Monday, January 10, 2011

Memorial day

Dashiell Hammett died fifty years ago today. Time magazine included his 1929 novel Red Harvest on a list of the 100 best English-language novels published between 1923 and 2005, and Declan Hughes called Hammett "the Bach, the Louis Armstrong" of crime fiction. "Everything started with him." I think he was right.

Courtesy of the Thrilling Detective Web site, here are some assessments of Hammett from three guys who knew a thing or two about crime writing:

  • “If not the greatest, Dashiell Hammett is certainly the most important American mystery writer of the twentieth century, and second in history only to Edgar Allen Poe, who essentially invented the genre.”
    Tony Hillerman
  • “When I was 14 or 15 I read Hammett's The Thin Man (the first Hammett I'd read) and it was a defining moment. It was a sad, lonely, lost book, that pretended to be cheerful and aware and full of good fellowship, and I hadn't known you could do that: seem to be telling this, but really telling that; three-dimensional writing, like three-dimensional chess. Nabokov was the other master of that.”
    Donald Westlake
  • “As a novelist of realistic intrigue, Hammett was unsurpassed in his own or any time. ... We all came out from under Hammett's black mask.”
    Ross Macdonald
More recently I was stunned by the immediacy of Ned Beaumont's beating in The Glass Key. The novel is eighty years old; the scene could have been written yesterday.

Again with a hat tip to Thrilling Detective, here's a Hammett bibliography to get you started reading Detectives Beyond Borders' nominee as the greatest crime writer ever. You could do worse than the Library of America's volume of Hammett's Crime Stories and Other Writings.

© Peter Rozovsky 2011

Labels: , ,

25 Comments:

Anonymous kathy d. said...

Cheers to the memory of Dashiell Hammett, who left his legacy in his writings.

Having enthusiastically just read "The Thin Man," which was superb, I can agree with many of the accolades about him.

But to add one more asset of Hammett as a writer: He wrote terrific dialogue.

The story in "The Thin Man" is told through dialogue. There are not a lot of descriptive passages nor character development, nor introspective thinking by the protagonists. The reader learns what's happening through the dialogue, especially what is said by Nick Charles, the protagonist.

And, I still insist that Hammett was principled in his post-WWII behavior and statements.

January 10, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Principled and possibly admirable in his conduct. (I hedge with the "possibly" simply because I don't know all about his life in great detail.)

If you see the movies based on his novels then read the books, you'll notice that the movies take much of their dialogue right from the source. And that's a clue that Hammett wrote fine dialogue.

January 10, 2011  
Blogger adrian mckinty said...

Peter

I hundred percent agree with this. We're all reading and writing in Dash's shadow. An absolute master.

Some works have dated better than others of course. The Continental Op books and stories, The Maltese Falcon...but I had a really hard time getting through The Thin Man, (whereas I loved the movie).

Nobody has really explained what he was doing for the last 30 years of his life. Drinking certainly, but was he writing too?

January 10, 2011  
Blogger Sean Patrick Reardon said...

Hammet is on my list to start reading and learning from this year. I am looking forward to it. Chandler is also on the list. Thanks, Peter.

January 10, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Adrian, I've had a bit of trouble reading The Thin Man recently, which I chalked up to my having read The Glass Key, Red Harvest, The Maltese Falcon and all the Op short stories very recently before.

I've read bits and pieces about what Hammett did between 1934 and 1961: his comic strip, a bit of work for Hollywood, a sounding board (or rewrite man) for Hellman.

After I'd remarked in a recent comment about "Hammett's turning more overtly toward politics only after he stopped writing," that frequent commenter and knowledgeable Hammett reader Elisabeth replied: "Good point. And I know you don't mean `stopped writing' in the literal sense. We all know he continued to write, just not the crime fiction we know and love".

January 10, 2011  
Anonymous kathy d. said...

I'm surprised to see this about "The Thin Man." I enjoyed it as I enjoy Camilleri's books, although it's a bit different.

Did Hammett write the "after the Thin Man" pieces that were made into the movies? I saw his name on the piece referenced here, but don't see books' titles with any "after the Thin Man" sequels.

January 10, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

You're welcome, Sean. You have some good reading ahead. And don't overlook short stories in your Hammett and Chandler reading.

January 10, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Kathy, here the facts as I undestand them:

Two of the movie sequels to "The Thin Man" were "based on an original story" by Dashiell Hammett. He had no association with the rest of the sequels.

Hammett's story "A Man Called Thin" has nothing to do with "The Thin Man" and appeared shortly after he died. Finally, an early version of what became "The Thin Man," called today "The First Thin Man" (very different from the novel that eventually resulted) was not published until 1975.

Donald Westlake's comments about "The Thin Man" are surprising, but there are darker apsects to the book -- some of the desperation and depravity in Dorothy Wynant's new family, for instance. In addition to having been a fine crime writer, Westlake was an acute reader and observer of culture. His opinions always deserve attention.

January 10, 2011  
Blogger Yvette said...

