Distinguished Hammett biographer Richard Layman assesses the history, context and enduring popularity of The Maltese Falcon. That novel, Layman writes, "changed Hammett's life" -- not entirely for the better.
Kevin Burton Smith gives the new collection, Vintage Hammett, a good working over and finds that, while this book may be skinny, it still packs a potent literary punch.
Dozens of modern crime novelists -- including George Pelecanos, S.J. Rozan, Peter Robinson, Denise Hamilton, Ken Bruen and Loren D. Estleman -- pay homage to the man who first set the standards (and created the conventions) for hard-boiled detective fiction.
Featured are an excerpt of The Maltese Falcon's first chapter, biographical information about Dashiell Hammett, extensive lists of his works and the books about him, and separate pages devoted to the author's best-known protagonists.
Of this fat, 1999 Hammett sampler, Kevin Burton Smith writes: "[This] uneven but essential collection of short stories from the 1920s and 30s is being hailed as a major event in the world of crime fiction. And rightly so."
Some of the sharpest, snappiest commentary about Hammett's life and legacy was found in a package of stories published in the San Francisco Chronicle on the occasion of The Maltese Falcon's 75th anniversary.
Dashiell Hammett, who died the other day, was that rare thing -- a shaker of the earth, an authentic. "The Maltese Falcon" was one of the best books of its kind ever written. It struck the publishing world and reading world -- which is something entirely distinct from the literary world -- like a thunderclap. Nothing has been the same since.
The words are those of New York Herald Tribune columnist John Crosby, penned in the immediate aftermath of Hammett's death on January 10, 1961. But the sentiments were more universal back then, and they are still more widespread now. Dashiell Hammett, who turned an six-year career working (on and off) for the Pinkerton National Detective Agency, a bout with ill health and a fondness for writing into an enduring reputation as the author of hard-nosed, tightly written and unsentimental crime stories, was, as Raymond Chandler put it, "the ace performer" at a time when American crime fiction was still looking for a distinctive style and voice, as well as some refinement amid a superfluity of pulp stories that emphasized fast guns and faster "dames" over the pragmatic demands of detection. Hammett, Chandler opined so famously in his 1940s essay, "The Simple Art of Murder," wrote stories for people who "were not afraid of the seamy side of things; they lived there. Violence did not dismay them; it was right down their street. Hammett gave murder back to the kind of people that commit it for reasons, not just to provide a corpse; and with the means at hand, not hand-wrought dueling pistols, curare and tropical fish. He put these people down on paper as they were, and he made them talk and think in the language they customarily used for these purposes."
Those captivating tastes and tendencies can all be found in Hammett's most recognizable and influential novel, The Maltese Falcon, which was first published in book form 75 years ago today, on Valentine's Day, 1930. A consciously tragic tale of avarice, obsession, manipulation and honor being demonstrated under the worst of circumstances, Falcon marked a departure for the author. After getting his start in the pulp pages of Black Mask magazine, he'd written two novels -- Red Harvest (1929) and The Dain Curse (1929) -- both of which starred a short, "fat, middle-aged, hard-boiled, pig-headed guy" of 40 known only as the Continental Op (or Operative). But, reasoning that series characters didn't breed serious literature (Hah! Tell that to some of today's foremost crime fictionists), Hammett abandoned the Op in favor of a more sophisticated, more slyly morally suspect San Francisco gumshoe by the name of Samuel Spade. He also forsook the first-person perspective of his previous books, writing Falcon from a third-person-limited point of view that left readers to discover the turns of the story as Spade experienced them himself, and to discern what the private eye thought of the action and his fellow players only from his words and facial expressions. (That perspective change would make the subsequent adaptation of Falcon to film easier.)
Critical plaudits for Hammett's third novel were quick in coming. Alexander Woolcott called it "the best detective story America has yet produced." The New Republic extolled its "glittering and fascinating prose," while the U.S. national humor magazine Judge delivered one of the cleverest ovations, declaring that Hammett "writes with a lead-pipe and poisoned arrows as coups de grâce. He stands alone as ace shocker. Hereafter even S.S. Van Dine" -- author of that era's wildly popular Philo Vance mysteries -- "must lower his monocle, cough up the encyclopedia and eat some humble pie."
