While he was often highly critical of his own writing, Dashiell Hammett also came to recognize during his lifetime the unexpected impact of his labors. "I've been as bad an influence on American literature as anyone I can think of," he once remarked, undoubtedly in jest. Indeed, it's hard to find people, at least in North America, who haven't been introduced to Hammett -- either by way of his novels or through the films made from his books and short stories. Today's crime fictionists are particularly aware of the long shadow still cast by Hammett, if they don't also feel on their shoulders the weight of upholding his legacy. When January invited dozens of modern mystery makers to share their thoughts about Hammett, The Maltese Falcon and the legacy of both, few respondents begged off for lack of knowledge about the man or his fiction. On the contrary, most said that reading Hammett had either made them into crime writers in the first place, or had helped them become better at their art. More than a few seemed fully prepared to compose lengthy treatises on what exactly made this author's work distinctive, dissecting his use of language and dialogue and comparing his gritty voice to those of the other two "greats" of 20th-century American detective fiction, Raymond Chandler and Ross Macdonald. Although our survey was timed to Falcon's 75th anniversary, several respondents championed Red Harvest or The Glass Key as the ground-breaking equal -- or superior -- to Sam Spade's only novel-length outing. Which is only to Hammett's credit. After all, when you have experts vigorously debating which of a writer's books is better, you know that the author has had an influence.
But why don't we let those experts speak for themselves.
George Pelecanos, author of the Derek Strange/Terry Quinn series (Hard Revolution and the forthcoming Drama City):
Dashiell Hammett was the first author discussed in Hardboiled Detective Fiction (ENGL 379X), an undergraduate course I took at the University of Maryland that would change my life. The novel was Red Harvest, and it was my introduction to both the genre and the author. From the opening lines ("I first heard Personville called Poisonville by a red-haired mucker named Hickey Dewey in the Big Ship in Butte. He also called his shirt a shoit.") I was hooked. Red Harvest is not Hammett's best novel, but it hits with the shock of a cold water shower, which is to say that the reader cannot help but feel upon reading it that he is discovering something new. Hammett, in terms of subject matter and prose style, invented the form; sure, there was Carroll John Daly on the pulp-detective side and Hemingway on the stripped-down literary side, but Hammett alone elevated the crime story to the level of violent art. As far as his limited output goes, there is no tragedy there, just as there is no tragedy to the "mere" handful of masterpieces directed by Orson Welles. Had he only written The Maltese Falcon, he would have "only" written the template for most modern detective fiction. Certainly there were missteps (the "weird" pulp of The Dain Curse) and lightweight but likable efforts like The Thin Man (the Greek in me is compelled to mention that Nick Charles is short for Nick Charalambides.) But there is also the novel that is certainly one of the finest works of 20th-century literature, The Glass Key, Hammett's searing look at male friendship, betrayal and human politics. And because of his fearlessness in discussing issues of political corruption and class warfare, there are no crime writers, and few writers of any kind for that matter, from that time period who are more relevant today. Raise a toast.
Bill Crider, author of the Sheriff Dan Rhodes series (Red, White and Blue Murder) and the Sally Good mysteries (A Bond with Death):
I first heard of Dashiell Hammett when I was a kid in the late 1950s. One of my cousins married a man whose last name was Dashiell and who was supposedly related to Hammett, to whom he referred as "that goddamned commie." I didn't think much of it at the time, but by the early 1960s I was reading a lot of paperback originals, particularly the Gold Medal books. A couple of them mentioned Hammett in the blurbs, and I figured it was time for me to find out what kind of books he wrote. I looked around the paperback racks for his novels but didn't find any, so I went to the library and checked out Red Harvest.
It's no exaggeration to say that reading that book was a life-changing experience for me. I can't explain it now any better than I can explain Einstein's theories, and I know that plenty of people who read the book for the first time these days are left cold by it. But for me, this story of small-town corruption told in the first-person by the Continental Op really hit home. I immediately checked out the rest of Hammett's novels, and was amazed at how different they were from one other.
The one I liked best was The Maltese Falcon. I was convinced that it was more than just the best private-eye novel I'd ever read. It was literature of a high order, and Hammett, "that goddamned commie," was a hell of a writer.
Years later, I went on to write mystery novels of my own. None of them come within light years of Hammett's work, but The Maltese Falcon and his other novels remain touchstones for me, the books I judge others by. And if the others, including my own, come up short, it's only because they're being compared to the top of the line.
David Corbett, author of The Devil's Redhead and Done for a Dime:
As a former private investigator writing crime fiction in the San Francisco Bay area, I feel Hammett's shadow descending across the keys every time I sit down to type. He was a giant who changed both the content and style of the genre forever.
But what I admire most about Hammett is his stand against the McCarthy mob. As right-wing apologists like Ann Coulter try to rehabilitate McCarthy today and condemn anyone to the left of Eva Braun as a terrorist, it's wise to remember the cost paid by those who were imprisoned and blacklisted -- a veritable who's who of crime writing and film noir -- and the grace and courage Hammett, in particular, exhibited facing up to the same sorts of men and women who are now in political ascendency in America. Hammett remains a role model not just as an artist but as a man. I owe him. I think we all do.
S.J. Rozan, author of Absent Friends and the Lydia Chin/Bill Smith series (Winter and Night):
Dashiell Hammett was in my blood before I started to write. Like a lot of my generation, I grew up thinking that characters like Sam Spade just were. It was a revelation, and one of my first flashes of understanding of a writer's power, when I discovered he'd had a birth and a creator. I loved the movies -- The Maltese Falcon, a perfect film if there ever was one -- but once I found them, I loved the books better. Disarmingly style-less, not given to flights of metaphor, simile and over-the-topitude like Chandler's (which -- don't get me wrong -- are all among the reasons I love Chandler), Hammett's books sneak up on you. You find your breath catching, your eyes tearing up, even your skin crawling, as Hammett's one-syllable tough guys and six-martini drunks make their stubborn, often painful and usually unrewarded way toward the truth.
