Saturday, December 19, 2015

A Detectives Beyond Borders best book of 2015: Nathan Ward on how Hammett became Hammett

Nathan Ward's book The Lost Detective: Becoming Dashiell Hammett proposes that Hammett's experience as a detective for the Pinkerton Agency was a formative influence on his writing.

Ward is not the first Hammett scholar/researcher to make the connection; Richard Layman titled his 1981 Hammett biography Shadow Man. Ward, too, notes Hammett's writing about being a good shadow man — that is, being good at tailing someone without himself being detected.  One key, Hammett wrote, is to note the quarry's physical attitude. The way a person moves or wears clothes can be vastly more important in identifying one's quarry than can his or her face.

Commentary on Hammett's work as a detective generally suggests that the experience lent his stories verisimilitude, that he could write more convincingly about fictional detectives because he had been a real one.  Ward is the first Hammett scholar I can remember who suggests that the most valuable lesson Hammett learned was concision. He and other Pinkertons had to be brief and no-nonsense in their reports for the agency, a contention supported by Ward's research in Pinkerton archives, and this, Ward says, helped form Hammett as a writer.

Good prose style has never been valued less than it is now, and it does not figure prominently in discussions of authors. If you have even a passing familiarity with themes in Hammett biography and criticism, you'll know that scholars have focused on his politics, his love life, and his drinking. Ward's book is not, as reviewers and others have maintained, a biography. (Layman, on our Hammett panel at Bouchercon 2015 in Raleigh, recognized this.) Rather, it is something rarer: A book about a writer that concentrates on writing. And that's why it's a Detectives Beyond Borders best book of 2015.

Fresh off reading Ward's book, I picked up The Maltese Falcon again, to find Hammett turning his detective's eye on Sam Spade.:
"The steep rounded slope of his shoulders made his body seem almost conical—no broader than it was thick—and kept his freshly pressed grey coat from fitting very well."
You'd know that man if you saw him again* and, having shown than he can do it, Hammett puts description to brilliant thematic use right from the start. But that's a subject for a future post.
* Hammett's Spade is blond and "quite six feet tall." He looks, that is, about as far from Humphrey Bogart as it is possible for a human being to look.
© Peter Rozovsky 2015

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Blogger N.C. W. said...

Thanks, Peter. You're the first of the Hammett expert bloggers to critique the book. Hope others are moved to return to the stories and novels as you were.

August 27, 2015  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I don't know if I'm an expert, but thanks. My reaction was a bit like Otto Penzler's, I would have picked up Falcon again regardless, but, having done so, it's probably thanks to your book that I picked out how Hammett described Spade the way Dick Foley described suspects.

August 27, 2015  
Blogger seana graham said...

That's a good point that Hammett makes about looking for larger aspects of a person. When I worked in the bookstore I found that it was often quite hard to remember someone's face even a few minutes later if I had gone off to look for something for them. I wasn't the only person who had this experience. It was indeed often easier to pick them out by what they were wearing, although it also led to a few embarrassing mistakes, as people in their leisurewear can often look similar.

I think I'd be quite bad at tailing someone.

August 28, 2015  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Seana, read Hammett's tips on tailing before you rule yourself out. One of the advantages of tailing someone from behind (and I think this is from Hammett), is that, in the absence of a face to look at, the shadower is forced to concentrates on how the person moves, walks, relaxes, and so on--the sorts of things that are much harder to disguise than one's looks, hairstyle, and so on. (In Hammett's story "The Girl With the Silver Eyes," though, the Op remembers the title character not by her movements, but by her eyes.)

August 28, 2015  
Blogger Tim said...

Your wonderful posting comes at just the right time, and you've motivated me to find the highlighted book and return to Hammett for a while. Merry Christmas from Crime Classics, a new blog with humble ambitions, an open door, and an inaugural posting/review.

December 21, 2015  
Blogger adrian mckinty said...


Did you ever read Scoop? There's a funny scene with the naive reporter in Abyssinia completely fails to write in telegraphese and in a to the point abbreviated style. His wordiness costs his newspaper a fortune.

December 21, 2015  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Adrian: I had a Waugh jones years ago but did not read "Scoop."

In a related note, I just bought the second trade paperback of the Ed Brubaker/Sean Philips comic/graphic novel Fadeout. In addition to a character named Thursby, this second volume includes an appearance by Dashi9ell Hammett as a character.

December 21, 2015  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Tim, I often return to Hammett--the Good Book for me, you might say.

December 21, 2015  

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