The Man With Stories to Tell

The perfect gift for any crime and mystery lover this season is a new omnibus edition of Dashiell Hammett’s work. Allen Barra on the enduring greatness of his work, even when there are no crimes.

In his famous essay on the American detective story, “The Simple Art of Murder,” Raymond Chandler, the man who walked through the door Dashiell Hammett kicked in, paid him homage. The creator of Philip Marlowe wrote of the creator of Sam Spade: “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.” If that seems a tad obscure to today’s readers, it’s because mystery fans no longer read early twentieth century British mystery writers such as Edgar Wallace and Dorothy Sayers or their later American imitators.

I hadn’t read Hammett’s greatest novels—The Thin Man, The Maltese Falcon, The Glass Key and Red Harvest—in more than twenty years. Rereading them in the splendid and definitive Library of America two-volume boxed set—which also includes The Dain Cruse, which I’ve never been able to get through–I realized that my memory of the books had been colored heavily by film adaptations. In the case of The Thin Man, there was, of course, the witty and still highly enjoyable series of films in which William Powell and Myrna Loy played Hammett’s sexy, wise-cracking detectives, Nick and Nora Charles. Their literary originals, though, were not so charming; they were hard-drinking cynics whose barbs, particularly those aimed at each other, stung. (And no wonder: Hammett modeled Nick and Nora after himself and Lillian Hellman, the playwright and screenwriter who whom he had a 30-year relationship and who became the executor of Hammett’s estate after his death in 1961.)

Sam Spade was a different matter. Describing his detective some decades ago for a Modern Library edition of The Maltese Falcon, Hammett wrote that “Spade had no original. He is a dream man in the sense that he is what most of the private detectives I worked with would like to have been and what quite a few of them, in their cockier moments, thought they’d approached. For your private detective does not …want to be an erudite solver of riddles in the Sherlock Holmes manner; he wants to be a hard and shifty fellow, able to take care of himself in any situation, able to get the best of anybody he comes in contact with whether criminal, innocent bystander or client.”

With the possible exception of a couple of Chandlers—probably The Big Sleep, Farewell My Lovely and The Long Goodbye – no American mystery has sustained its reputation so well into the twenty-first century as The Maltese Falcon has. (And is it even a mystery story? As Elmore Leonard said to me in an interview a few years ago, “I don’t know why they always call Dash Hammett a mystery writer. In most of his books there isn’t much of a mystery to solve. What he really invented was the crime story.”)

Not that critics in Hammett’s day failed to appreciate his achievement. Herbert Asbury, author of The Gangs of New York, knew a bit about tough guys. Reviewing The Maltese Falcon in Saturday Review, he wrote, “It is doubtful if even Ernest Hemingway has ever written more effective dialogue that may be found within the pages of this extraordinary tale of gunmen, gin, and gangsters.” (He might have added: and women who are attracted to all three.)

Chandler thought along the same lines: “How original a writer Hammett really was isn’t easy to decide now. For all I know, Hemingway may have learned something from Hammett as well as from writers like Dreiser, Ring Lardner, and Sherwood Anderson. Robert Graves thought Hammett was better than either Chandler or Asbury and called The Maltese Falcon, “a literary landmark.”

As good as Powell and Loy were in The Thin Man and its various spinoffs, it’s easy to imagine other actors playing the characters. Peter Lawford and Phyllis Kirk played them in an entertaining 1950s TV series, and here’s hoping that Johnny Depp, who has already announced his interest to star in a remake, follows through. But for devotees, only Bogart could ever be Sam Spade.

There was a 1931 film version with an actor named Richard Cortez and Bebe Daniels that I’ve never seen, and in 1936 an absolutely abdominal film somewhat based on the book , Satan Met a Lady with Warner William and Bette Davis. But John Huston got it right, at least partly because, as Pauline Kael noted, “Huston was a good enough screenwriter to see that Hammett had already written the scenario and he didn’t soften Sam Spade’s character. Bogart played him as written by Hammett, and Hammett was not sentimental about detectives: they were cops who were going at it alone, i.e., who had smartened up and become more openly mercenary.”

The Glass Key, is a much better novel than the 1942 film directed by Stuart Heisler with Alan Ladd and Veronica Lake. Kael thought Heisler’s version was “not particularly memorable though a reasonably faithful version of the Dashiell Hammett novel.” Hammett’s tale of a man who tries to walk down the middle in a fight between two corrupt political factions really needed a director of Huston’s cynical snap. The Coen Brothers, two of Hammett’s biggest fans -- the title of their first film, Blood Simple, comes from a quote in Red Harvest – borrowed from The Glass Key , or rather spliced its themes together with those of Red Harvest in Miller’s Crossing (1990).

Despite its sizeable influence on American fiction and film, Red Harvest remains the only Hammett novel never to have been filmed. (The Dain Curse was made into a pretty good mini-series in 1978 with James Coburn.) The tangle of complicated reasons why would fill a book, and although the story was considered too violent, a first draft script was actually cut up and transformed into a gangster comedy starring Jimmy Durante, Roadhouse.Nights.

