Monday, August 23, 2010

Hammett: He's tough — and he's literature

I've taken a short holiday from international crime fiction to read some of the classic American variety.

My early report is that Dashiell Hammett's Continental Op stories may be the best crime fiction ever written. No shock there; I'm hardly the first to rank them that high. But what I had not noticed, even in stories I'd read before, was the affinity they have with the no-nonsense deadpan of some French writers after Sartre, or with the elaborate multiple narratives of Rashomon — serious stuff, in other words, in addition to being closer to normal Detectives Beyond Borders territory. (I am also delighted to note that the Rashomon article to which I link in the previous sentence calls the movie a "crime mystery film.")

Those multiple narratives, especially — the long stories the Op and the perps tell each other in, say. "The Golden Horseshoe" or "The Girl With the Silver Eyes" — are part of what I think Steven Marcus means when says Hammett transformed detective writing in the direction of literature.
***
Marcus is the editor of Hammett's Crime Stories and Other Writings and Complete Novels for the Library of America. Read his assessment of Hammett, including his conclusion that
"I read Hammett largely because of the marvelous living prose style that he achieved. The dialogue and some of the descriptive prose is as alive today as when it was written in the 1920s. That for me is proof of a real writer."
© Peter Rozovsky 2010

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17 Comments:

Blogger The Celtic Kagemusha said...

I'm an advocate of the 'less is more' school, when it comes to writing, generally, and crime writing, in particular, and Hammett for me, is 'The Untouchable' in that respect
(much as I'm loving discovering Ross Macdonald, who's clearly a Chandler man).
just read my third Macdonald/Archer, -'The Blue Hammer', - but I'd still rate 'The Zebra-Striped Hearse' as the best of the three I've read to date
And I think Chester Himes might just be Hammett's 'prize pupil'

August 23, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I wonder if laconic writing seems fresher and more modern these days.

It's been a while since I've read Chester Himes. I'll have to see where he fits in and in what respect he may have been a Hammett man.

August 23, 2010  
Blogger The Celtic Kagemusha said...

I think its timeless writing: perhaps because its bereft of any style which can make it dated, or pertaining to any identifiable 'school'.

'The Real Cool Killers' would be a great place to renew your acquaintance with Chester Himes.

Next up for me is my 'Panther Crime' version of his 'All Sht Up'
(which boasts another great 'blaxploitation' cover)

speaking of which, what would the pc-era 'blaxploitation' be alled 'AfricanAmericanisation'?

August 23, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I read The Real Cool Killers and Cotton Comes to Harlem a few years and, more recently, a manic short-short story of Himes' called "Reefer Madness," if I have the title right. It's not at all laconic. Rather, it's a nightmarish bit of impressionism well suited to its title.

I wonder if black filmmakers and audiences used the term "blaxploitation."

August 23, 2010  
Blogger The Celtic Kagemusha said...

the term "blaxploitation." might be considered an ironic one, given that it provided black actors, and directors, with lead roles in popular films.

I don't know what their box-office was like in the States and Canada at the time of their release, but I remember that over here, while few, if any premiered at the 'Savoy' or 'Adelphi', which were the prestigious first-run houses in Dublin at the time, they were certainly very popular in the suburban cinemas for a number of years in the early 70s

August 23, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I don't know the social history of those films, but one can well imagine black writers, actors, and all kinds of creative and technical people embracing, or at least regarding with a certain affection, a form that gave them work.

August 23, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I neglected to add that I was interested to learn of the movies' status in Ireland. I don't recall ever having heard much abour their popularity overseas. I would not have been shocked to learn that they were popular in, say, France.

August 23, 2010  
Blogger michael said...

The Big Knockover (collection of some of the Op's short stories) was the beginning of my love for hardboiled fiction. I most admire the range of his characters from the real world wit of the Continental Op to the over the top violence of Red Harvest, from the icon of hardboiled PIs Sam Spade to the most famous of the romantic comedy mystery team Nick and Nora Charles, Hammett is responsible for much of the variety of basic characters and types in the hardboiled mystery genre.

August 24, 2010  
Blogger The Celtic Kagemusha said...

" I would not have been shocked to learn that they were popular in, say, France."
Nor would I: the French were generally 'hip to le trip', in such matters, although Jerry Lewis I'll just put down to a case of 'even Homer nods'.

