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Mystery Man

I don’t mean that I necessarily take my own or anybody else’s seriously—but the detective story as a form. Some day somebody’s going to make “literature” out of it…and I’m selfish enough to have my hopes….

Dashiell Hammett: Crime Stories & Other Writings contains the foundation for those hopes. The “other writings” are two small and admired non-fiction pieces, “From the Memoirs of a Private Detective” and “Suggestions to Detective Story Writers.” The first is a string of anecdotes about human stupidity and bits of cynical, tongue-in-cheek wisdom reminiscent of Ambrose Bierce: “Pocket-picking is the easiest to master of all the criminal trades. Anyone who is not crippled can become an adept in a day.” The second—the “Suggestions”—displays the practical seriousness with which Hammett viewed his craft, while at the same time it’s hilariously scathing at the expense of other, sloppier detective story writers. “A pistol, to be a revolver, must have something on it that revolves,” he remarks. “‘Youse’ is the plural of ‘you.’” “A trained detective shadowing a subject does not ordinarily leap from doorway to doorway….”

This approach brings to mind that other American Samuel, Sam Clemens (Mark Twain), who so famously took the stuffing out of Fenimore Cooper’s standards of accuracy. Indeed, the two Samuels4 have a lot in common: the combination of steely-eyed observation of the dirty underbelly of America and the idealistic wish that it would live up to its founding principles, the deadpan humor, and above all the dedication to language. This last, in both, took the form of an attempt to capture the tone and cadence of the American vernacular in literature, of which Huckleberry Finn is surely the first fully triumphant example.

Seen in this light, Hammett, with his word-collecting and ear for slang dialects,5 is part of the project of American linguistic self-definition that began with Noah Webster’s 1783 Spelling Book and his later dictionary. The effort was continued through Fenimore Cooper’s Natty Bumppo of the Leatherstocking Tales, and gathered speed with various dialect and regional writers of the nineteenth century, as well as Whitman and his barbaric yawp. Owen Wister and his creation of the western—its ur-plot, its tall tales and talk—belongs here too, and Bret Harte, and many after them. The hard-boiled detective story lent itself to this sort of exploration, criminal slang being not only colorful but often indigenous.

If this is Hammett’s literary ancestry, or part of it, his subsequent family tree is equally noteworthy. He was an admirer of Sherwood Anderson, who wrote concisely about hitherto overlooked corners of small-town life. He respected Faulkner as one might respect a very bright but weird second cousin.6 He found Hemingway irritating, like a brother who is also a rival, and took little pokes at him—in “The Main Death” he has a particularly vacuous rich girl reading The Sun Also Rises. He must have found it gratifying to be called “better than Hemingway” in the 1930 publisher’s ad for The Maltese Falcon.

Like Wister’s Virginian, the grand-daddy of all westerns, Hammett’s work had incalculable influence. He was one of those writers whom everyone of a certain age read as a matter of course. He himself said, “I’ve been as bad an influence on American literature as anyone I can think of.” Raymond Chandler is the younger brother: he inherited the battered office furniture and the type of the romantic-loner detective, though Philip Marlowe is more of an intellectual than Sam Spade, and more fascinated with upholstery. Nathanael West was arguably a melancholy cousin. Elmore Leonard—who, like Hammett, began in magazines—has Hammett’s pace, descriptive eye, and dead-on ear for dialogue. Carl Hiassen has the outrageousness, the taste for the hilariously bizarre, and the manic inventiveness.7

The Hammett prize for experimenting with language in a criminal setting must surely go to Jonathan Lethem’s beguiling Motherless Brooklyn, in which the sleuth has Tourette’s syndrome. And there are many, many more. Even the pratfalling body pile-ups were inherited by an unlikely third cousin: read Hammett’s “Dead Yellow Women” or “The Big Knockover,” then the riot-in-the-bar sequence in the first chapter of Thomas Pynchon’s V, just for fun. The most recent addition is the fine Spanish thriller writer Pérez-Reverte, who pays direct homage to The Maltese Falcon.

Dashiell Hammett: Crime Stories & Other Writings takes us back to the beginning of the line. Twenty-four of the early magazine stories have been selected. In addition, there’s the manuscript of The Thin Man, much shorter and almost completely different from the published book. (No Nick and Nora Charles tossing back the booze in their chic apartment, no Asta the dog.) The stories give us a good look at the young Hammett staking out his territory. They’re best read one at a time, with pauses between, since too much at once dulls the edge. They are very much of their period and genre—“hard-boiled” was the term used of this kind of side-of-the-mouth crime fiction. (Hard-boiled eggs were what blue-collar workers had in their lunch boxes.) But despite their adherence to formulas it’s easy to see from the stories why Hammett rose so rapidly.