And praise for The Maltese Falcon seems uncurbed by the passage of time. In his foreword to the 1999 Mystery Guild special edition of Falcon, contemporary crime writer Robert Crais seemed to be most impressed by Sam Spade's multi-dimensionality, his skill at playing the rat without losing either his humanity or heroic mien.
As a work of hardboiled fiction, The Maltese Falcon has everything: lies, deceit, double-cross, misdirection, violence, brutality, and a breathtaking coldness. When Spade's partner, Miles Archer, is found murdered, Spade expresses not a shred of pain or grief, and, in short order, we learn that Spade was having an affair with Archer's wife, and didn't even like the man. Spade milks clients for as much money as he can squeeze, lies to damn near everyone, and breaks the law as a matter of course, apparently willing to overlook the murder of his partner and multiple homicides for sex and a few thousand dollars. When a woman with whom Spade has slept is about to be arrested for murder, the warmest statement he can manage is, "If they hang you I'll always remember you." My friends, that is frosty.
Ross Macdonald, who like Chandler, Mickey Spillane and other Americans, found himself in the position of following Hammett onto the detective fiction-writing stage after World War II, remarked in 1952 that "We all came out from under Hammett's black mask." A decade and a half later, Macdonald told an interviewer that "[t]he best mystery ever written was The Maltese Falcon."
Few early on would have expected such literary trailblazing from Samuel Dashiell Hammett, a man born to Catholic parents on a Maryland tobacco farm in 1894. ("Samuel" was his paternal grandfather's name, while "Dashiell" was a twist on De Chiel, an appellation familiar from his mother's lineage.) In 1908, at age 14, Sam was forced to drop out of Baltimore Polytechnic Institute in order to pick up some of the income slack left by his sick father. The boy tried several jobs, laboring at various points as a railroad messenger, a stevedore and a nail machine operator in a box factory. But in 1915, he responded to a Help Wanted advertisement placed by the Pinkertons, asking for men “free to travel and respond to all situations.” That broad suggestion of adventure (and perhaps danger) was too much for the 21-year-old to resist. Pegged by the agency as a crackerjack, Hammett went on to work the case of a stolen Ferris wheel, investigate con men and gather evidence for the defense of Roscoe "Fatty" Arbuckle, a silent-movie fun-maker (famous for his pie-throwing buffoonery), who was accused in 1921 of raping and killing a 26-year-old actress at San Francisco's St. Francis Hotel. "Hammett thought the D.A. was trying to frame Fatty," Diane Johnson wrote in Dashiell Hammett: A Life, and evidently Arbuckle's jury agreed: The paunchy comedian was finally acquitted after three headline-grabbing trials, but was never able to regain his former renown (or income).
However, Hammett’s health was not good. During World War I, he had left “the Pinks” to serve with the U.S. Army Motor Ambulance Corps. But his yearlong military career was short on glory; during most of it he lay flat on his back in an army hospital outside Baltimore. He succumbed initially to the 1918 influenza pandemic that killed tens of millions of people around the world, and then contracted tuberculosis, a lung disease that would plague him for years to come. Although he resumed work with Pinkerton after the war, settling down in San Francisco with a new wife -- the former Josephine Dolan, a nurse he’d met during his recuperation -- at age 27 he quit that agency for the last time. In early 1922, Hammett enrolled in a secretarial school, where he learned to type. Then he tried his hand at writing both advertising copy and short stories for money. The former paid better, but the latter allowed Hammett to draw on his experiences as a detective -- something that set him apart from other crime writers of the time, such as Carroll John Daly and the aforementioned S.S. Van Dine. It was his health, though, that determined his path as a writer. After collapsing at a Market Street jewelry store for which he wrote ad copy, Hammett embarked seriously on a career in fiction-writing, publishing regularly with Black Mask. In November 1927, the magazine began serializing (in five parts) his first novel, The Cleansing of Poisonville -- later to be retitled Red Harvest.
