Sunday, May 20, 2012

What Hammett means

Dashiell Hammett's very first Continental Op story, "Arson Plus," twice uses the word meaning or a form thereof early on, both times in a negative sense:
"I had never known him to miss an opening for a sour crack, but it didn't mean anything."
and
"Mr. Coons was a small-boned, plump man with the smooth, meaningless face, and the suavity of the typical male house servant."
What does Hammett mean by this? I say he's stating clearly and with breathtaking concision the proposition that appearances are not only deceptive, as they would be in a conventional detective story, but utterly and existentially unrelated to whatever truth the detective pursues.

Hammett's readers and critics have long seen touches of existentialism in his writing, notably in the celebrated "Flitcraft Parable" from The Maltese Falcon. But I say these striking little examples from "Arson Plus" show that he knew what he was doing and what he wanted to say almost from the start of his writing career.

© Peter Rozovsky 2012

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