My first introduction to The Maltese Falcon was via the film version with Bogart, directed by John Huston. My first introduction to Sam Spade was via the radio series starring Howard Duff. I was about 10 when I first heard the radio show and about 15 when I first saw the film. Only after I saw the film did I find the book and read it. Three books made me want to be a mystery writer: The Maltese Falcon, I, The Jury and Crime and Punishment. I think the book and the film are nearly perfect, which means I think [The Maltese Falcon] is still the best private-eye book I've ever read and the film is the best private-eye movie I've ever seen, and I've seen and read a lot.
Hammett's influence on modern crime fiction is without equal, based primarily on that one book, and partly on Red Harvest and the Continental Op stories, and somewhat on The Thin Man and the nearly surreal and, for me, unforgettable, dreamlike The Dain Curse. Of all Hammett's works, however, the one I'd most like to see a new film version of is The Glass Key. The combination of cynicism, loyalty and dirty politics, with Ned Beaumont exemplifying the idea of "cool" two generations before it was picked up in literature and popular culture, could be, in the right hands, a great movie.
Ultimately, as far as private-eye novels are concerned, I prefer the totality of the work of Raymond Chandler and think Chandler was the far better and more consistently great writer. But I think Hammett hovers over the shoulder of every one of us who write private-eye novels and I imagine him whispering, "Let's see you try to beat the Falcon. Let's see you even try to match it."
Hammett was tough, straightforward, no nonsense, no literary aims. Most of us who are successful writing the private-eye novel have probably been more influenced by Chandler. In a sense, Hammett writes in a style of a bygone era. His writing evokes nostalgia, but don't knock nostalgia. Nostalgia is the essence of the history of our individual lives. Hammett didn't create the hard-boiled eye story, but he did create its first, and possibly still its greatest, tale.
I, and dozens of other mystery writers, have been fortunate enough to have critics say that we "write in the style of Hammett and Chandler." For me, these are two very different styles. The oddity in my own writing is that for decades it was clear to me that the primary influence on my work, at least in my own eyes, was Chandler. Yes, Hammett hovered but Chandler criticized. Only in the past three or four years have I truly recognized that Hammett's style wasn't journalistic simplicity, but literary clarity, and I've found myself writing more and more in that style.
However, if I have to pick one contemporary writer who is the closest heir to Hammett, I'd say Walter Mosley.
John Morgan Wilson, author of the Benjamin Justice series (Moth and Flame, Blind Eye):
In terms of Hammett's impact on American crime fiction, it's hard to top Raymond Chandler's assessment in his famous 1944 essay, "The Simple Art of Murder." Bemoaning the dominance of the English country manor whodunit within the mystery genre in the early decades of the 20th century, Chandler wrote that 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." Put another way, Hammett leaned strongly toward reality in his writing, with plot evolving from place, time, social forces and character. When I write my darker, hard-edged stuff, which is most of it, I try to keep Chandler's words about Hammett in mind, along with the writing of both those hugely influential authors, so I don't get too cute, clever or gimmicky for my own good (which, alas, I'm sure I sometimes do).
Ken Bruen, Irish author of the P.I. Jack Taylor series (The Killing of the Tinkers and the forthcoming The Magdalen Martyrs):
"No Hammett, no noir."
Extreme statement? Not really.
Jim Thompson is the more widely quoted these days, but Hammett literally invented the hard-boiled novel.
In six glorious years, he produced five novels that have never been bettered. Imitated sure, but never surpassed.
The so-called novels of the streets are directly descended from him. He had all the credentials. Once a private eye with the Pinkertons, he learned first-hand about strikes, workers and deprivation.
His appreciation of literature was rivaled only by his taste for the finer things in life -- the clubs, the clothes -- and it left him in the never-ending chase for cash.
Hammett, too, had the vital ingredient of noir -- a desperate insecurity -- even declaring, "I'm a clown." His drinking hurt his writing, and his inability to combine both brought that edginess to his finest work.
I was 16 when I came across a battered copy of The Dain Curse, and my life would never be the same. It spoke to me in ways that no book ever has since.
Reared in the west of Ireland, with a library that stocked the Hardy Boys at best. ... Here was a dark gem that somehow sneaked into my life. Its impact was powerful, the writing pummeled me, and that's the best way I can describe it. ... It was a lot of years before I got hold of The Maltese Falcon, but by then I was already an acolyte.
Another element of the finest noir is the sense of deep hurt, a betrayal in early life, and for Hammett, he never quite recovered from breaking up the Industrial Workers of the World. ... His later joining the Communist Party seems like an attempt to compensate.
Hammett literally popularized the private eye, and it's hard to imagine the whole industry that it has become without him.
Hammett did what true originals do: he wrote scenes that had never been written before. He wrote of his characters as if they were literally there in front of you, using the language they used, putting them in situations that were real, immediate.
Single-handedly, he invented the spare stripped-down style that looks so easy on paper but is nigh impossible to capture exactly, demonstrating that what is left out is as vital as what remains.
Raymond Chandler, whose reputation survives almost intact and who even gains literary plaudits, described Hammett better than the reams written since. He wrote, "Hammett took murder out of the Venetian vase and dropped it into the alley."
My finest hour/review was some years back when a critic, dismissing me, described me as writing in some alleyway or doorway.
I can only see a few writers who have followed in the Hammett tradition: Jason Starr, Allan Guthrie, Ray Banks. The fact that there seem so few is testament to how difficult it is to pick up the unique gift that Hammett bestowed.
Leonard Chang, author of the P.I. Allen Choice series (Underkill and Fade to Clear):
Dashiell Hammett opened up the possibilities of fiction for me, a kid raised on classics by his English Lit mom and steeped in Dickens and Steinbeck perhaps way too early for any kid. From Steinbeck, it was a hop to the Modernists like Hemingway and Faulkner, but then -- and this was a shocking revelation -- after stumbling across The Maltese Falcon and reading the same Modernist impulses of Hemingway, the suspicion of abstraction and fancy rhetoric, the disruption of the classical, tidy models, I found a voice that embraced the vernacular. Hammett used the same techniques as Hemingway, but instead of attacking the Victorian and Romantic sensibilities from above, using war and postwar trauma, Hammett attacked it from below, using crime and criminals and the language of the night. The neat and ordered solution to a murder does not exist in Hammett's works, and Justice and Truth are, as with Hemingway, subverted and mocked. Society, as detailed in the Flitcraft parable, has been hollowed out and depleted; we are struggling in emptiness.
