Dashiell Hammett tells it like it is

For my first Memento Mori adventure, I chose Dashiell Hammett’s The Maltese Falcon. My father, who’s a bit of a mystery/film noir/all things weird fan, got it out of the library for me after my surgery, probably in an attempt to entice me away from Seinfeld reruns and the entire TV series Friday Night Lights. While ineffective at the time, this did provide a convenient segue into this book project, something, in my father’s eyes at least, a bit more worthy of my time and energy.

I saw the Bogart film of The Maltese Falcon a few years ago, but I remembered almost nothing from it except that it was confusing, so I still approached the book fairly fresh. Interestingly, the very first thing that struck me about the book is how easily it could be turned into a movie. This is due to the writing style: it is entirely either description, action, or dialogue. Sam Spade is the primary character, but I don’t think it’s accurate to say that the story is told from his perspective, since there is absolutely no thought process, sentiment, or internal monologue given. Rather, the narrative of the book is as if someone followed Sam Spade around for a few days and reported everything that happened.

I did some extra research into Dashiell Hammett (mainly to find out where the hell the name Dashiell came from—turns out it’s his middle name) and found it actually pretty interesting. Hammett served in World War I, where he contracted tuberculosis. Because of his disease, he was forceably separated from his wife and children. He then conned his way into serving in World War II, started a 30-year romance with Lillian Hellman, and went to jail, where he cleaned toilets. He eventually died from tuberculosis, Spanish fever, emphysema, cirrhosis of the liver, and God knows what else—he’d contracted basically every disease in the book.

Those fascinating facts aside, the inspiration for many of his books came from his pre-World War I experience as a Pinkerton detective. Learning this after finishing The Maltese Falcon, it made a lot of sense to me. TMF was pretty rife with the sort of gangsters, femmes fatales, no-nonsense pursuers of justice, and slangy banter that I (for some, perhaps inaccurate, reason) associate with the heyday of Pinkerton detectives. (If you like slangy banter, btdubs, the ’30s-era sexual euphemisms in TMF are pretty great.)

1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die says that TMF “is at heart a fusion of detective stories, where elements from the reverential past of the genre meet scenes of action and adventure, played out in a world where reverence is only going to get you either robbed or killed.” Chilling words indeed, 1001BYMRBYD!

Since my knowledge of detective stories covers Sherlock Holmes and Hercule Poirot pretty much exclusively, I’m not sure to what extent I can comment on that claim. If I had to, I could probably point out a lot of similarities between Sam Spade and Sherlock Holmes, with their respective historical eras providing most of the differences. Holmes is always calm and composed, “proper” if that word can be extended beyond Victorian septuagenarians. Spade is sometimes cool and collected, but more than once he explodes into strong language and threats that match the high-stakes game his detective investigations involve him in.

What do you think? How has the relatively new mystery/detective genre evolved over the past century or so? How do your favorite stories in this genre reflect their historical context?

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About deepseapearl

California-born, Oregon-raised, and Washington-educated, I've now returned to California to work in publishing and continue my love affair with the West Coast. My three greatest obsessions are Audrey Hepburn, the TV show "Scrubs," and classic children's literature. If allowed, I will discuss Faulkner's Absalom, Absalom! an obscene amount.

2 thoughts on “Dashiell Hammett tells it like it is

  1. I must say, Dashiell Hammett happens to be one of my favorite writers, and by far one of my favorite mystery writers. Raymond Chandler often gets the claim as the best, but I’d argue for Hammett any day of the week. I love his short stories, and I especially love “The Thin Man,” with Nick and Nora Charles. I’m especially excited to hear that Johnny Depp will be playing Nick in the new remake: http://www.guardian.co.uk/film/2011/may/10/johnny-depp-thin-man-remake. Woohoo! As far as your question is concerned, and as far as my mystery genre knowledge is concerned, it seems to me that over this time span, there has been a shift from the classics (Chandler, Hammett, Doyle, Poe, etc.) and their character-driven power to a more, let’s say, plot-driven/clever-crime-driven modern version of mystery. That is, I think authors nowadays are more worried about developing interesting twists and crafty/cunning crimes to solve than creating a powerful or fun-to-read-and-follow detective. Anyone have any thoughts on this?

  2. Pingback: {goal orientation} | On the Verge of a Usual Mistake

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