At the same time as his writing career was taking off, though, his marriage was crumbling. In 1926, fearing that he might infect his family with TB, Hammett moved his wife and their two daughters to Marin County, north of San Francisco, while he stayed in the city to work -- an arrangement that benefited his career, but also left him open to engage in extramarital affairs. In 1930, while on the scout for writing opportunities in Hollywood (which was already nosing around Falcon as a potential property), he encountered an MGM script reader and aspiring playwright named Lillian Hellman, a dozen years his junior. Although the pair never wed, they spent what Hellman termed "thirty-one on and off years" together, until his demise at age 66. (Hammett had separated from his wife in 1929, though he continued to send his family money over the next three decades). He went on to encourage Hellman's playwriting ambitions and base the character of Nora Charles, the wealthy, witty heroine of his 1934 novel, The Thin Man, on her.
Writing in the winter 2005 edition of Clues: A Journal of Detection, themed around Hammett and his work, the author's granddaughter Julie M. Rivett remarks that it is on the subject of connections of the heart that the creator of Sam Spade most obviously parts company from some of his tough-guy detectives. "There is no room in the pure detective's heart for emotional attachments ...," she insists. "Hammett had attachments -- to family, friends, lovers -- that belied calculated logic."
As it turned out, The Thin Man was his last novel (and the only one that wasn't first serialized in Black Mask). After age 40, Hammett pretty much quit publishing, though he did work on several other ventures, including radio programs and a 1930s comic strip (drawn by Alex Raymond, creator of Flash Gordon) called Secret Agent X-9. He periodically toyed with the composing of "serious fiction," a goal that produced rumors of a sixth novel, called December First, and part of an autobiographical work. In 1942, after the Japanese bombing attack on Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, Hammett -- 48 years old and an alcoholic, with tuberculosis haunting his medical history -- enlisted in the U.S. Army and was sent for a three-year stint to Alaska's Aleutian Islands, where he edited a military newspaper. After the war, when America's former Russian allies became the nation's new enemy, and "red-baiting" became a popular sport among Republican politicians (and even some Democrats), Hammett -- who had joined the Communist Party in the 1930s and worked on civil-rights causes over the years -- was blacklisted. In 1951, the author was called before a federal court to give up information about four members of a leftist group he had chaired. When Hammett refused to talk he was sentenced to six months in jail, a term that left him lots of reading time but did nothing for his health. He died a decade later and, because he'd served honorably in the military, was buried at Arlington National Cemetery, just outside Washington, D.C. Due to his supposed un-American activities, FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover tried to stop Hammett from being interred on such sacred ground, but failed.
Given the reputation Dashiell Hammett now enjoys as a writer of spare but powerful prose, his stories impressively infused with realism, irony and characters not conveniently separated into "good" or "evil," it's remarkable to recall that he produced only five novels (just two fewer than Chandler turned out over his career). Of course, it helped that Hammett's stories were turned into movies, and that younger writers have championed his contributions to their own work. And to the genre, in general.
To celebrate The Maltese Falcon's 75th anniversary, January Magazine today presents a triumphant trio of Hammett tributes. First up is Richard Layman, a noted Hammett biographer, who recalls the author's influences and impact, and argues that Falcon represented "the coalescence of themes and characters and structural methods Hammett had been mulling over for several years before he wrote the novel." Next comes regular contributor Kevin Burton Smith, who gets down to brass knuckles about the new collection of this novelist's work, Vintage Hammett, and concludes that Hammett's prose sounds as fresh -- and just as distinctly American -- now as it did when it was written during the presidencies of Herbert Hoover and Franklin D. Roosevelt. Finally, we solicited opinions from dozens of crime novelists, in the United States and elsewhere, about their recollections of and debts to the thin man behind the coveted black bird. As David Corbett, author of The Devil's Redhead and Done for a Dime, puts it, "Hammett remains a role model not just as an artist but as a man. I owe him. I think we all do."
He was, after all, an authentic original. | February 2005