For me, Hammett removed Literature from the unapproachable and inaccessible looming bookshelves to the palpable textures of pen and paper. Hammett helped me become a writer.
J.A. Konrath, author of Whiskey Sour and its forthcoming sequel, Bloody Mary:
I grew up reading writers who were influenced by writers who were influenced by Hammett, so my own mysteries are three generations removed from The Maltese Falcon. Of course, I never knew who was influencing whom until I discovered Sam Spade in college.
All of the elements that have since become cliché were first introduced in Hammett's ground-breaking work: the two-fisted P.I. who operated under his own code of ethics; the dark, spare prose that would set the standard for noir; the fast-paced plot which piled murder upon murder until the startling conclusion. Plus it had sex, violence and harsh language, written back when my grandfather was still in grammar school.
How influential was The Maltese Falcon? Go to a bookstore. Look at the mystery section. Imagine it devoid of seven out of every 10 books. Hammett was the spark that ignited the age of the modern mystery, and that spark will continue to burn for my children, and theirs, and theirs.
Dear Mr. Hammett:
You don't know me, but I thought I'd write to congratulate you on the extraordinary longevity of your books, and to thank you for the inspiration. (Under different circumstances I might also ask you to blurb my next book, but as you're dead, that seems somehow inappropriate.)
I've been practicing criminal law for 15 years. All told, my clients are responsible for 61 bodies. I've spent my days with thugs, cretins, sadistic addicts, not all who have been prosecutors or judges. I've seen autopsy and crime-scene photos that would put even a dead man off his dinner. But for some reason, I find the whole thing rather funny.
So when I set out to write a mystery, I knew my protagonist would be a man who proceeds through the muck with tongue planted firmly in cheek. And for inspiration, I knew just where to turn.
The Maltese Falcon, The Continental Op, Red Harvest -- these were pioneering novels. But to my mind, no narrator understood the absurd, twisted and sometimes downright hilarious world of crime better than Nick Charles. Before there were the comical characters that populate the works of Elmore Leonard and Carl Hiaasen, there was The Thin Man.
Nick's manner is reflected perfectly on the last page of the book. Nora asks Nick whether, having solved the case, he's finally ready to return to San Francisco. He says, "Let's stick around for a while. This excitement has put us behind in our drinking."
My sentiments precisely.
Peter Robinson, author of the Detective Chief Inspector Alan Banks series (Close to Home, Strange Affair):
The Maltese Falcon is without a doubt the most famous of all private-detective novels, and Sam Spade is the most famous private detective. It is odd, then, that this is one of the few such novels written in the third person, rather than the more common first, and that it is Spade's only appearance in a full-length work of fiction. Hammett later wrote three Sam Spade short stories, but they were generally not regarded as top-notch work.
What accounts, then, for the novel's reputation? John Huston's 1941 movie version certainly helped: Humphrey Bogart, Mary Astor, Sydney Greenstreet, Peter Lorre, and Elisha Cook Jr. as the "gunsel" (which sounds as if it means "gunman," but actually means a young homosexual kept by an older man). The movie is lifted practically word for word and scene for scene from the book, yet Huston adds a noirish visual magic that goes beyond the script, and the actors bring the characters to life. Who can forget that powerful final scene, when the barred elevator doors close on Brigid O'Shaughnessy, foreshadowing the bars of the prison for which she is destined?
The setting of The Maltese Falcon is also a contributor to its popularity, and there's even a plaque near [San Francisco's] Stockton Street bridge that gives away the ending of the story. You can also get chops, baked potato and sliced tomatoes, like Spade, at John's Bar & Grill, but you can't have a cigarette with your coffee these days. When you actually read Hammett's spare prose, though, there isn't much description of San Francisco, and most of the scenes take place in offices or hotel rooms. The novel shifts from one highly charged confrontation to another, stripping away the layers of lies and posturing, one after the other.
Ultimately, for me, it is the complex character of Spade himself and the code he lives by that engage the attention, and these are shown through dialogue and action. Unsentimentally, he makes Brigid O'Shaughnessy strip naked to prove she hasn't stolen some money. Later he tells her, "I hope to God they don't hang you, precious, by that sweet neck." But there is no way he is going to give in to romance or sentiment, or "play the sap" for her: "I'm going to send you over. The chances are you'll get off with life. That mean's you'll be out again in twenty years. You're an angel. I'll wait for you."
In Spade's harsh world, the bottom line is, "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." That is the code a private detective lives by.
When we first meet him, Spade is described as "a blond satan." He is having affair with his partner's wife, and he likes neither the partner nor the wife. He is not a likable person and we suspect he might be more than a little corrupt. He certainly appears to be someone who will do more than bend the rules; someone, in Robert Towne's words, spoken by John Huston in Chinatown, who is "capable of anything." But the more we delve into Spade's labyrinthine psyche, the more we find a man of principle, of honor, even, with a code not unrelated to that of the Knights of the Round Table. You can't take Sam Spade on first impressions; his strength is in his depth.
Michael McGarrity, author of the police chief Kevin Kerney series (Slow Kill, Everyone Dies):
A few minutes before midnight, Sam Spade knocked on the door of Dashiell Hammett's New York City apartment. The tall, thin man who greeted him had a cigarette dangling from his lips that didn't mask an amused smile, and dark circles under his eyes.
"You Hammett?" Spade asked.
Hammett nodded and took the fag out of his mouth. "You must be Spade."
"One question, Hammett. You're good. You're very good. But in 50, 75 years, will anyone care about what you wrote? Only five novels. That's not a lot of books."
Hammett's gaze bored into Spade like hot embers from a roaring fire. "Is moral reality going to change that much in 75 years?" he asked brusquely.
Spade laughed harshly. "Probably not."
"Then don't worry about my reputation or legacy," Hammett said. "Others will carry on."