Low life and high life are his interests: each set is motivated largely by money, power, and sex, and each behaves badly, though the highlifes are less likely to have poor complexions, perhaps because they don’t eat at grease joints—about the only places in Hammett stories where people consume food. The cozy middle-class Norman Rockwell front-porch folks do not concern him; when their representatives appear, they are likely to be thugs in disguise, like the “affectionate old couple” with their twinkling eyes in “The House in Turk Street” who are fronting for a mob, or the entire population of the town of Izzard, in “Nightmare Town,” including the jolly banker and the kindly doctor, who are all part of a huge criminal conspiracy.8

Realism” is a word often used to describe Hammett’s writing, but the stories are realistic only in their settings and details—the pimples on nasty youths, the dingy office furniture of the cheap private eyes—and in their forthright use of the vernacular. The dialogue was influenced by its period, when the wisecrack and the vaudeville one-liner were valued and a smart mouth like Dorothy Parker’s was an asset. The plots are Jacobean in their doubled and redoubled vengeance, and also in their carnage: they resemble multiple car crashes. This was the age of the Keystone Cops, when mayhem was first being portrayed on the screen,9 and surely some of the brawls and corpse-fests in Hammett were intended to be funny in this quasi-slapstick way. The exuberance of language, the relish with which seediness is described, the playing with aphorisms, the joy of bizarre invention—it’s a pleasure to imagine the young Hammett cutting loose with whatever rascally highjinks he could cook up and put over. The aim was not realism, but to make things seem real—“real as a dime,” as one narrator says of a far-fetched yarn he’s been reading.

For the pulp adventure-crime stories of this era are not real realism. Instead they’re romances in the Northrop Frye sense, with knights-errant disguised as detectives, and treasures with criminal-mastermind ogres guarding them. There are trolls in the guise of goons with huge chins, pasty faces, dead eyes, or other physical distortions, and threatened maidens who sometimes really are maidens—innocent heiresses transgressing social boundaries—but most likely instead femmes fatales with silver eyes or other enchantments. These latter turn into clawing cats or foulmouthed banshees when the hero calls their bluff. Quite often the spell-breaking words are “You are a liar,” or words to that effect; for like Sam Spade after him, the hero always resists female blandishments in pursuit of his higher mission. This mission is not exactly justice; it’s more like professionalism. The hero has a job to do and is good at his job. He’s a working man, and this kind of toughness and thoroughness gets Hammett’s respect. Also this kind of toughness, for toughness was a cardinal virtue for him.10

The hero who most frequently appears in these stories, and the one that made Hammett so popular with his readers, is a man without a name. He’s known as the Continental Op—an operative working for the Continental Detective Agency. The Op reports to The Old Man—surely the original of James Bond’s M, George Smiley’s Control, and Charlie of Charlie’s Angels. This hero makes a point of avoiding heroics, as his aim is not to get himself killed but to catch the criminals. He’s short and fat and down-to-earth, playing a grouchy Sancho Panza to the thin, idealistic tilter at windmills who was lurking inside Hammett and would make such a decisive appearance in the courtroom in his later life.

Fatness and thinness are distinguishing markers in the stories and novels, but they’re also recurring motifs in the letters. Time and again Hammett tells his correspondents that he’s eating again, that he’s gaining weight, or—when illness or drink have got the better of him—that he hasn’t been able to eat at all. In the light of this constant struggle with his thinness—at bottom a struggle to remain alive—the title of Hammett’s last novel, The Thin Man, may have been a wry joke, the subject of which was Hammett himself. The thin man in the book is a mad genius who’s dead before the book begins. He appears to be alive only because other people say he is; in reality, he’s so thin he isn’t there at all. “Count me out,” Hammett may have been saying. “I’ve run out of energy, I’m gone.” And he was gone, from the writing scene at least.

Which brings us to the two silences: the literary silence, and the dramatic public one in federal court. Of the literary one—the absence of any new books after the mid-Thirties—Jo Hammett makes short work. “He didn’t stop writing. Not until the very last. What he stopped was finishing.” And indeed the letters are sprinkled with references to books he was beginning or continuing, and to possibilities for having the free time and the space in which to write.11 This part of the story makes painful reading for anyone who’s trying to write books, since the moves—the setting out with optimism, the evasion, the fading away of purpose—are so familiar.

