Mystery Net Community Mystery Greats Dashiell Hammett
A former Pinkerton Detective, Dashiell Hammett's gritty novels are classic hard-boiled detective stories.
Samuel Dashiell Hammett (1894-1961) is recognized as the first master of hard-boiled detective fiction. His lean writing style, cynical characters and complex plots brought a new energy to pulp magazines then went on to define the genre in movies, radio and television where the private eye series became an entertainment staple.
(5 previous messages)
Hi, Elizabeth...as far as I know (and I am by no means an authority), there are two compendiums of Hammett shorts (featuring the Continental Op) in print: one is called, appropriately, "The Continental Op"; the other is called "The Big Knockover", and features an introduction by Lillian Hellman as well as the title novelette. Both are published by Vintage Crime, and both are excruciatingly compelling reading. In fact, I daresay I prefer the shorts even to the (excellent) novels for characterization, set development and that cheap-steak tough prose we've come to love so much!
Stuart -- Short fiction is usually more compelling than book-length work because it requires that everything that goes into a longer work be presented without all the ruffles and lace. It's also why good short stories are so hard to find these days. The market has shrunk, sure, but it's also a question of competence. The short story, done well, is much more difficult than longform fiction. There ain't that many writers these days (perhaps because the shrinking market makes mastering the form unprofitable) who can pull it off. Hammett could, of course, and while I agree that the best of his short work was superior to the worst of his novels, I disagree on the whole. For example, "Dead Yellow Women" is perhaps the finest crime short story ever written (Raymond Chandler's "Red Wind" is a close second, in my opinion) but it lacked the sustained tension of "The Dain Curse," the moral ambiguity of both "Red Harvest" and the (again IMHO) overrated "The Maltese Falcon." As a work of art, I think it is better than "Falcon" and immeasurably better than "The Thin Man," but it cannot approach Hammett's masterpiece "The Glass Key" on any level whatsoever. I guess we'll just have to agree to disagree. Incidentally, one of the short works you cite, "The Big Knockover," was anything but. Together with another novella, "$106,000 Blood Money" (usually printed with it -- I don't know what edition of the book you have) it was intended to form a novel. DH either lost interest in the project or decided it wasn't up to his standards. It wasn't, but Paddy the Mex, Bluepoint Vance and Angel Grace Cardigan remain among my favorite DH characters.
Hi, Paul...We agree on a lot of your post. I also think "Dead Yellow Women" is one of the finest examples of the short mystery genre. We disagree, however, on some fine points. I'm well aware of the difference between short story and novel. Whereas Dashiell Hammett reaped gold with a couple of his novels,notably "The Glass Key" and "Red Harvest", in my opinion he did so more often with his shorts (see "The House on Green Street" and "The Whosis Kid" in "The Continental Op"; the aforementioned "Dead Yellow Women" and "The Scorched Face" in "The Big Knockover" as examples of the spare, hyperventilating junkie of a story that became his trademark.) It's precisely because of the elimination of the folderol that seems obligatory in novels, as you've stated, that I find these shorts so compelling. Hammett realised this, as proven with "Red Harvest"--to him, the novel was an opportunity to truly flex his imaginatiive muscles--sometimes successfully, sometimes not (yes, "The Big Knockover" was less than aptly titled...perhaps "The Big Sleepover"?).
Now, as to whether or not "Dead Yellow Women" can approach "The Glass Key" as a work of art...heh, heh, heh...kinda like asking if an orgasm after thirty minutes compares to one after fifty minutes, don'cha think?
Hi guys -- I'm so pleased to see lively debate! Stuart-- Thanks for the short story collections info, I'll pick them up. Everyone here seems to love the shorts so much, that I will overcome my natural prejudice against short stories and read Mr. Hammets. I know you and Paul will sneer at my distaste for shorts, since you've both expatiated on the their merits so well, but my problem with shorts is related directly to why you love them so. As you explained, some of the short stories are masterpieces, and some just don't quite make it. The short doesn't have the insulating 'folderol' -- great word -- that a novel does, so it is precarious. Like a play, the whole story turns on the action, and can't be so much supported by the characters. Very seldom can a character be drawn in enough time in a short (and then it usually becomes a novellette/novela) in order to be the driver of the story. And, as we all know, action is incredibly hard to write well. This has always made me wary of the short form -- maintaining "if its a good enough story -- write a novel!". I know that this is too sweeping, and there are many great shorts out there -- it's just that I've been burned often by shorts by great writers. Raymond Chandler, I am sorry, Paul, being one of them. And Stuart -- The Big Sleepover made me laugh out loud!
Paul, forgive me, what does IMHO mean? I'd have to be a little more charitable to Falcon than you, but I do agree that the greatest is The Glass Key. In it, Dash reached to dizzy heights. Red Harvest is my second favorite, but I cannot see why you think Falcon is overated. Did you find the ending facile? (I've heard that criticism before) Please let me know why you think it wasn't quite as good as the others.
Mystery Net Community Mystery Greats Dashiell Hammett