The Dashiell Hammett Primer for Writers
July 2, 2012
Dashiell Hammett certainly did not invent the detective novel. That distinction goes to Edgar Allan Poe, whose investigator, C. Auguste Dupin, solved the mystery of murders in the Rue Morgue back in 1841. Dashiell Hammett did not even invent the hard-boiled school of dark, noir detective fiction. Carroll John Daley published his Three Gun Terry in the May 15, 1923 issue of Black Mask Magazine, only a few months before Hammett’s Arson Plus appeared on the pulp pages of the publication.
But no one created hard-boiled, razor-witted, snappy talking detectives who walked the mean streets with the literary artistry of Dashiell Hammett. He turned a brand new genre into an art form.
Within a period of five years, he breathed life into some of the most memorable characters to ever fight their way through the mysterious maze of American fiction: Sam Spade, the no-nonsense, tough-talking sleuth who tracked down The Maltese Fiction and Nick and Nora Charles, who gained a certain amount of wise-cracking fame in The Thin Man.
The New York Times would say that Hammett was “widely regarded as one of the finest mystery writers of all time.” His 1929 novel, Red Harvest, was listed as one of the top one hundred best English language novels published between 1923 and 2005.
According to Raymond Chandler, who took up the torch of tough-guy detective fiction when Hammett wrote the end to his final story, “There are still quite a few people who say that Hammett did not write detective stories all, merely hard-boiled chronicles of mean streets with a perfunctory mystery element dropped in like the olive in a martini.”
He had class. He had style. His audience never realized it.
Dashiell Hammett gave a touch of curious gallantry and sophistication to a genre that neither recognized nor demanded either. Said Chandler, “He demonstrated that the detective story can be important writing. The Maltese Falcon may or may not be a work of genius, but an art … Once a detective story can be as good as this, only the pedant will deny that it could be even better. Hammett did something else. He made the detective story fun to write, not an exhausting concatenation of insignificant clues.”
Chandler believed that, in Hammett’s hands, American language – a style that belongs to all writers – “had no overtones, left no echo, evoked no image beyond a distant hill. He is said to have lacked heart, yet the story he thought most of – The Glass Key – is the record of a man’s devotion to a friend. He was spare, frugal, hard-boiled, but he did it over and over again – what only the best writers can ever do at all. He wrote scenes that seemed never to have been written before.”
Dashiell Hammett’s novels carried with them a touch of realism and authenticity. They should. Dashiell Hammett had walked the mean streets of Baltimore, then San Francisco, as a Pinkerton Detective long before he ever wrote the first word of his first book. He learned the racket of solving mysteries from James Wright, a short, squat, mean-spirited, tough-attitude operative, who became an inspiration for his short stories and novels.
Hammett once said, “All of my characters were based on people I’ve known personally, or known about.” And he loved to recall, “I even knew a man who stole a Ferris Wheel.” I would have like to have known the getaway driver.
It was an odd assortment of characters who woke up in his novels. The strength of Hammett’s own individual style was not the story or the twist of a plot. It was the language he used. As The New York Times said, “Don’t forget the ice of his novels, or how nearly every consoling word has been left out of them … Hammett’s prose can whip the pity out of life, and, you’re left to wonder whether he lacked caring genes, or whether lack of pity was a style and philosophy to which he aspired.”
He wrote such classic lines as:
- The problem of putting two and two together is that sometimes you get four, and sometimes you get twenty-two.
- He felt like somebody had taken the lid off life and let him see the works.
- The cheaper the crook, the gaudier the patter.
- “I hope they don’t hang you, precious, by that sweet neck. Yes, angel, I’m gonna send you over. The chances are you’ll get off with life. That means if you’re a good girl, you’ll be out in twenty years. I’ll be waiting for you. If they hang you, I’ll always remember you.”
- “You ought to have known I’d do it.” My voice sounded harsh and savage like a stranger’s in my ears. “Didn’t I steal a crutch from a cripple?”
- When a man’s partner is killed, he’s supposed to do something about it. It doesn’t make any difference what you thought of him. He was your partner, and you’re supposed to do something about it. Then it happens we were in the detective business. Well, when one of your organization gets killed, it’s bad business to let the killer get away with it. It’s bad all around – bad for that one organization, bad for every detective everywhere.
- My way of learning is to heave a wild and unpredictable monkey wrench into the machinery.
- “Who shot him?” I asked. The grey man scratched the back of his neck and said, “Somebody with a gun.”
As Raymond Chandler wrote: “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 with hand-wrought dueling pistols, curare, and tropical fish. He put these people down on paper as they are, and he made them talk and think with the language they customarily used for these purposes … He wrote for people with a sharp, aggressive attitude to life. They were not afraid of the seamy side of things; they lived there. Violence did not dismay them; it was right down their street.”
Dashiell Hammett could have been the original Thin Man, standing six-feet-one and weighing only a hundred and twenty-five pounds. He left these words for those who would come along and write novels long after his passing:
- When you write, you want fame, fortune, and personal satisfaction. You want to write what you want to write and feel it’s good, and you want this to go on for hundreds of years. You are not likely ever to get all these things, and you’re not likely to give up writing and commit suicide if you don’t, but that is – and should be – your goal. Anything else is kind of piddling.
- If you have a story that seems worth telling, and you think you can tell it worthily, then the thing for you to do is to tell it, regardless of whether it has to do with sex, sailors, or mounted policemen.
In the end, Dashiell Hammett drank too much, fought too many losing battles with tuberculosis, had an affair that lasted too long with Lillian Hellman, and quit writing far too early. He simply said, “I found I was repeating myself. It is the beginning of the end when you discover you have style.”
Years later, an unpublished short story by Dashiell Hammett was found. The first line was typically Hammett. He knew how to get a story off and running. He wrote:
“So I shot him.”