Wednesday, February 16, 2011

The key to Hammett

"I don't like eloquence: if it isn't effective enough to pierce your hide, it's tiresome; and if it is effective enough, then it muddles your thoughts."

— The Continental Op in
Dashiell Hammett's story
"Zigzags of Treachery" (1924)

© Peter Rozovsky 2011

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20 Comments:

Blogger adrian mckinty said...

He protests too much. There are great passages of lyrical description in all of Hammett's novels. What he really dislikes is bad writing as do we all, we just cant agree what bad writing is.

Dan Brown's fictions are entirely without eloquence: they are breathless, plot driven, pot boilers for the MTV age. Would Hammett have enjoyed them?

February 16, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

You and I both know that he means grandiloquence. I am reading "The Assistant Murderer," whose descriptions of the ugly detective Alexander are positively touching, by God.

February 16, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

What this really means is that I am trying to figure out what makes Hammett so good.

February 16, 2011  
Anonymous Elisabeth said...

"I am trying to figure out what makes Hammett so good."

When I think of things I love but have a hard time figuring out/articulating why I love them and/or have trouble communicating my feelings/thoughts about my reactions to others, I gain heart from this quote from Beryl Markham: "A lovely horse is always an experience...it is an emotional experience that is spoiled by words."

February 16, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Aha, but there's an easy way around that. Talking, thinking, writing about, or studying a great work of art is just a way of paying homage to it, and of stimulating one's mind and spirit in its presence.

I apologize to the shade of Dashiell Hammett for that outburst of eloquence.

February 16, 2011  
Anonymous kathy d. said...

It's a tautology: Hammett is a good writer because he writes well.

He knows how to use the language, how to use words to form ideas. He is frugal and precise with his language.

He knows what he wants to say and says it, with economy, no extra words. And what he says means something; it's not trival or meaningless.

Dan Brown writes words. His plots are quick-paced. A reader turns pages quickly to find the next clue, suspect, action.

But the quality of the writing is not great. The sentences within themselves don't make one sit and ponder their meaning. There isn't word play or greater meaning in the words.

Hammett and other great writers deliver good sentences; readers can chew on them and mull them over. He uses words well, they resonate.

When one finishes a book, does one say? Wow, that was a great story. That was great writing.

We agree that crime fiction can be so-called literary fiction. There is good and bad writing in both.

Hammett happens to be--not happens, he honed his craft--a good story writer who used words very well and crafted his sentences well, thinking of each word.

Does Dan Brown do that? Would we take a sentence by Dan Brown and say "that was a finely honed sentence. Now I have to think about it."

February 16, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

It's a tautology: Hammett is a good writer because he writes well.

But realizing the statement is a tautology is a refreshing reminder that there is no formula to writing well. Think of the tautology as a kind of Zen koan, opening the way to greater truths.

Hammett is frugal and precise and, I have learned, he made good use of his detective experience. But why should he have been so predisposed to put that experience to such good use when he turned to writing detective stories? It's a mystery.

Side by side with Hammett, I have been reading the occasional story by his fellow Black Mask writers. They share many verbal quirks with him, and some of their stories are worth reading. But Hammett was altogether greater, worthy of the kind of homage and study and serious thinking I mentioned above.

When one finishes a book, does one say? Wow, that was a great story. That was great writing.

I wonder about this often in my professional life as well as in the reading I do for pleasure. I wonder why so few people at my newspaper, for example, talk about good writing. There are institutional reasons for this, but maybe good writing is transparent. If a story gets a reader thinking or talking, well, maybe it is perforce a well-written story even if the reader would not identify it as such.

Does Dan Brown do that? Would we take a sentence by Dan Brown and say "that was a finely honed sentence. Now I have to think about it."

I once said something after I read part of a sentence by Dan Brown. It did not include finely, honed, or "I have to think about it."

February 16, 2011  
Blogger Linkmeister said...

No. With Dan Brown it's more "if I throw this against the wall will it stick or fall to the ground? Let's try!"

February 17, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Nah, with me it was more visceral than that.

February 17, 2011  
Anonymous kathy d. said...

There are thrillers that are well-written, where when one finishes, there is a sense of satisfaction that is a good read.

That doesn't mean a sentence is finely honed or that one ponders its meaning for awhile.