"Give me some names," Spade demanded.
Hammett coughed into his cupped hand. "You're the detective, Sam. I'll leave it to you to figure that one out."
"Let me talk to Lillian," Spade asked. Surely the woman who loved Hammett, knew him best, could give him a lead.
"Miss Hellman is indisposed," Hammett replied.
"Indisposed?" Spade shot back, cocking his head to peer into the emptiness of the dark apartment.
"Get lost, Sam," Hammett said as he shut the door in Spade's face.
Out on the street, Spade looked with brooding eyes at the windows of Hammett's apartment. Something told him Hammett would never speak to him again.
Spade turned his coat collar up against the cold November rain and whistled for a hack, thinking it probably didn't matter who Hammett might have tapped as his successor in the dim, unknown future.
Whoever it might be would have a tough act to follow.
Reed Farrel Coleman, author of the Moe Prager detective series (Redemption Street, The James Deans):
Sam Dashiell Hammett -- the name almost says it all, doesn't it? I suppose my introduction to Hammett and The Maltese Falcon came in the same way it came to many of my colleagues. I was home sick from school, bored out of my mind from playing endless games of War with my mom or brothers. So, it was one of those afternoon movie dialing- for-dollars things where they showed grainy, bleached prints of old movies where I ran head first into Hammett and the dingus. Even as a little kid, I thought "We believed your two hundred bucks" was a great line.
My official introduction to Hammett, though, came years later. I was working in a career I hated, writing and publishing poetry, but to no good end. I took an evening class in crime fiction at Brooklyn College. That class, for better or worse, sealed my fate. The first four things we read were, in order: The Continental Op, Farewell, My Lovely, The Maltese Falcon and The Big Sleep. That was that.
Though it's inevitable that Hammett and Chandler are inextricably bound, it's a bit of a shame. In some ways, Chandler doesn't suffer for the pairing, but Hammett does. Hammett was the less flashy, less gaudy of the two. When I first started writing crime fiction, it was Chandler's voice I imitated. It screams for imitation. But as I mature and my writing matures, its Hammett's sensibilities that resonate. He had it down cold. Hammett understood what went on in the dark alley, under the table, in the back room. And I see in my work, as well as in the work of people like Peter Spiegelman, Peter Blauner and George Pelecanos, that same sort of wry understanding of how things "really" operate. Hammett understood and he taught me how to understand.
John Lutz, the author of series featuring private eyes Alo Nudger (Oops!) and Fred Carver (Lightning), as well as other novels (Darker Than Night, The Night Spider):
Seventy-five years, and The Maltese Falcon is still one of the tightest, toughest P.I. novels around. It's one of those books that opened my mind to what fiction could accomplish -- what words could accomplish -- beyond the mere conveying of information. Seventy-five years, and Hammett's ink still runs in our blood. All you writers out there who might be contemplating a try at a private-eye novel really need to read this one. It's still entertaining. It's still relevant. It's still the benchmark.
Ray Banks, British author of The Big Blind:
I like to think of Hammett as one of the first great growlers of crime fiction. Famously giving murder back to the people who commit it for a reason, Hammett brought a verisimilitude and a wealth of dark experience to the crime novel. The violence was often unpredictable, sudden and sometimes utterly futile. And he didn't seem to cloud his characters with moral judgment. Sam Spade, the anti-hero of The Maltese Falcon, said more to me than Raymond Chandler's Philip Marlowe or Ross Macdonald's Lew Archer. Here was a guy sleeping with his dead partner's wife, playing the inveterate bullshitter off the fat guy with the gunsel, a blond satan in a fedora. Bottom line, the guy was cool.
It wasn't just Spade, though. The thing I loved was that Hammett's stories were populated with the greedy, the venal, the self-serving rats amongst the weasels. And they were normally brought down because of those very qualities (or the canny realistic detective work of the Op). In that respect, I suppose I've always seen Hammett as more noir, more edgy, than the other two of the triumvirate. Yeah, Chandler had a wicked turn of phrase, but he always seemed too aware of that. Hammett smacked his stories on the page with the sense of a guy who'd been there and wasn't pussy-footing around. He taught me plot, he taught me that writing should be a short, sharp slap to the system, because "when you're slapped, you'll take it and like it." And in that respect, I don't see Hammett ever falling out of favor. The Maltese Falcon, for all the slang, hasn't dated one iota, and you only need to look at the likes of Ken Bruen to realize that what Hammett did, all the great modern crime writers are doing: keeping it dirty and real.
Loren D. Estleman, author of the P.I. Amos Walker series (Poison Blonde, Retro) and the forthcoming Little Black Dress, the latest of his novels featuring former hit man Peter Macklin:
Like most of my contemporaries, I suspect, I first became aware of the work of Dashiell Hammett through repeated showings on afternoon and late-night television of The Maltese Falcon, back when broadcast stations still featured classic films instead of talk shows and people eating vermin. I was disappointed that first time; all my life I'd heard what an innovative film it was, but it seemed to serve up all the clichés of the genre, and the leading lady was too old. I learned later that Falcon established most of those clichés, which were worked over afterward by writers and directors of lesser talent than Hammett and John Huston. At about the same time, I learned that the film grew better with each viewing.
Hammett in print improves with age as well, although I was electrified with the stories in the Continental Op collection the first time I was exposed to them, and return to them often to sharpen my own prose against that whetstone. Hammett's nameless, world-weary, aggressively unhandsome narrator remains as fresh today as when he made his first appearance against a backdrop of bathtub gin, submachine guns and unhomogenized jazz. He'd hold his own against James Bond and that Alias girl, and since Hammett never bothered to describe the width of his lapels, he wouldn't even have to change his wardrobe to blend in. I give Spade his due, but when it came to hiring a private eye, I'd choose the Op.
Maybe it's because Spade let himself fall in love, even if he refused to play the sap over it. Not on my dime. Call me a misogynist (I'm not, just an ironic observer of differences between the genders), but I treasure the Op's response when a Hispanic beauty who's failed to seduce him says, "Maybe you don't like dark women." The Op: "All women are dark." Wicked.