After World War II, Red Harvest would have been perfect for film noir, but in 1951 Hammett went to jail for six months for refusing to answer questions for a federal court, and in 1953 he was called before McCarthy’s Senate subcommittee on the subject of pro-Communist books, so it was a bad decade for a novel titled Red Harvest. In a bizarre postscript, hundreds of copies of Red Harvest and other books by Hammett in overseas libraries were burned by order of the State Department, an action criticized by President Eisenhower – Hammett was one of his favorite writers.

Hammett died in 1961, Hellmann took over his estate, and Red Harvest fell into a quagmire of financial and legal roadblocks that it still hasn’t found its way out of, though Bernardo Bertolucci, David O. Selznick, Neil Jordan, Mel Gibson, and Jack Nicholson, among others, have all tried and failed to acquire the rights. The novel remains the great red whale of filmmakers.

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For those who haven’t read it, the plot is known through the dozens of story lines that have stolen from it: a detective from a national agency is summoned to investigate a murder in a western mining town (modeled on Butte, Montana, where Hammett had been, according to biographer William F. Nolan “a politically involved strikebreaker for the Pinkertons.” The town, sardonically referred to by the locals as “Poisonville,” .is, in Hammett’s words, “an ugly city of 40,000 people, set in an ugly notch between two ugly mountains that had been all dirtied up by mining. Spread over this was a grimy sky that looked as if it had come of the smelters stacks.”

Suffice it to say the town is controlled by two warring equally corrupt factions, that the protagonist plays both ends against each other and hires out to both sides; the body count rises with each chapter. That’s also the basic plot outline for Kurosawa’s Yojimbo, Sergio Leone’s A Fistful of Dollars, Walter Hill’s Last Man Standing, and even the first half of George Miller’s Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome.

You can see traces of Hammett’s influence in the detective novels of the Mexican novelist Paco Ignacio Taibo (who has won the Hammett Prize for excellence in the crime-writing genre three times), in the fiction of Japanese novelist Haruki Murakami, in the cyberpunk fiction of William Gibson, and in James Ellroy. Paul Auster’s novel: Oracle Night is a contemporary expansion of a case Sam Spade describes in The Maltese Falcon. Rian Johnson’s ingenious but too little seen 2005 film Brick, starring Joseph Gordon-Leavitt, places high school students in a murder story which borrows heavily from Hammett’s books in its plot characterizations and dialogue.

Aspiring crime writers of all subgenres will find grist in the Library of America’s companion volume, Crime Stories and Other Writings, which includes “The Big Knock-Over” and other stories featuring his detective, the Continental Op. Well worth dipping into is “Suggestions to Detective Story Writers.” My favorite suggestions include “The Pupils of Many Drug-Addicts Eyes Are Apparently Normal,” “When You Were Knocked Unconscious You Do Not Feel The Blow That Does It,” and “’Youse ‘Is The Plural of ‘You.’”

Aspiring screenwriters will want to read Return of the Thin Man, two novellas written in the form of screen treatments for sequels to The Thin Man. Those bored by exposition who like action and dialogue written in the present tense will eat these up. (I wish someone could get William T. Vollmann to read them.)

The Hunter and Other Stories caulks a crack in American literature, collecting seventeen short stories and three more screen stories, all previously uncollected and some previously unpublished. The crime stories, nearly eight and even nine decades after they were written, are hardboiled enough to merit a critique one actually got from an editor when the story was rejected because “the violence is piled on a bit thick.”

An unfinished Sam Spade story, “A Knife Will Cut For Anybody,” also known among aficionados as “The Lost Spade” story, will leave fans wishing that Elmore Leonard had lived long enough to finish it – or perhaps that Dennis Lehane or the Irish writer Ken Bruen will take it up.

My one complaint with the collection is that it doesn’t bring all of Hammett’s Sam Spade stories together. I don’t think Hammett really liked the detective he described as “a blond Satan.” He never intended to make Spade a continuing character like Chandler did with Marlowe, and when he completed The Maltese Falcon said he was “done” with him. But there are four other published Spade stories out there, and it would be nice to have them between covers in one volume.

“Are you surprised?” writes Hammett’s granddaughter Julie M. Rivett, in an afterword, “Are the stories what you expected? I hope in some ways they are surprising, that they suggest images of my grandfather that you wouldn’t have anticipated based on previous publications or biographies or popular conceptions of the father of hard-boiled detective fiction.”

And, frankly, I was. Some of these stores are good, some are very good, and one, “An Inch and A Half of Glory” good enough to have been chosen for the June 10 issue of Esquire. That, though, isn’t the surprising part. What surprises is that most of them aren’t crime stories at all but ,as Richard Layman writes in the introduction, Hammett “addresses subjects, expresses sentiments, and explores ideas that would have fit uneasily into the pages of Black Mask. [the seminal pulp crime magazine which first published Hammett]. In these stories, Hammett displays his fine-tuned sense of irony and explores the complexities of romantic encounters … He characterizes prideful men, draws sympathetic portraits of strong women, and parodies pulp-fiction plots. And violence takes a back seat to character development.”

The non-crime stories in The Hunter and Other Stories are good enough to make one wonder what a different kind of writer Hammett might have become had he published these stories before he began to make a living with crime fiction in books and movies. But then we might have been deprived of Nick and Nora, Sam Spade and the Continental Op. Would it have been a good trade? Well, as Hammett himself once said in an interview, “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.”