Apropos of not much, I thought I'd share this Hammett tidbit from one of my favorite little books, Now All We Need Is A Title:

Mystery writer Hammet's first novel, after years of writing pulp stories for magazines like Black Mask and working as a private detective, was initially called POISONVILLE. His eventual publisher, Alfred Knopf, who also published James M. Cain and Raymond Chandler, was notorious for challenging authors on their book title choices. He found POISONVILLE 'hopeless' as a title, and set Hammett to work finding something better. Hammett tried and tossed out THE SEVENTEENTH MURDER, MURDER PLUS, THE WILSSON MATTER, THE CITY OF DEATH, THE CLEANSING OF POISONVILLE, and THE BLACK CITY before thinking of RED HARVEST which evoked both left-wing radicalism and the flow of blood...

January 10, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

In this case, I'd say Knopf was decidedly right to reject "Poisonville" and settle on "Red Harvest."

January 10, 2011  
Anonymous kathy d. said...

I guess I must read more of Hammett's works to discuss more points thoroughly.

I wasn't really looking at the underlying problems in Dorothy Wynant's family, other than noticing her mother's physical and verbal abuse.

I was too busy enjoying the investigation and Nick Charles' discussions, dialogue with others and revelations.

January 10, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

You read "The Thin Man" for the right reasons. Sure, Hammett is worth discussing, but one should read him for the sheer pleasure of reading.

The mother's abuse, that the brothr was a weird kid, and that Dorothy is afraid Jorgensen will make a pass at her. That was not a happy, relaxed household.

January 10, 2011  
Anonymous kathy d. said...

No, not a healthy household. But, as a reader, I rose above it and read the story, as it unfolded.

January 10, 2011  
Blogger Sean Patrick Reardon said...

Peter- Very good point and I just might ease myself in by starting with the shorts

January 11, 2011  
Blogger adrian mckinty said...

Peter

I got completely lost with The Thin Man and had to start the thing a couple of times over. The movie is a breeze. The movie(s) are a breeze and very enjoyable.

January 11, 2011  
Blogger adrian mckinty said...

Peter

The 39 Steps, The Thin Man, The Last of the Mohicans - three rare cases when the film for me is better than the book.

January 11, 2011  
Blogger Yvette said...

Yes, Adrian, I mostly agree with you.About THE 39 STEPS,especially. We were talking on my blog a few days ago about LAST OF THE MOHICANS because I love the N.C. Wyeth artwork done in 1919. I liked the book, read it for the first time as an adult not really knowing what to expect.

The film (though it is beautifully filmed amid gorgeous scenery) is more man/woman romance whereas, the book, to me is more man/nature. Also, in the book Uncas has a sligher role than in the film. I like the Uncas of the Daniel Day Lewis film.

I read THE THIN MAN a while back, but I think I'm going to read it again. Thanks to your enthusiasm, Kathy.

Have not read RED HARVEST.

Sidenote: Dashiel Hammett makes a well written appearance in Laurie R. King's Holmes and Russell book,
THE LOCKED ROOM.

January 11, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Sean, Hammett does not need easing into; jump right in. I mention the Op stories just to make sure you consider them along with the novels. They sparked my current Hammett jones.

January 11, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Adrian, I'm not sure why I' ve had trouble getting started with The Thin Man. Perhaps the wisecracks are an uneasy fit with Hammett's tight prose -- and they're good wisecracks, too.

January 11, 2011  
Anonymous kathy d. said...

"The Thin Man" is quite witty. That is one of the aspects to enjoy while reading it. And one imagines William Powell with a cocktail in his hand.

January 11, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

The 39 Steps, The Thin Man, The Last of the Mohicans - three rare cases when the film for me is better than the book.

If one considers Hitchcock's 39 Steps a version of Buchan's novel, then yes.

January 11, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Kathy, I agree with you there. I picture William Powell and Myrna Loy as Nick and Nora as I read. The movie made such a strong impression that I have trouble picturing Dorothy as blond.

January 11, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

"The film (though it is beautifully filmed amid gorgeous scenery) is more man/woman romance whereas, the book, to me is more man/nature."

I've neither read nor seen The Last of the Mohicans, though this comment is no surprise. I think movies will always tend to play up the romance and play down other elements when it adapts books, as with The Big Sleep -- or The Thirty-nine Steps, for that matter, where the romantic element is original to the movie, just as it is in Rear Window, another adaptation.

January 11, 2011  
Anonymous Elisabeth said...

"Frankly, I can conceive of better writing than the Falcon, and a more tender and warm attitude to life, and a more flowery ending; but by God, if you can show me twenty books written approximately 20 years back that have as much guts and life now, I'll eat them between slices of Edmund Wilson's head. Really I'm beginning to wonder quite seriously whether anybody knows what writing is anymore, whether they haven't got the whole bloody business so completely mixed up with subject matter and significance and who's going to win the peace and what they gave him for the screen rights and if you're not a molecular physicist, you're illiterate, and so on, that there simply isn't anybody around who can read a book and say that the guy knew how to write or didn't."--Raymond Chandler, 1945.

January 12, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I like that. It's something like what I mean when I say "prose style," though I try not to say it too much.

January 13, 2011  

Post a Comment

Links to this post:

Create a Link

<< Home