None of the attempts came to anything. Drink has been suggested as the reason, and illness, and other activities that interfered, though it was Hammett’s choice to let them. Then there were ambition and high standards: Hammett wanted to go “mainstream”—to get outside what he felt was the limiting circle of crime writing—and that was a big leap. Perhaps, however, his fundamental problem was with language. “I stopped writing because I was repeating myself,” he said in 1956. “It is the beginning of the end when you discover you have style.” And he did have style, or rather a style—a mannered implement he’d worked up and polished, but an implement very much of its time. Possibly he could no longer settle on a language equal to the occasion; or rather, the occasion itself had passed by. By the Forties and Fifties the scene had changed radically, and he must have felt out of his element. He couldn’t go to town on the language any more, because that kind of town no longer existed.

Then there’s the other silence, the one in court. The virtues of silence as a stratagem had occurred to Hammett early. “It doesn’t matter how shrewd a man is, or how good a liar,” the Op says in the 1924 story “ZigZags of Treachery”: “If he’ll talk to you and you play your cards right, you can hook him—can make him help you convict him. But if he won’t talk you can’t do a thing with him.”

Also, if Hammett kept silent, he wouldn’t implicate anyone else: only he would suffer. Strangely enough, there’s a literary precedent even for that. The young boy who’d wanted to read all the books in the Baltimore public library can hardly have escaped Longfellow, then the most revered of American poets. Longfellow’s poem “The Children’s Hour”12 was chosen by Hammett as the title of the play attributed to Lillian Hellman, though Hammett had provided the story for it and did much of the work. So Hammett more than likely knew Longfellow’s verse drama, Giles Corey of the Salem Farms.

Giles Corey was the man who refused to plead either guilty or not guilty during the Salem witchcraft episode. If he pled, he’d have been tried, and if tried, he’d have been found guilty—all those accused were. His property would then have been confiscated by the State, and his family deprived. He took his stand on principle, but also out of consideration for others, as Hammett himself did. The penalty for failure to plead was “pressing”—stones were piled on top of you until you either pled or died. Giles Corey did the latter.13 If Hammett considered the Salem trials as a paradigm for the McCarthy “witchhunt,” he was not alone. Many used that metaphor, including Arthur Miller in his play The Crucible.

In Longfellow’s play, the last words spoken about Corey before his death are, “I wonder now/If the old man will die, and will not speak? He’s obsti-nate enough and tough enough/For anything on earth.” Silence equals toughness. Could it be that this verbal equation was first planted in young Hammett’s head by the author of Evangeline?

Well, it’s one more clue.

  1. 4

    The third Samuel in the trio is Sam Spade. Hammett was very conscious of names, and would have given his own to this character quite deliberately.

  2. 5

    As Jo Hammett remarks, “Papa loved all kinds of word play: thieves’ cant, convict argot, Yiddish expressions, restaurant and cowboy talk, Cockney rhyming slang, gangster-lowlife speak.”

  3. 6

    In 1931 he was reading Sanctuary, which—with its twisted Popeye and its socialite who plays with the toughs—is probably Faulkner’s most Hammett-like book. Hammett didn’t think highly of it, but revised his opinion of Faulkner upward in later years.

  4. 7

    Hiassen’s amazing “Velcro-Face” of Skin Tight and his road-kill-eating ex-senator exist on a continuum that leads from Hammett’s squinty or big-chinned grotesques through Faulkner’s twisted Popeye through Dick Tracy of the comics, with its gargoyle thugs such as “Anyface,” who looked like Swiss cheese.

  5. 8

    This strain—awfulness behind the apple-pie façade—runs through Hawthorne’s “Young Goodman Brown,” in which the wholesome townsfolk are in league with the Devil, through Hammett, through Ray Bradbury’s Martian Chronicles, where the town conceals murderous Martians, through the film The Stepford Wives, in which robot wife doubles have replaced real wives, to the television show Twin Peaks and certain episodes of The X Files. In real life it has played itself out in versions of Satanic cults, as well as its ur-form, the infamous Salem witchcraft trials.

  6. 9

    Hammett was a moviegoer. It’s endearing to find him giving his opinion of the relative merits of Pinocchio versus Snow White. Needless to say, he liked Pinocchio better.

  7. 10

    Jo Hammett describes all the kinds of toughness Hammett admired: tough men, tough women, tough sports. It was a quality of character as well as a physical quality. “Toughness,” she says, “would take him through the last bad years.”

  8. 11

    There were three main attempts: My Brother Felix, which was “going to be pretty good for both magazines and movies”; The Valley Sheep Are Fatter, a title that comes from one of Thomas Love Peacock’s novels; and Tulip, this last about a writer who can no longer write.

  9. 12

    Thought of as a piece of syrupy kitsch by those who haven’t read it closely. But Hammett was a good reader, and must have seen it for the creepy poem it is.

  10. 13

    The only words Corey is said to have uttered were “Put on more stones,” but Longfellow has the pressing take place offstage and so does not use them.

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