Authors on Authors #9

"Detective work was by nature prosaic. File prowls, blown tails, attenuated stakeouts. Crime stories demanded near-continuous action. File prowls must yield revelation. Blown tails must provide climax. Stakeouts must further plot. Hammett knew this going in: crime fiction was preposterous melodrama with a gnat-sized reality base. Never had there been a single case rife with multiple shootouts, homicidal seductresses and wall-to-wall mayhem succinctly resolved at tale's end. Hammett had to fit social realism into a suffocatingly contrived form. He did it with language - densely spare exposition and multilayered dialogue. He gave us a spell-binding male discourse - The Manoeuvre as moral crusade, the job holders' aria and torch song. Hammett's male-speak is the gab of the grift, the scam, the dime hustle. It's the poke, the probe, the veiled query, the grab for advantage. It's the threat, the dim sanction, the offer of friendship cloaked in betrayal. Plot holes pop through Hammett's stories like speed bumps. The body count accretes with no more horror than pratfalls in farce. It doesn't matter. The language is always there."
-- James Ellroy

(Ellroy's essay on Dashiell Hammett can be found here)


Mr DeBakey said...

There is no author who is a better read
and re-read than Hammett.

While I liked the Maltese Falcon first, The Glass Key was for many years my favourite novel bar none - it might still be.

Initially what grabbed me about these two was the point of view.

Popular detectives [Friday, Hammer, Diamond] told their stories in the first person - "the carpet came up and kissed me on the cheek; I dissolved into a pool of blackness."

The events in the Maltese Falcon & Glass Key are revealed to us by a camera & mic sitting in the corner - startingly different from the rest.

The art, of course, is that Hammett is manning the camera & pointing the mic.

Vanwall said...

I've got a dog-eared paperback collection of Continetal Op stories in my driver's side door pocket right now. "The Glass Key" is sublime mayhem, a great read, and of course, followed by a serving of "Red Harvest" for some spicy dessert.

H. P. L. said...

Nobody writes an incipit like Hammett.
His beginnings grab you by the neck and won't let you go. I love all of his novels.

Remember that short story where a pulp writer finds a woman burglar in his room, lets her go and writes a story about her, only to find out that 4 of his colleagues have done the same? Priceless...


Joe Thompson said...

Thanks for pointing out the excellent essay about Hammett. In college English classes I used to argue that Hemingway got too much credit for changing the way people wrote. Hammett deserved his share.

Next month I'm giving a walking tour in downtown San Francisco. Hammett's name will come up a lot.

Joe Thompson ;0)