Denise Hamilton, author of the Eve Diamond series (Last Lullaby and the forthcoming Savage Garden):
Dashiell Hammett will always be linked in my mind with a vintage, midnight-blue, raw silk dress that I still wear occasionally when I find myself in a Maltese mood. I stumbled across both the dress and Hammett's books in my early 20s, and somehow they seemed to go together. Add a saucy cloche, seamed stockings, fire-engine red lipstick and four-inch stilettos, and presto, I was a Hammettian dame, full of snappy repartee, alluring looks and murky motives.
Eventually, I stopped wanting to be the dame and began wanting to be Sam Spade. Or Samantha. Why leave all the fun to the guys? When I imagined Eve Diamond, my own tough but vulnerable anti-heroine, you can bet I had Hammett (as well as the other noir masters) running through my head and singing through my veins. It didn't matter whether Hammett set his tales amid the Manhattan cocktail party glitterati, a dusty San Francisco P.I. office or the grim inland mining town of Personville. He infused it all with a glamour and edginess and attractive danger that made me thrilled to be alive. And his dialogue was so sharp, not a misplaced or extraneous word. I'm still trying for that part. But what's amazing, upon re-reading his classic tales, is how crackling and contemporary they sound three-quarters of a century later. His plots are mythic, they're universal and they're timeless. Greed, revenge and fools for love. Executed with such insouciant mastery that it appears deceptively easy but impossible to replicate. So I haven't tried. Taking inspiration from the archetypes he created, I weave my own world, firmly rooted in millennial, multicultural Los Angeles, a deeply noir place with its own tragedies, ironies and sporadic joy. But I acknowledge the debt. Seventy-five years after The Maltese Falcon first wowed the world, my cloche is off to you, Mr. Hammett. You're still the touchstone, the gold standard, to which we all aspire.
Arthur Rosenfeld, the author of Diamond Eye:
You could go on about Hammett being the first to boil as hard as he did, but what really stands out is timeless writing that makes his books no English class chore, but great fun to read all these years later. The secret is his use of language, his gift for dialogue in particular. I adore Hammett's conversations because they emerge perfect, round, coherent and whole. He writes as if he's burping up a (forgive me) hard-boiled egg. Don't see it? Can't hear it? Try this; remove every piece of exposition from a page or two of Red Harvest or The Thin Man, and leave just the dialogue. Amazingly, you'll find you can follow the story. You'll find you know all you need to know about the characters: their world and their deeds. Exchanges this hard and simple and true and spare are Hammett's polished gemstone, his gift to generations of readers and writers alike.
Kevin Wignall, British author of For the Dogs:
My first introduction to Hammett was through such films as The Maltese Falcon and The Thin Man series. The Thin Man movies led me to Hammett's book, and it remains a favorite of mine, though I think the author was equally comfortable in either medium. The subject matter may belong to the period, but the writing is as fresh and vibrant as ever, and I think his influence continues to have a deep impact on both literature and film. Does Hammett matter in the modern world? Well, I've just written a screenplay which deals with Manga comic books and the Russian Mafia, and yet the two Japanese heroes are modeled on none other than Nick and Nora Charles! Some writers will always matter, and Hammett is undoubtedly one of them.
Gary Phillips, author of the P.I. Ivan Monk series and short stories (Monkology) as well as Bangers, the Martha Chainey series and Angeltown, a comic-book mystery mini-series:
He troubles me something fierce. Hammett's there over my shoulder or more likely pacing about, smoking one cigarette after the other despite his horrible lungs, shaking his head side to side a bit, mumbling and grousing. I try to ignore this ghost in the room, this white-haired, high-school dropout who won't let me get away with the hack sentence or the soppy emotions when I'm trying to put work in. But I can't.
Tom Nolan, in his appreciation of Hammett and the hard-boiled school he defined (published in the January 30, 2005, Los Angeles Times Book Review), recounted that he once wrote publisher Blanche Knopf, "I'm one of the few ... moderately literate people who take the detective story seriously."
Goddammit. See? See what I'm saddled with?
Hammett wrote lean, clear prose that moved you through the story, unfolded the plot and illuminated character. All the while, his way with words hints at something else, something deep -- often opaque and unknown, it would seem, to the characters themselves.
And he knew the world of detectives, having been a hawkshaw himself. Mining the facts to serve fiction, he gave us the Continental Op. Overweight, balding and diminutive, the Op had nonetheless arranged a killing or two in his time, and could turn the heads of even tough dames, who were either attracted to him or wanted to brain him. Which was a kind of theme often played out between Hammett's male and female characters -- and, I gather, to some extent between he and Lillian Hellman.
"The first policeman I saw needed a shave. The second had a couple of buttons off his shabby uniform." Thus Hammett sets the scene in the opening passages of Red Harvest, his first novel. That story reflected to a fair degree his leftist politics, which I understand were even more infused in the initial manuscript than the final, edited product. Even so, the idea of one man, a ruthless operative pitting the gangster element against the capitalists, is a Marxist riff worthy of Lenin.
Red Harvest had a potent impact. It inspired the 1961 film Yojimbo (which filmmaker Akira Kurosawa acknowledged in the credits), which begat For a Few Dollars More (1965), and which in turn led to the watered-down Last Man Standing (1996). One imagines that there must be a dozen versions of Red Harvest scripts submerged in Hollywood file cabinets. And wouldn't it be great if someone did it right and filmed it as a period piece with, say, Bob Hoskins or William H. Macy as the Op?
Apparently there was also a 1930s film called Roadhouse Nights, based ever so loosely on Hammett's book. The story for that version was written by Ben Hecht, with lyrics -- yes, lyrics -- by Yip Harburg (of The Wizard of Oz fame) and Irving Kahal. Imagine it, the Continental Op as the original Singing Detective, crooning while he dodges bullets and takes a swig from his flask.
As to The Maltese Falcon, what can I say that's fresh and won't seem redundant? Maybe that the book, even after 75 years, holds up well. That it offers a blueprint for the modern fictional private eye, a flawed, cynical protagonist who nonetheless harbors a thirst for justice. That it established so many of the elements we recognize from detective fiction today, including the past that shadows the present and the duplicitous, contradictory characters who reveal little, yet through their lies and counter-lies, their mannerisms and actions, tell us so much.
