A Detectives Beyond Borders best book of 2015: Nathan Ward on how Hammett became Hammett
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.
© Peter Rozovsky 2015