and a stockbroker; there is more than one crime; it takes place in a large house whose architecture plays a role in the plot; there is a butler; and a long lost relative from Australia, reminiscent of that most Golden of Golden Age novels, A.A. Milne's The Red House Mystery (1922). Hammett's surprising solution involves the Least Likely Suspect. Sam Spade solves the mystery, not through any "realistic" detective work, but through insight into the crime, just as in the intuitionist school. Hammett does include some of his personal trademark, the collapse of a social institution; here it is financial relationships among a family that get melted down. Despite the way the story involves a different set of conventions, there is nothing of a light hearted jeu d'espirit about the tale. It seems instead to be a serious attempt to write a real detective story in a different tradition.


By contrast, the third Sam Spade story "Too Many Have Lived" (1932) follows Hammett's personal traditions. There is a hard-boiled setting among the underworld and corrupt urban types. Spade does some ingenious detective work tracking down suspects, and uncovering their hidden activities. This detective work is in the tradition of such Continental Op tales as "The Scorched Face" (1924). Spade also uses logical deduction for the ultimate solution. The puzzle plot has a zigzag quality sometimes typical of Hammett's mystery plot construction. First Spade uncovers a new perspective on one aspect of the crime. Then he unveils hidden truth on another. Then he goes back to the first, revealing new, and deeper, perspectives on it. And so on, back and forth between two directions. A somewhat similar zigzag approach is found in the first half of "The Scorched Face".


Many of Hammett's characters lie repeatedly. We are used to this with Brigid in The Maltese Falcon, a character whose constant lying has been burlesqued repeatedly. These often funny parodies accustom us to see this lying as a personal flaw of some of Hammett's characters. However, the lying also serves a structural purpose in the construction of Hammett's plots, for example, the lies of the wife in "Women, Politics and Murder". First we see one version of the truth, then the detective goes off and learns a fact from someone else than the liar. This enables him to ingeniously deduce that the liar's story is concealing something. This logical deduction is in the full tradition of detective story puzzle plotting. Then he goes back to the character, confronts them, and gets a fuller version of the real story. Then he goes off and gets another fact, which enables him to uncover further lies in the liar's tale, and the whole cycle continues. The liar can strip off several versions of illusion from the tale. The whole thing enables a "zigzag" effect: first one story, then another clue, then back to a second story, then back to a second clue, and so on, with the plot going back and forth between the unraveling story and the clues.


Two Sharp Knives


One of Hammett's last mystery stories, "Two Sharp Knives" (1934), similarly involves a progressive uncovering of unexpected truths, stage by stage. The reader is kept continually off balance by Hammett's taking the plot in directions that this reviewer, at least, did not expect at all. Like many of Hammett's puzzle plots, this tale involves looking at the events of the story in a really different way than is first apparent. Hammett showed great imagination in the solutions to his puzzle plots. His technique here was in synch with the traditions of the Golden Age mystery, which encouraged ingenious solutions to mystery plots. Yet there is also something at once personal, unusual, and disturbing about Hammett's approach. The solutions involve such a skewed point of view on reality, that they have an effect that reality itself is breaking down. Or the effect is one of Alienation, a looking at events from such a different perspective that one feels alienated from daily life and common viewpoints. Hammett's mystery plots are both clever mysteries in the puzzle plot tradition, and alienated takes on reality. "Two Sharp Knives" also involves Hammett's breakdown of authority, but in a subtle, off trail way.


The second Maltese Falcon adaptation, Satan Met a Lady (William Dieterle, 1936), is more a parody than an adaptation in the conventional sense. The various conventions of Falcon, the betrayals, the lying, the perverse relations between Spade and women, are played for laughs. The characters' dialogue highlights and underlines these behaviors, and the whole thing comes across as deliberately over the top and exaggerated, perhaps with a touch of camp sensibility. There is a great deal of deliberately comic ham acting, especially from Warren William and Bette Davis. The Caspar Guttman character is turned into a woman, played by Aline Skipworth, and her relationship with her gunsel becomes even stranger in the process. Film histories tend to portray this version simply as a failed adaptation. It is not very good, but its unique aims should at least be taken into account in discussions.


Richard Layman's Shadow Man: The Life of Dashiell Hammett (1981) is a highly informative biography. It has a complete bibliography of Hammett's writings.




Red Harvest (1929)

The Dain Curse (1929)

The Maltese Falcon (1930)

The Glass Key (1931)

Woman in the Dark (1933)

The Thin Man (1934)

The Big Knockover (a collection of short stories)

Lost Stories (1997)


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