There are gradations of good writing obviously.

Dan Brown's book (Da Vinci Code) is an average thriller, with elements a thriller should have, a fast pace, a puzzle, clues, quirky characters. It was a page-turner, but it was an average thriller, no more, no less.

But what bothered me was the hype, the promotion and ad campaigns, like it was a Pulitzer contender or something.

And when I read it, I kept looking for more. And when I got to the last 25 pages or so, yes--I wanted to throw the book across the room, too. What a letdown, not to mention the religious double talk.

Gregg Hurwitz's "The Crime Writer," is a better written thriller. And Hammett writes pure poetry in comparison.

But why do people not read well-written books? Why do people watch mostly schlocky movies--barely any character development, lots of weapons and high-tech elements, a superficial plot?

It's quick entertainment, doesn't require much thought or investment. It's a distraction, a brief moment of diversion.

Anyway, I have Sjowall and Wahloo's "The Fire Engine that Disappeared," and thinking is required to read that first chapter, as Martin Beck ponders some of life's travails. Maybe people just want to be entertained and distracted, and take a break.

No offense to any readers; I, too, like thrillers sometimes.

February 17, 2011  
Blogger Yvette said...

Kathy: Your 'taut' is right on the money. Point said. Point taken.

Personally, I love 'eloquence' if written by someone with a talent for it. When I read Thomas Wolfe in high school, I learned that eloquence and love of flinging language about was a perfectly wonderful way to tell a story if you had a gift for it.

February 17, 2011  
Anonymous Elisabeth said...

"Talking, thinking, writing about, or studying a great work of art is just a way of paying homage to it, and of stimulating one's mind and spirit in its presence."

Of course. I wouldn't want you (or anyone else) to give up doing these things, to give up trying to "figure out what makes Hammett so good." I just meant that sometimes it's OK to just sit back for a while and enjoy the ride, the view, the book, the whatever.

There are just so many words one can collocate to describe rationally why Jan Vermeer's paintings (for example) are so beautiful, so mesmerizing, before one just sits on that bench in front of one of them and lets the senses and emotion take over. And then, after a while, pick up the pen once again to keep on trying.

February 17, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Yvette, eloquence is a difficult word. Hammett's often understated writing is certainly persuasive, forceful, and other attributes generally associated with eloquence. In any case, I found another reference to eloquence in one of his stories that might be worth a post.

February 17, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

There are just so many words one can collocate to describe rationally why Jan Vermeer's paintings (for example) are so beautiful, so mesmerizing, before one just sits on that bench in front of one of them and lets the senses and emotion take over. And then, after a while, pick up the pen once again to keep on trying.

So, is Hammett the Giotto of crime writing because he originiated so much? Or is he more a Michelangelo because his achievement was so great?

I have often let my senses take over as I sat mesmerized before going back to the pen. A man's got to do what a man's got to do.

February 17, 2011  
Anonymous kathy d. said...

And, as I look at this quote again, I am reminded of another post which asked if something written can be brief, but expansive.

I'd say here "yes." The words are brief, but the meaning is great. One has to think about it.

March 09, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Kathy, I think by "brief but expansive," the writer meant "brief but eloquent," "brief but packed with meaning," "brief but comprehensive," or something similar. "Brief but expansive" is not quite right, because expansive has connotations of great size -- the opposite of brevity.

March 09, 2011  
Anonymous kathy d. said...

I thought that "brief but expansive," meant a few words could mean a great deal, could make one think way beyond the few seconds it takes to read it.

March 09, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

That's probably what the reviwer meant, but the choice of words was not quite right. Look up "expansive," and you'll find ideas such as extensive, large, on a grand scale, even friendly, open, willing, and given to grand gestures. You won't find anything that conveys brevity.

The reviewer probably meant that the book in question says much with few words. That's a worthy accomplishment, but the opposite of expansive.

March 09, 2011  
Anonymous Elisabeth said...

As the commenter who originally cited the abstract that began "This brief but expansive..." I can state that "brief but comprehensive" is what the abstractor intended. The 2-page article (with 2 figs.) is an exhaustive condensation... of a 380-p. book, Medieval Wall Paintings in English and Welsh Churches.

March 10, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I can appreciate those virtues in books, too.

March 10, 2011  

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