And, speaking of Ross Macdonald and Lew Harper I just noticed that 'The Drowning Pool' is screening here tonight, on BBC One. I believe I may have seen one of the filmed adaptations about 30 years, and can't remember too much about it, but will definitely have a look at it to see how it measures up
(I doubt it will be a patch on 'Night Moves', though)

August 24, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Michael, I just bought another copy of The Big Knockover yesterday, and I may buy the Library of America collection of Hammett's short fiction just to have all the stories in a handsome, durable edition. I'll keep the paperbacks for bathtub reading.

I think I'll read The Glass Key next. I've read and liked several of the novels, but I don't remember liking them as much as I do the short stories.

My copy of The Continental Op is more than twenty years old, and the notes I made in it back then are embarrassingly enthusiastic and obvious, not to mention written in pen on the pages, in the sort of vandalism I would never commit today. But I made them in the right places, though.

August 24, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Yes, Jerry Lewis is France's own cultural blague on America. I don't what made me think blaxploitation movies might have been popular in France. Maybe that country's supposed embrace of jazz, or maybe that Chester Himes, James Baldwin, and Josephine Baker, among other black American artists, chose to live there.

I watched The Drowning Pool about two years ago, or rather, I tried to watch. I found one aspect of the movie too distracting to let me watch the whole thing.

August 24, 2010  
Blogger Joe Barone said...

I agree without question that Hammett is literature. To me, he is an amazing writer because of his range. I prefer him to all the other detective "classics."

August 24, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

It would be easier to come right out and call Hammett's best writing literature if not for the slight squirm induced by the qualities that make it literature. "Existential uncertainty" would have a better reputation if more of it were as lively as Hammett's.

August 24, 2010  
Anonymous solo said...

Feck, Peter, in an earlier post you pissed on the term 'literary' from a great, even a magnificent height. And with my full congratulations. Now you're telling us Hammett is good because it's literature. How the f*** is one to understand the term literature without it's natural adjective literary?

I'm sure you'll have an excellent explanation so please don't be bothered by the slightly hyperventilating tone of the previous paragraph.

You have an advantage over me in having read Hammett's short stories. I've only read the novels and while most of them (excepting The Dain Curse) are great, The Maltese Falcon is my favourite.

It has a great story, it has great characters, it has great scenes, and it has perfect pace: never too fast, never too slow.

But for all that its 'objective' style is very limiting and it's not surprising later writers chose not to follow it.

In the final scene Spade's secretary is disgusted with his behaviour and tells him so.

In response, Hammett tells us: 'Spade's face became pale as his collar.' This is a crude attempt to tell us what Spade's emotions are. The whole novel is filled with this kind of thing. Instead of Hammett giving us Spade's thoughts we're told what noises he makes with his throat or what his face looks like at certain times. It works brilliantly in The Maltese Falcon, but only because Hammett got there before most other writers. Otherwise, it's a literary dead-end.

On a slightly different, somewhat irreverent note, may I draw attention to this passage in The Maltese Falcon:

He [Spade] put on a thin white union suit, grey socks, black garters, and dark brown shoes.

I have to confess I've always found the idea of men wearing sock garters slightly comical, but I had to look up the term union suit in Wikipedia and found that even more comical. I've never been able to see Sam Spade quite the same since.

August 24, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I use the term literature with some self-mockery, in reference to the very post you mention.

My excuse is that, while Steven Marcus' assertion that Hammett transformed detective fiction in the direction of literature made me squirm, he at least made the attempt to define what he meant by literature in Hammett's case. Most commenters, on the other hand, rely on the aura surrounding the word to obviate any need for definition. And, whether the work amounts to literature or not, the qualities he sees as signs ot literature are, in fact, defining qualities of the stories, the things that make them exciting and different. And, for all its occasional high-blown language, his analysis of the stories is accurate. So that's why I'm willing to use Hammett and literaure in the same sentence.

Whether The Maltese Falcon, on the other hand, really is "the history of capitalism," as Marcus suggests, is another matter.

In re collars and union suits, Hammett's technique may simply have worked better in short stories than in novels. The Op puts on a union suit in one of the stories, and I, too, have always found that a comical garment.

August 24, 2010  
Anonymous kathy d. said...

As good a writer as Hammett is, I don't see how anyone could suggest "The Maltese Falcon," is "the history of capitalism."

It surely is about the lengths to which overt, cold-hearted greed motivates some individuals to act violently and commit murder.

That could be Hammett's message here--about unmitigated greed as a motivator for violence.

September 03, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

The stuff about the history of capitalism seems to be stretching a point. Marcus said things about the Falcon being something no one owns even as he or she possesses it, a commodity that turns out to be fake. He doesn't argue the point at great length, at least in the essay I read, which is probably all to the good.

September 03, 2010  

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