Wednesday, July 06, 2005

Hard Boiled: Dashiell Hammett

I recently posted on Nero Wolfe, so I'm going to have to write about someone who is really starting to fascinate me which is Dashiell Hammett. I read his tale of gang warfare in Red Harvest featuring the short fat detective, the Continental Op, really liked it, and have since been working on The Continental Op, a series of short stories. Hammett does for crime fiction what Hemingway did for literary fiction which is to write very efficiently while maintaining emotional punch. The Op is a hard man working for The Continental Detective Agency (a thinly veiled fictional clone of The Pinkerton Agency where Hammett once worked). Though he's not physically impressive, he wins through sheer cussedness. He can't be bought or dazzled by a pretty face. On the other hand, he can booze with the best of them. Personality-wise, he reminds of Bruce Willis' character in the underrated The Last Boy Scout.

Based on what I've read so far, I can't wait to check out the Hammett books featuring Sam Spade and The Thin Man. Should be great stuff. Sadly, Hammett's productivity tailed off after he hooked up with commie/radical Lillian Hellman. He didn't write anything of note post the commencement of their stormy relationship.

2 comments:

Kathy Hutchins said...

If you liked Red Harvest I feel fairly confident in recommending The Dain Curse. In fact, you might want to just pick up the Library of America Complete Novels.

Lillian Hellman was a dreadful influence (and a dreadful person), but I don't think we can entirely discount the productivity effect of the truly staggering quanitity of booze Hammett put down. By 1942 he'd destroyed his health so thoroughly he had to bully his way into the Army.

He spent the war editing a newspaper on Adak Island in the Alaskan Aleutians -- where John and I honeymooned in 1992. There was at that time a small museum on the island that housed quite a few Hammett artifacts. It's too bad he never wrote anything about Adak afterwards. I'm sure it would have been better than Gore Vidal's Williwaw.

Jay D. Homnick said...

I agree with Kathy that Hammett was already burnt out as a writer before he took up with Hellman. I also agree with her that The Dain Curse is the one novel besides Red Harvest ("The first person I heard calling Personville Poisonville also called his shirt a shoit") that has the same flavor as The Continental Op.

The Thin Man novels, featuring Nick Charles, and The Maltese Falcon, with Sam Spade, have a somewhat different sensibility.

Hammett began drinking long before he began writing; his career as a Pinkerton Detective had been legendary, and no doubt very intense. But I am inclined to discount the idea that the alcohol stopped him from writing. I think that he simply had said everything that he had to say.

His refusal to testify before the House Un-American Activities Committee and his jail sentence for contempt were, by turns, noble on his part and contemptible on the part of the Committee. I'm no big anti-anti-Communist, of course, but he was blatantly and gratuitously mistreated.

As for the movie of The Maltese Falcon, I am among a tiny minority who found Peter Lorre's performance to be tacky and overdrawn. Sidney Greenstreet was amazing, of course, and here is a bit of trivia to round out this subject: Sidney Greenstreet is the voice of Nero Wolfe in the radio series. I have one cassette at home and, if you're interested, I can look into how to order copies.