And so Hammett haunts me. I can't shake this gaunt bastard, this thin man with the big ideas, who may well have squandered it all on booze and poisonous relationships, yet whose few books and stories weigh heavily on my psyche.
Each time I falter, each time I slack off and half-ass my way through this or that situation or sentence on the page, the phantom detective who won't leave me alone gives a little nod toward his section on my shelf, and allows a smile with his bottom lip.
John Shannon, author of the P.I. Jack Liffey series (City of Strangers, Terminal Island), who is now at work on a standalone titled Hammett's Son, which posits a resentful illegitimate child of Hammett, plus a hapless blacklisted starlet who came to die a penniless waitress:
The Maltese Falcon isn't about a mystery, with clues shrewdly deposited here and there along a detective's path. It's about crime and greed and human treachery. It's about a fierce self-contained man helping us all face a world that's a little bit meaner than we'd like it to be. It's about this implacable personal code of Sam Spade's -- as implacable as the famous code that took Hammett himself, with his wasted tubercular body, to prison rather than even appear to kowtow to the communist-hunters, when he didn't know a damn thing they wanted from him and could have said so at any time. Never give an inch to the bastards, Dash and Sam both. And in the end, Falcon is about the pitiless outer surfaces of an extraordinarily cold universe, where all these solitary existential codes have to be inferred from gesture and talk because we're never granted access to thoughts and inner worlds. Falcon may be among the very first of modern novels, among the first born of that agonized century we just saw ended -- at least contemporary with Kafka and early Hemingway, well before Orwell, Camus and Robbe-Grillet. I'm not saying anything new here; I'm just saying what I admire, and why this book is so much better -- head-and-shoulders -- than its imitators, no matter how much wittier, more clever and more fun the followers may be. The Big Sleep is an immensely enjoyable cartoon of the 20th century. The Maltese Falcon is the real bone-chilling stuff.
Jim Fusilli, author of the P.I. Terry Orr series (Tribeca Blues, Hard, Hard City):
Raymond Chandler said that Dashiell Hammett "gave murder back to the kind of people who do it for a reason, not just to provide a corpse; and with means at hand."
If that's so, and there's no reason to think Chandler would sing false praise, Hammett did so not only through subject and setting, but through force of language. The power in Hammett's prose comes from its directness: His best stories are constructed on a never-ending series of terse declarative sentences, which create tone, tempo and tension -- exactly what you'd expect in stories set in hotels, saloons and backrooms. With the exception of his dialogue, which captures the flavor and nuance of the language of his times, and what I'd call period props, Hammett's best works -- The Glass Key and The Maltese Falcon, for example -- read as if they could've been written yesterday rather than more than 75 years ago. His insight into character shows the depth of his intelligence, yet he's confident enough in himself that he's never showy, never smart for the sake of appearing smart.
Crisp writing and a lack of affectation: It's a damned good platform for a genre of popular fiction to be built on.
Mark Billingham, British author of the Detective Inspector Tom Thorne series (Lazy Bones, The Burning Girl):
I'd read Sherlock Holmes at school and discovered popular fiction in the form of The Godfather and Jaws. But then I saw The Maltese Falcon, found a copy of The Four Great Novels, and everything seemed to come together. I always loved the character of the Continental Op. He was the antithesis of the glamorous hero; down-to-earth and nonjudgmental, driven by a unique code of honor. Like Sam Spade, his pursuit of the truth was all-consuming, more important than his methods. More important than him.
The influence of Hammett's writing in the U.S. is well known of course, but he changed the way people wrote everywhere. His imitators were soon at work in the UK, and though it took a while for the hard-boiled style to find its feet here, it's arguable that without Hammett, those of us writing mystery fiction now might still be earning our livings writing about country houses; writing books where the ordinary working man is far more likely to be the villain than the hero.
Reading Hammett after his death, it's hard to separate the work from what we know about the man. His left-wing views and passionate devotion to the cause of civil rights are clear as day in Red Harvest. Spade seeks out corruption while remaining unafraid and refusing to bow to anyone; though physically a lot more fragile than his creation, Hammett spent much of his life showing the same refusal to yield in the face of persecution from the State Department, the IRS and McCarthy.
It is this principle, this allegiance to the underdog, that hand in hand with that perfect, fat-free prose and commitment to simple storytelling, combine to make Hammett so unique, and so enduring. A very different kind of radical storyteller -- The Clash's Joe Strummer -- chose to read Dashiell Hammett as he lay in hospital recovering from hepatitis in 1978. Hammett is also uniquely cool ...
It's impossible to overstate the importance of these books and the man who wrote them. Chandler may have given hard-boiled detective fiction a style, but it was somebody else's ball he was running with. The impulse was Hammett's.
Kerry J. Schooley, co-editor (with Peter Sellers) of the "Canuck Noir" anthologies Iced, Hard Boiled Love and Revenge:
Dashiell Hammett's greatest accomplishment, transcending the genre that needs no transcendence, is the creation of private detective Sam Spade for The Maltese Falcon. As embodied by Humphrey Bogart, Spade became the American male icon of the 20th century. Not coincidentally, that became America's century, a time of explosive growth in highly competitive cultural industries that mass-produced icons like Barbie dolls.
Playing Spade made Bogart a star. Though he did not physically resemble Hammett's Spade, Bogart's public persona quickly took on Spade characteristics, those of the rugged individualist with his own, vaguely defined code of ethics, tending to his own business (which involved snooping into other people's affairs) and taking guff -- romantic or authoritative -- from no one. This is the 19th-century cowboy hero moved to mean city streets. Bogart went on to play leading roles in several noir thrillers, not always detectives, but even as Chandler's Marlowe, Bogart played Bogie, and Bogie was Spade. For my money, club-owner Rick Blaine in the quickie propaganda flick Casablanca is deliberately Sam Spade shipped overseas, the idea being that if Ingrid Bergman could get this icon of tough independence to join the cause, America would follow him into war. Sixty years later, U.S. presidents still adopt a similar, swaggering schtick.
