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The unchallenged doyen of noir & detective fiction

Dashiell Hammett, progenitor of the ‘hard-boiled’ detective noir, is eschewed by literary snobs at their own peril

Vivek H. Dehejia  14th Aug 2011

A still from the movie adapation of Hammett’s best known work, The Maltese Falcon

iterary types, especially critics, can be a snobbish bunch. In my experience, they are notoriously dismissive of genre fiction, deeming it unworthy of serious literary analysis and most certainly unfit to be on the top shelf of their bookcase – perhaps, rather, a guilty pleasure, to be enjoyed surreptitiously, like an office romance, or a favourite Puccini aria (Nessun dorma, I must admit, comes to mind). But for those with more catholic tastes, you may find that Dashiell Hammett, virtual creator and greatest master of the "hard-boiled" detective genre, does indeed find pride of place on your top shelf, not in that deep desk drawer which also holds the therapeutic pint of rye.

Arising in the 1920s, initially to feed the new and popular "pulp" magazines, this uniquely American form gave birth to two bona fide literary geniuses, Raymond Chandler being the other. Both produced a slender oeuvre, into the 1930s and 1940s, which remain the fountainhead of all that has followed to the present day. But, as Chandler himself acknowledged, it all started with Hammett.

The 'Continental Op' short stories, written originally for the pulps and published later in book form, are garish, gritty, and immensely entertaining; interestingly, though, a certain aroma of the Victorian boudoir still clings to them: Sherlock Holmes has not, quite, left the building. This residual aura is expunged by the time of the Op's greatest tale, Red Harvest, published originally in instalments, and later as a novel by Alfred Knopf in 1929. It was followed the next year by Hammett's masterpiece, The Maltese Falcon, again a novel pieced together from instalments published in the preceding two years, although the seams are by now even less evident.

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As a Marxist, and card-carrying Communist, Hammett’s view of contemporary America was decidedly bleak: he saw, for sure, the “skull beneath the skin”, a murky, seamy, and very violent world of the side street speakeasy and the mining town.

Take Harvest first. It is written in a crisp and no-nonsense first person narration, as told us by the Op (whose real name we never learn, in this novel or anywhere else). It is part detective novel, and part Western: indeed, the character of the Op, a solitary figure who inhabits a morally ambiguous universe in which no one is self-evidently a 'good' or a 'bad' guy, and who ultimately takes a bloody vengeance on the whole lot, is fairly obviously at least as much an inspiration for The Man Without a Name as for Dirty Harry: Clint Eastwood owes him a double debt. The Op's method of operating, 'stirring things up' and seeing what comes to the surface, is an appropriate metaphor for Hammett's own objective. As a Marxist, and card-carrying Communist (which was to get him in trouble during the McCarthy period), Hammett's view of contemporary America was decidedly bleak: he saw, for sure, the 'skull beneath the skin', a murky, seamy, and very violent world of the side street speakeasy and the mining town, existing just below the surface gloss of the late 'Jazz Age' culture of high street shops and society garden parties. Indeed, so unremitting is this vision, that, by the end of the novel, all of the faintly likeable characters are dead, and the Op is left to his grim task, to purge the Augean stables, which he does with alarmingly gleeful abandon. He is self-aware, though, and realises that something of that rank corruption has infected him too: a tragic awareness of almost Shakespearean cast.

It's a pity that a good film hasn't been made of Harvest, although there have been a few mediocre attempts. There is no such difficulty with Falcon, whose cinematic incarnation, in 1941 by John Huston in his directorial debut, is one of the classics of American, or of any, cinema, ushering in a whole era of cinema noir, and which, to boot, is far better known than the novel which inspired it. The casting and performances are glorious, to the point that it is difficult to think of Sam Spade as anyone other than Humphrey Bogart, and likewise for the other principals. The other touch of sheer genius is that Huston simply films the novel 'straight', dialogues, stage business, set decorations, and all, merely (and again brilliantly) telescoping certain chapters in the novel that do not contribute to the central plot line.

he one necessary concession to the 'Hollywood code' is that Huston can only suggest, but cannot make explicit, unlike Hammett, Joel Cairo's homosexuality—although Peter Lorre's fine-grained performance is so subtly taken that the clichéd handkerchief redolent of gardenia and the rising woodwind figures in Adolph Deutsch's evocative orchestral score are almost redundant. Nor can Spade insist that Brigid, his client, strip naked to be searched for the thousand dollar bill that his roguish and rotund nemesis, the aptly named Gutman, has palmed. Apart from these nugatory details, Huston renders Hammett's text with seismic accuracy. Most importantly, and to his lasting credit, Huston does not soften the bleak ending, a blot which disfigures the otherwise fine film version of Raymond Chandler's The Big Sleep, made a few years later, and also starring Bogart.

I am devoting so much ink to the film, not just because it is an opus classicus of its medium, as much or even more so than the original, but because I believe it holds a key to the novel. Read it, and Falcon plays almost like a cryptographic movie script. Unlike Harvest, it is told in an understated, laconic, almost aloof and emotionally cool, third person. Indeed, Hammett distils a clipped and telegraphic prose, parsimonious to the bone, reminiscent and every inch the equal of his more famous contemporary, Ernest Hemingway. What is more, the tale is told from an entirely exterior point of view: we are never, ever, told that Sam Spade or any other character is thinking or feeling something, just that he or she says or does this or that. We are, in other words, forced to infer from the characters' actions what their underlying motivations and passions are, or might be: again, strikingly modern and still very contemporary. Albert Camus' absurdist masterpiece, The Outsider, is a classic instance of this style of writing; Jhumpa Lahiri's The Namesake is a more recent example.

Also, like Harvest, the moral world that Falcon inhabits is highly ambiguous, to say the least. Spade is cold as ice, about as nasty a character as we are likely to meet, in or out of a dark alley, and he's the best of a bad lot. We are left, at the end, numb, unsure, most certainly not 'uplifted' in a conventional sense. It is the same queasy, cathartic feeling that we experience, if I may jump artistic forms, across a generation and a continent, at the very end of Mahler's Sixth Symphony, after the last hammer blow has died away and the hero has been felled, with no redemption in sight. In its tone and existential philosophical import, incongruously disguised as a detective novel, Hammett creates a parable which is Mahlerian in its potency. If I have convinced you of this, at least, you might consider taking him out of that deep drawer, and reach tentatively for the high shelf, after, of course, a sip of that Wild Turkey rye.

 
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