Friday, January 10, 2014

Dashiell Hammett: Secret Viking?

On this, the fifty-third anniversary of Dashiell Hammett's death, I'll resurrect a post about my favorite reference to Hammett in a work by another writer. Did the Icelandic sagas really influence Hammett?  I have never read such a suggestion anywhere else, but I call this an apt and imaginative tribute to a great author and to a great body of writing from the Middle Ages.

. Oh, boy, was this an exciting discovery. A bit less than halfway into Josef Škvorecký's Two Murders in My Double Life, I found this exchange between the narrator/protagonist and a student at the Toronto college where he teaches:
"I asked his permission and sat down beside him. Then I looked into his book and was able to read the page heading: NORDIC SAGAS. ... Beside Freddie, on the bench, I saw a paperback with a loudly coloured jacket: Dashiell Hammett, The Continental Op. ...

"`Any connection?'

"`I think there is,' said Freddie with some enthusiasm. `I think that the Old Nordic sagas were the source for Dashiell Hammett's style, and his inspiration in general.'

"`Really? Usually it's assumed that he was influenced by the harsh realities of American big cities, and by Hemingway.'

"`I'm not saying he wasn't,' said Freddie, as if he were already defending his M.A. thesis. But his
main inspiration came from the Nordic sagas.' ... 
"I spent the next half hour on that bench, and Freddie, quoting from Song of Eric the Red and from the Hammett stories featuring a detective called Continental Op, demonstrated how identical were the respective poker-faced killers of those works, and how the authors presented their bloody brutalities with equal lack of comment or show of emotion."
Why do I enjoy that so much? Because Arnaldur Indriðason also cited the sagas as an influence on his own laconic prose style, and because I've posted about crime-fiction-like features in Njal's Saga, commonly considered the greatest of the genre. It seems that Škvorecký was on to something.

(Link to free online versions of some of the sagas here.)

© Peter Rozovsky 2009, 2014

Labels: , , , , , , ,


Blogger R. T. said...

While I would have guessed that Indridason acknowledged the Icelandic sagas as inspiration (or at least as cultural influence), I think I take the fictional connections offered by Svorecky with a grain of salt. Nevertheless, thank you for mentioning Njal's Saga for which I will now run off to the library. I'll be looking for the crime-fiction features you cite. It should be great fun.
Postscript: I spent 18 months in Iceland, and--I'm ashamed to admit this--I did not read any Icelandic sagas while there; I think I was much too preoccupied with the people and the scenery to give much thought to the literature.

March 23, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

It had occurred to me, too, that Škvorecký might be having a bit of fun with the connection. I think he is, but fun of a gentle kind and at the expense of academics rather than of crime fiction. In addition to writing a kind of the stiff himself, he seems to have affection for the genre.

You have no reason to be ashamed of not having read the sagas. I suspect most travelers who read a nation's literary classics do do only after they return -- after their interest has been sparked, in other words.

March 23, 2009  
Blogger adrian mckinty said...


Who says Icelanders have no sense of humour?

In one of the sagas, I forget which (possibly Burnt Njal) its the Battle of Clontarf and High King Brian Boru has just crushed the Viking army. The combined Viking horde turns and runs away. All except for one man who casually facing the entire Irish army, bends down and starts doing up his shoelaces.

"Why didn't you run with the others?" he is asked.

"Meh, I live in Iceland, I couldn't get home tonight, it was too big of a commute."

The Irishmen laugh at the joke and the Viking is spared and given a ship.

March 23, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

The closest translation of the oldest surviving text is: "Ah, ya big ganch! Feck and away with ye, then!"

And here's visual evidence visual evidence that Icelanders can enjoy a jolly swig.

From Njal's Saga:

"Now it must be told of King Brian that he would not fight on the
fast-day, and so a shieldburg (1) was thrown round him, and his
host was drawn up in array in front of it.

Wolf the Quarrelsome was on that wing of the battle against which
Brodir stood; but on the other wing, where Sigtrygg stood against
them, were Ospak and his sons."

I love that moniker: Wolf the Quarrelsome.

March 23, 2009  
Blogger adrian mckinty said...


I hope you asked him if he knew Bjork. Apparently everyone does.

March 23, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I didn't ask him that, but the homogeneity of the country's bloodlines is a key plot point in one of his novels.

I have read, too, that the Icelandic language makes a conscious effort to preserve old forms.

March 23, 2009  
Blogger adrian mckinty said...


I can well believe that they share the same bloodline. You probably wont get this reference but I felt like a Hobbit in Lothlorien when I went to an outdoor hot spring in Reykjavik. All these pale, blonde ethereal Bjork like people and hairy, dark, me.

March 23, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I'm not a Tolkienist, but I get the idea.

Oddly enough, of the three Icelanders I met at Bouchercon (Arnaldur, Yrsa Sigurðardóttir and her husband), I seem to recall that none was dark-haired.

The shared-bloodline device always struck me as one the more effective uses of setting a crime novel. The man is intensely aware of his country. His protagonist, for example, resists the postowar urbanization of Iceland. And Arnaldur has lamented that the country's lack of violence makes life difficult for crime writers.

March 23, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Er. make that I seem to recall that none was light-haired.

March 23, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Adrian, here's the passage in question, from Chapter 157 of Njal's Saga:

"Thorstein Hallsson stopped running while the others were fleeing, and tied up his shoe-thong. Kerthjalfad asked him why he was not running.

"`Because,' said Thorstein, `i cannot reach home tonight, for my home is out in Iceland.'

"Kerthjalfad spared his life."

And, a few lines later:

"The boy Tadk threw up an arm to protect Brian, but the sword cut off the arm and the king's head. The king's blood spilled over the stump of the boy's arm, and the wound healed at once."

Quite a king.

March 24, 2009  
Blogger Comicbookrehab said...

I've read biographies of Hammett and never found him to be a particularly educated man in his early years; he DID become well-read as his writing career flourished and his social circles expanded to other writers, Lillian Hillman & Nell Martin in particular, but his inspiration came from his work as a private investigator for Pinkertons and reading detective fiction produced at the time; Nordic sagas were outside his frame of reference.

January 20, 2014  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I suspect Škvorecký's passage--which, after all, occurs in a novel and not in a critical discussion of Hammett--was whimsical, a joyful exercise in imagination as well as a comment on Hammett's laconic style and that of the sagas. I believe Škvorecký was teaching at a university when he wrote the book, so the passage may also poke fun at some academics' tendency to find what they are looking for, whether it is present or not.

If it gets a Hammett reader to look up the sagas, or vice versa, so much the better.

January 20, 2014  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...


I transpires that the Viking/Hammett reference may not be entirely whimsical. Here's a note I received from a friend who is reading a new biography of Hammett:

"On p. 32, Cline notes that Hammett's apt on Eddy St was four blocks from the public library, `...where H read Anatole France, Flaubert, ancient Icelandic sagas, and other works from Aristotle to Henry James...'

"She doesn't substantiate this with a note (she makes a number of unsubstantiated claims in her psychological autopsy of Hammett) but if true it may have as its source some of the Hammett letters and other documentation that came to light post publication of Layman's bio and the Letters volume. It would be great to have a revised edition of the latter with this new material.

February 03, 2014  

Post a Comment

<< Home