Bogart played many other roles. He won his only Oscar as the very non-noir Canadian, Charlie Allnut, in The African Queen. But when we remember Bogie, as Woody Allen did in Play It Again, Sam, he's wearing Sam Spade's fedora and trenchcoat.
Edward Wright, author of Clea's Moon and While I Disappear, both of which star 1940s actor-turned-detective John Ray Horn:
For a time I preferred Chandler, who is flashier and more quotable. But after a while I discovered the pleasures of Hammett, who is better at building the engine of a story and kicking it to life -- and who was doing it years before Chandler got into the writing game. The Maltese Falcon is justly praised, but also take a look at the opening chapter of Red Harvest: In those few pages, the Continental Op comes to town, finds his client murdered, gets acquainted with the blond widow, has a boozy conversation with an old labor radical who gives him the lay of the land, and comes to understand that the place nicknamed Poisonville -- "an ugly city of forty thousand people, set in an ugly notch between two ugly mountains" -- is being torn apart by warring gangs. Not bad for less than 3,000 words.
And then there's the Hammett style, less poetic than Chandler but also leaner and meaner, drawing on the author's years as a detective with the Pinkerton Agency. Chandler, the ex-oil company executive, may talk the talk, but when we go down the mean streets of crime fiction, it's nice to be in the company of one who has walked them for real. Reading some of Hammett's dialogue is like slicing into a thick steak. How about this:
"Drink?" "Only when I can get it."
"Who shot him?" "Somebody with a gun."
So roll yourself a smoke, turn up your collar, and settle in for a good, long visit. You're in Hammettville.
James O. Born, author of Walking Money and its forthcoming sequel, Shock Wave:
The Maltese Falcon was specifically my introduction to Hammett. First through the Humphrey Bogart film, then through the truly fantastic novel. The plotting of the novel, with its array of characters, each deceptive in their own way and single goal, greatly influenced me. I had not realized to what extent until January Magazine asked the question. I find that I write, as well as read, crime novels with similar patterns. Large casts, conflicting goals all leading to a showdown. Just like in life, when there is competition for a prize, there is the potential for violent and interesting conflict. Police work, in particular, exposes you to people who may want a prize but do not have the brains, guts or brawn to make it happen. That leads to drama -- sometimes by way of comedy -- and always to human conflict. Hammett realized the cost of human conflict, perhaps from his service as an ambulance driver. He was able to convey to the reader that his characters realized the consequences of violence. He was able to wrap it all together with a hero who was independent, tough and intelligent.
Simon Kernick, British author of The Crime Trade and the forthcoming novel, A Good Day to Die:
Hammett was a pioneer. The man who invented the hard-boiled mystery and, what's more, lived it. Using his years of experience as a detective in the Pinkerton Agency, he wrote about people who inhabited the wrong side of the tracks, and gave them an authentic, fictional voice that had hitherto always been denied them.
That was his first great achievement. His second was to recognize that what many readers wanted was tight plotting, tight dialogue and plenty of action, and he delivered that in quantity. His stories started fast, they stayed fast and they always finished with a good line. With Hammett you always got what you paid for, and that, I hope, is a tribute he would have liked.
I always consider it a "tell" whether a mystery writer prefers Raymond Chandler or Dashiell Hammett. The really good ones prefer Hammett.
Much as I love Chandler, and my character Nathan Heller's voice is much in Marlowe's debt, I have always been a Hammett man. Is it a tragedy that he wrote only five novels? Possibly not, because in those five, he created, well ... everything.
Red Harvest sets the pattern for the lone avenger yarn, creating a world that Mickey Spillane and Mike Hammer (and all their many imitators) could thrive in.
The Dain Curse creates the Chandler/Ross Macdonald private-eye novel in which closets hold family skeletons, and secrets of the past continue to color the present, not in nice ways.
The Maltese Falcon merely creates every major convention of the private-eye novel and, along the way, is the best private-eye novel ever written. Most innovators merely light the path; Hammett is the path.
The Glass Key only shapes the crime novel that utilizes a criminal protagonist with a personal code, fueling work by everybody from W.R. Burnett to Richard Stark.
And The Thin Man marries the comedy of manners to the mystery, and sets the stage for every crime-solving couple that came after, and every "funny" crime novel from Craig Rice to Donald E. Westlake.
Add to this the best short stories about private detectives and crime ever written, and you have to wonder -- why did any of us bother? If Hammett hadn't been so goddamn inspiring, none of us would.
Sean Doolittle, author of Burn and Dirt:
I first encountered Hammett's classic in the same way I first encountered so many classic works of American literature and film: in the pages of MAD Magazine. Actually, in this case, The MAD Book of Mysteries (Lou Silverstone, Warner Books, 1980 -- I know because last weekend I found my copy by accident, back of the closet, in a box, just in time to write this tribute). In that book, MAD tagged Poirot, Holmes, Chan, Perry Mason, cop shows, all that stuff -- but hands down, my favorite bit in the volume was "The Fershluginer Falcon," with Archer Spillane Spayed:
The next sound I heard was a dull "gonk." That's the noise my head makes whenever it comes into contact with a .45. When I get slugged with a .38, it makes a more resounding sound. ... This was definitely a .45, I thought. Everything went black.
Great stuff. Good times. My cousin and I read the whole thing into a reel-to-reel tape recorder, with sound effects.
Later, I became a crime writer. Along the way, I'd also found, and grown my own affection for, the source material. But I worked my way backward, through the Huston/Bogart rendition, finally, inevitably, to the original text itself.
This, I think, is among the reasons why Dashiell Hammett still matters. The Maltese Falcon wasn't a bird, and it's not precisely a book. Like any lasting piece of entertainment, to set aside the argument of art, it's a cultural seed pod, connecting the reality TV era to the Betty Boop era with creepers that grow back 75 years.
This year, some kid will probably read a book I saw recently: The Malted Falcon: A Chet Gecko Mystery. It might turn out to be their favorite book ever.
