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Hard-boiled Hammett


Red Harvest coverDashiell Hammett places three novels on my 46 Great 20th Century Crime Novels list. I read one of them, The Maltese Falcon, for the first time last year and two of them, The Glass Key and Red Harvest, this year. I also re-read his last novel, The Thin Man this week.

Hammett’s first short story was published in 1922. He wrote dozens of these “pulp fiction” stories over a thirteen year span ending in 1934. His five novels were published from 1929 through 1934, and he never published another work of fiction though he wrote at least four screenplays: one based on his novel The Glass Key and two which were sequels to the film adaptation of his The Thin Man. (The screenplay for the 1934 hit movie The Thin Man was written by Albert Hackett and Frances Goodrich.)

He spent his remaining years in a relationship with playwright Lillian Hellman and involved in left-wing politics. He supported efforts to keep America out of World War II, but in the event volunteered to join the US Army and though he was a disabled veteran of World War I, a victim of tuberculosis, and a Communist, he got in. Not long after the war he was caught up in Red Scare politics, refused to cooperate with the House Un-American Activities Committee and went to prison for it.

After his time in prison, he resumed his life of alcoholism and heavy smoking. He died in 1961 of lung cancer at the age of 66.

The Glass Key cover

Hammett is considered to be one of the fathers of “hard-boiled crime fiction.” All five of his novels are considered classics of the genre. Raymond Chandler was his near-contemporary and successor.

While Sam Spade is the most familiar of Hammett’s private eyes, he is featured only in one of his novels: The Maltese Falcon. The unnamed “Continental Op” features in Red Harvest and The Dain Curse (the only one of his five novels I have yet to read). Nick Charles is the retired private dick of The Thin Man, with biographical details that make me want to identify him as the Continental Op. The Glass Key features the decidedly amateur detective Ned Beaumont: he is more of a semi-reformed crook than private eye.

It is easy to recognize the attraction of Hammett’s fast-paced stories, but the dated dialogue and muted violence of a different literary time make them seem quaint rather than gritty today. Hardened gangsters and murderers at their most vulgar say “son of a gun” and the like. Chandler’s novels have a very similar feel, but I am able to enjoy them more–perhaps because I am more fond of his character Philip Marlowe than I am of Hammett’s several detectives. And while Hammett’s spare prose is generally seen as a great strength, I tend to enjoy Chandler’s more descriptive style.

Probably because of popular Hollywood films, The Maltese Falcon and The Thin Man are Hammett’s best-remembered novels. In hard-core detective fiction circles, however, either The Glass Key (Hammett’s personal favorite according to Wikipedia) or Red Harvest might be considered his best work.

The Thin Man coverMy favorite is The Thin Man. Nick and Nora Charles are just the sweetest alcoholic couple! They start drinking as soon as they rise each morning–bright and early at around 10 AM–and frequently ask each other, “are you tight?” They are playfully fond of each other while both enjoying flirtatious attention from a variety of acquaintances. Nick Charles is, I believe, about 40 years old in the novel (set during the week between Christmas and New Year’s Eve of 1932); Nora is a precocious 26-year-old and a pretty good sport. When the beautiful, smitten-with-Nick 20-year-old daughter of Nick’s former flame passes out in the Charles’s hotel suite, Nick and Nora ready her for bed:

I poured her a terrific dose of Scotch and saw that she drank it. It worked nicely: she was sound asleep by the time our coffee and sandwiches came.

Nora said: “Now you’re satisfied.”

“Now I’ m satisfied. Shall we tuck her in before we eat?”

I carried her into the bedroom and helped Nora undress her. She had a beautiful little body.

Almost Cosbyesque!

In another scene, Nick wrestles his former flame to the floor of her apartment to subdue her. Afterwards, Nora asks Nick:

“Tell me something, Nick. Tell me the truth: when you were wrestling with Mimi, didn’t you have an erection?”

“Oh, a little.”

She laughed and got up from the floor. “If you aren’t a disgusting old lecher,” she said.

Later, when they are “tight,” one can imagine them amorously working out whatever comes up between them after these encounters. All while their faithful dog Asta curls up at the foot of their king-sized bed, dreaming of the day he will be more famous than either of them owing to his regular appearance in crossword puzzles decades (at least) after his life in print with the Charleses.

Dashiell Hammett’s The Maltese Falcon was published in 1930 and is listed at #92 on Bachblog’s 113 Great Novels of the 20th Century, and it is listed at #7 on 46 Great 20th Century Crime Novels. Red Harvest was published in 1931 and is #22 on the Crime Novels list. The Glass Key was published in 1929 and falls at #24 on the same list.

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