Friday, August 27, 2010

Just a bit more Hammett, including the Continental Opera

I left the house without the non-American book I was going to write about, so I'll continue my Hammett holiday a bit longer.

1) Even the earliest Continental Op stories have that twist ending that casts into question all that has gone before, or comes as a comic anti-climax, or seems almost to be the beginning of a new story before the old one has ended.

2) The first great Op story was probably "Zigzags of Treachery" — and here I welcome comment from readers more up on their Hammett than I. I don't know how critical consensus ranks the Op stories. "The Golden Horseshoe" is the best of this batch I've read in recent days.

3) Hammett's experience as a private detective is often cited as contributing to the authenticity of his writing. It does this in the Op's convincing asides about detective work (good shadowing, the Op tells us, perhaps ironically, is not as hard as one would think), but also in observations like this:
"Little things, those, but a private detective on the witness stand—unless he is absolutely sure of every detail—has an unpleasant and ineffectual time of it."
4) Hammett's novel Red Harvest was made into an opera, which elicited the observation from the Thrilling Detective Web Site's Kevin Burton Smith that "I guess it won't be over until the Fat Man sings."

Go here for a compact but thorough discussion of Hammett's short fiction, including a typology of his plots.

© Peter Rozovsky 2010

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Blogger michael said...

Anyone interested in Dashiell Hammett's work will enjoy a visit to Mike Humbert's website.

He has a great section featuring Dashiell Hammett including a news page, a look at each of the books and characters and lots of details. For example, he lists details of every Continental Op short story.

I wonder which overseas authors belong to the "Hammett school of the hardboiled PI"?

August 27, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I made a post some time ago about overseas crime writers who cited Chandler as an influence. Several cited Hammett as well, usually his portrayals of corrupt cities.

As for the Continental Op stories, the one crime protagonist that jumped to mind was Richard Stark's Parker. Neither Parker nor the Op seed any higher virtue than getting the job done, neither wastes time doing much of anything else, and both are driven by a kind of code of honor without beating the reader over the head with it. Most similarly single-minded protagonists these days are warped or driven or messed up in some way, which is one reason Hammett's accomplishment with the Op is so impressive. It also helps explain why I am having trouble coming up with sleuths, overseas or otherwise, influenced by the Op. (It would be easier to cite descendants of Sam Spade and The Thin Man.) But I will keep at it. You pose an interesting question. As a very early, tentative guess, I'll propose Jean-Patrick Manchette, for the occasional existential probing and for the odd endings that may call into question what went before.

And here's Mike Humbert's site in handy, clickable form. It may of interest to readers who plan to attend Bouchercon in San Francisco. Thanks.

August 27, 2010  
Blogger adrian mckinty said...


In your research did anyone ever explain the 30 years of silence? I find that even more mysterious than Harper Lee's because he was obviously such a professional page chewer.

August 27, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I wouldn't dignify what I did with the noble name of research, but I did find references to occasional writing projects that did not come to fruition, to political activity, to illness, and to considerable work on Lillian Hellman's stuff as things that took up Hammett's time the last 25 or 30 years of his life.

I'm not normally interested in authors' biographies, but these stories are so good that I may have to do some collateral reading.

August 27, 2010  
Blogger michael said...

Drinking, Hollywood, the Red Scare did not help. He did alot of non-book projects. Hammett wrote as a highly paid scriptwriter (the film "After The Thin Man" was based on his treatment which has seen print). But as with many novelist turned screenwriter (in that era, studios collected big name writers) I don't think any of his scripts were ever filmed. He wrote scripts for the radio series "Thin Man". He even created and wrote the comic strip "Secret Agent X-9 (also available in book form). He wrote but, if I remember correctly, never finished a story called "Tulip" (yes, it has seen print). The 30s and 40s he was busy just not writing books. The 50's ended his career. As well as Howard Duff's and the radio series "Sam Spade" (it would resurface on radio and TV as "Charlie Wild" - after the radio sponsors jingle). But by the time the Red Scare ended his health was too bad for him to work.

August 28, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Thanks. "Tulip" is readily available in one of the Hammett collections; I forget which. And here’s a bit about Secret Agent X-9 from the Thrilling Detective Web site.

August 28, 2010  
Anonymous Fred Zackel said...

Somewhere in my travels, I heard it called "the crutch of crime." And I heard it about Hammett. That he wanted to write "serious fiction" without "the crutch of crime." Yep, it was a disparaging thing to say. But I have always wondered whether Hammett just couldn't write without "that crutch of crime" to prop up his writings.

August 28, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I don't know what Hammett's artistic ambitions were; Chandler was the one who went in for manifestos and declarations.

Also, I wonder what role financial considerations played. One always reads about good pulp writers who started writing for the better-paying slick magazines. Could artistic ambition have meant, at least in part, an eminently understandable desire to make more money?

As I read these stories in collections, I'll sometimes come across some quirk, maybe the self-conscious repetition of a phrase, and I'll think, "Aha, that sounds literary! I bet that story was written for a slick." Then I'll check where the story first appeared. I've been right some of the time, but not always. Hammett was getting some good, serious writing into his Black Mask stories.

Crime is a crutch. It supplies a plot for writers who have trouble thinking of their own. But I wonder if Hammett realized, or if anyone did, that one could do good, "serious" writing even with that crutch.

August 28, 2010  
Anonymous Elisabeth said...

Adrian, re your question: "...did anyone ever explain the 30 years of silence?"

Well, as michael notes, Hammett did write frequently during this period. He just didn't write novels or short stories.

Hammett himself said, in a 1957 interview, that he had stopped writing these because "I found I was repeating myself...It is the beginning of the end when you discover you have style." Yet when the interviewer asked why DH had 3 typewriters in his cottage, Hammett unflinchingly replied " remind myself I was once a writer."

He apparently briefly underwent psychoanalysis (in the 1940s, I think) in an unsustained effort to find out about his writer's block.

Also, I don't think we can ever underestimate the impact his various illnesses (TB, alcoholism, venereal disease, rotten teeth, emphysema, cancer, etc.) had on his output. Remember, he began writing as a way to support his family when he was too ill from TB to continue as a Pinkerton or work in any capacity that required regular attendance or activity of any kind. He was an old man in his 40s.

I think it's remarkable what he was able to accomplish under these circumstances. And even more so when one considers the number of crime fiction writers who claim Hammett as a major influence yet, as Peter points out, do not (cannot?) imitate him.

Whereas Chandler, who clearly had masses of "style," was and is imitated by countless writers.

September 01, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Elisabeth, I can think of some writers who share some features with Hammett (without suggesting any direct influence). But I can't even imagine what one would have to do to imitate Hammett's style.

September 02, 2010  

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