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Crime fiction’s ‘hard-boiled’ revolutionary

Tom Nolan is the author of "Ross Macdonald: A Biography" and editor of Margaret Millar's "The Couple Next Door: Collected Short Mysteries."

“That strange Marylander” is what Henry Louis Mencken (“the sage of Baltimore”) called Samuel Dashiell Hammett, who was born in the Old Line State in 1894, 45 years after Edgar Allan Poe died there. Like Poe, Hammett grew up in an America still fashioning its social and cultural identity from raw materials. And like Poe, inventor of the detective story, Hammett would write tales that held not only the shocks and thrills of entertainment but also the lights and shadows of art.

“I’m one of the few ... people moderately literate who take the detective story seriously,” a 33-year-old Dashiell Hammett wrote New York publisher Blanche Knopf from San Francisco in 1928, two years before the death of Sherlock Holmes’ creator, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. “Some day somebody is going to make ‘literature’ of it ... and I’m selfish enough to have my hopes....”

At the time, the former detective for the Pinkerton agency had been learning his craft and earning his living for six years writing tales for pulp magazines such as Black Mask. Even in these early short stories, Hammett was combining the rudiments of the mystery puzzle with the urban realities he’d witnessed as a Pinkerton man to fashion a “hard-boiled,” thoroughly American type of crime fiction. A few of these tales are included in “Vintage Hammett,” a new anthology marking the 75th anniversary of Hammett’s revolutionary novel, “The Maltese Falcon,” which also is being reissued along with his first novel, “Red Harvest,” and his last, “The Thin Man.”

Hammett’s hard-boiled revolution moved from the pulps to the mainstream in 1929 with publication of “Red Harvest,” which seems nearly as fresh, alive and surprising today as when it was written. It is narrated by a recurring Hammett protagonist: the nameless Continental Op (or Operative) working for the large Pinkerton-like Continental Detective Agency. Forty years old, 5 feet 6 and 190 pounds, the Op may not be much to look at -- one woman calls him “a fat, middle-aged, hard-boiled, pig-headed guy” -- but he’s effective in ways unknown to the likes of Sherlock Holmes or even his own employers. “It’s right enough for the Agency to have rules and regulations,” the Op notes, “but when you’re out on a job you’ve got to do it the best way you can.”

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The “Red Harvest” job starts when the Op arrives in the Montana-esque town of Personville (a.k.a. “Poisonville”): “an ugly city of 40 thousand people, set in an ugly notch between two ugly mountains that had been all dirtied up by mining.” He’s been summoned by a letter (and a check) from the town’s newspaper publisher, who seems to want help cleaning up civic corruption. But as soon as the Op shows up, the client is killed. The detective starts work anyhow. He learns the slain publisher was the son of Personville’s reigning tycoon, a domineering old pirate who’s lost control of his fiefdom to strikebreakers: “To beat the miners he had to let his hired thugs run wild. When the fight was over he couldn’t get rid of them.”

Now financed by the tycoon, whom he can’t completely trust, the Op starts setting Personville’s rival criminal gangs against one another. Soon he’s caught in a tableau of escalating violence that threatens to destroy him too. “It’s this damned town,” the Op laments. “Poisonville is right. It’s poisoned me.”

Sizzling with slang, the rhythms of jazz and quick scene cuts like the movies (two art forms emerging at the same time as hard-boiled fiction), “Red Harvest” earned raves from such serious-minded reviewers as Andre Gide and Robert Graves (who called the book a “literary landmark”).

Hammett used the Op again as the first-person narrator of his second novel, “The Dain Curse.” But the author’s most formidable stylistic breakthrough came when he switched to the third-person voice in his third book, “The Maltese Falcon.” Instead of learning the thoughts of San Francisco private detective Sam Spade, readers see only what Spade sees and watch Spade react, making of it what they may.

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They have a lot to work with in this Prohibition tale of appetency and adventure -- a sort of quest for the anti-Grail -- peopled by extraordinary characters, each hyper-closely observed. With its pared-down yet detailed prose, it reads visually -- like a “modern” film of the sort yet to be made when the novel was published in 1930. (It’s striking to see how closely director John Huston’s 1941 movie duplicated not only the book’s dialogue but also its characters’ gestures and facial expressions.) Hammett was innovative in his use of psychological clues: physical and vocal inflections that reveal characters’ thoughts and feelings -- “tells,” a cop or card player would call them.

“The Maltese Falcon” is a dazzling work: at once the template and tragic apotheosis of the private-detective novel and an almost Dantesque vision of human greed, obsession and manipulation.

Had Hammett stopped writing at this point, his place in American letters would have been secure. But his fourth book, “The Glass Key,” is in some ways even more impressive. In 1934, Hammett published his fifth and final novel, “The Thin Man,” a lighter, semi-comic mystery that nonetheless is tougher, more substantial and maybe even more entertaining than the popular series of MGM movies it inspired.

In New York City, 41-year-old San Franciscan Nick Charles, a retired operative of the Trans-American Detective Agency, and his wealthy 26-year-old wife, Nora, whose money he manages, become involved reluctantly in the search for an eccentric inventor, the thin man of the title. “Nobody sees him come, nobody sees him go,” someone observes of the elusive Clyde Wynant. “What was that joke about a guy being so thin he had to stand in the same place twice to throw a shadow?” The police, Wynant’s lawyer and family members join the search once the missing man’s secretary is found killed.

There’s a good deal of drinking and a lot of banter in “The Thin Man,” which is wittier and less screwball than the films. The novel isn’t the antithesis of the hard-boiled tales that first brought Hammett fame, not quite the sort of frivolous mystery the author’s earliest stories seemed a reaction against. Even with this lesser work, though, Hammett aerated the genre, opening possibilities for generations of authors of dialogue-driven hard-boiled cozies.

Hammett, who died in New York in 1961, is often referred to as an author who wrote too little or stopped too soon: victim (according to whichever theory you like) of Hollywood success, Manhattan celebrity, political activism, the Hollywood blacklist, poor health or alcohol. But while it would be fine to have even more of Hammett’s work to enjoy, who dares to say he hadn’t written enough? Any two of his books (including three volumes of posthumously collected short stories) would have been enough to secure him a place of distinction in American literature.

Dashiell Hammett wrote enough to change everything in his field, forever -- more than once -- and enough to keep us reading his vital, riveting stories for nearly a century. *


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