James R. Winter, author of Northcoast Shakedown:
I first met Mr. Hammett shortly after my 22nd birthday. It was a long winter of unemployment and carlessness spent in a rural area under an unusually deep snow pack. With no cash and no social life to speak of at the time, I went to the Wayne County (Ohio) Library looking for something different from the spy thrillers I'd been reading. The first book to grab my eye was The Thin Man, by Dashiell Hammett.
Ironically, Hammett's last novel would be my first one I read. My knowledge of private-eye fiction was limited at the time to Robert B. Parker and Loren D. Estleman. This would be a treat.
It was definitely different. Nick and Nora Charles did not follow the same paradigm established by the Op or Sam Spade. They were socialites, a bit amused by what happened around them. It sort of felt like what I expected from The Great Gatsby (which I read years later). I enjoyed the book immensely, but it was to be my last Hammett for over a decade.
As I started writing professionally, I made it a point to go back and read the classics of the genre. Red Harvest was one of my early reads in that period, followed by The Dain Curse. Harvest's resemblance to the Western dime novel struck me right off the bat. I almost pictured the Op with a tin badge, Colt Navy revolver and a black hat like Wyatt Earp's. Dain, however, solidified for me what was generally accepted all along: Hammett created the modern P.I. In just two books (and countless short stories), Hammett had taken the cowboy and urbanized him. He wasn't the first, but he was, beyond a doubt, the most influential. What else can you say about the guy who wrote The Maltese Falcon?
Well, maybe a little more.
The Maltese Falcon ... I'd seen the movie a few times, but somehow Falcon, the book, had escaped my TBR list until late last year. Basically, all I knew about it came from its reputation and from Humphrey Bogart. I consider my first reading a schooling in how to write noir.
Yes, I consider The Maltese Falcon noir. It certainly shares more with James M. Cain and Jim Thompson than it does Raymond Chandler and Ross Macdonald, whose names are often invoked with Hammett's. Written third-person instead of first, it's one of the darkest books I read last year. While Sam Spade is not doomed, he does get his comeuppance at the end, earning the contempt of Effie Perine and being left with the affection of Iva Archer, whom he doesn't want anymore. Nobody in this book, save maybe Effie, has much in the way of redeeming qualities. Miles Archer is not too bright. Spade is motivated more by revenge than anything else, and the bizarre cast he runs into, particularly Casper Gutman, is largely self-centered and greedy.
It's the villains in this book I like, though. Gutman's one of those deluded souls who sees nothing wrong with offing a few people to possess his obsession. Joel Cairo, however, makes my skin crawl. He simply oozes sleaze. In the movie, Peter Lorre turns him into comic relief, but his inherent creepiness is picked up by Elisha Cook Jr. as Wilmer Cook.
A lot of books and movies have taken their cues from Falcon, and many have gone stale or fallen flat right from the start. Falcon, though, is the original. It's somewhat dated today, but that works in its favor, since there was nothing like it beforehand. Reading it in 2004, I found it to be as fresh and innovative as it was when it was written.
Con Lehane, author of the Brian McNulty series (Beware the Solitary Drinker, What Goes Around Comes Around):
When I first read The Maltese Falcon, long after I'd seen the classic John Huston/Sydney Greenstreet/Peter Lorre/Mary Astor/Humphrey Bogart film, I was struck first by the voice. It was a way of talking I was used to, appearing as written word, spoken by a man who carried himself the way I thought men were supposed to carry themselves -- with a kind of dignity not bestowed by the powers that be in society, but assumed by the man himself without the sanction of those powers. Strangely, although I loved the movie, it was many years later, well into the 1970s, that I read The Maltese Falcon, and then all of Hammett's other books, after I'd read about him in Lillian Hellman's memoirs, most notably Scoundrel Time. This time I read him because of his politics -- his recognition of the corruption at the heart of U.S. society, his backing of the Loyalist government in Spain against Franco and the fascists, his courage in standing up to the House Un-American Activities Committee -- essentially, his integrity. Years later again, when I thought I might write detective fiction of my own, it was Dashiell Hammett's voice that I heard, speaking through Sam Spade, reiterating this idea of integrity:
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.
Linda L. Richards, Canadian author of Mad Money:
It seems to me that Dashiell Hammett was always a part of the vernacular of my culture. Like a lot of people, I saw the film version of The Maltese Falcon before I read the book. A late, late, late showing on a black-and-white television, and there's Bogart in all his gruff glory. Although Bogart was splendid in this role, his isn't the face that comes to mind when I think of Sam Spade. For that, Hammett's words overshadow the visual reference provided by the film: "Samuel Spade's jaw was long and bony, his chin a jutting v under the more flexible v of his mouth. ... His yellow-grey eyes were horizontal. .... He looked rather pleasantly like a blond satan."
That paragraph of The Maltese Falcon where we meet Sam Spade -- as well as the single line not much later where we get our first literary visual of his secretary, Effie Perine -- can alone explain the enduring quality of this writer. "She was a lanky sunburned girl whose tan dress of thin woolen stuff clung to her with an effect of dampness." And with that single, simple sentence, Effie springs to life, fully formed: desirable and yet too youthful for our Sam. His tastes run to grown women who are perhaps less lanky and probably not sunburned.
Arguably, Hammett revolutionized the way crime was fictionalized. Where pulp novels were most often formulaic and pedestrian, Hammett brought a clarity of vision and purity of prose that early critics had a difficult time understanding. Hammett made it look effortless. He brought a sort of shoulders-thrown-back insouciance to his work that still takes my breath away. His dialogue snaps, his descriptions are brief and bold, and his metaphors resonate right into the 21st century.
Though Hammett's work is often called hard-boiled, I think of it also as boiled-down: writing that is distilled to its essential essence until all that is left is what is needed to move the plot forward. I think many modern crime fictionists -- myself included -- use Hammett's work as sort of a touchstone. Many of us aspire to capture that feeling of effortless ease and economy of words that give one the feeling that the story is unfolding right before their eyes, without a whole lot of trouble on the reader's part. Hammett did that very well, over and again.
Allan Guthrie, Scottish author of Two-Way Split and the forthcoming Kiss Her Goodbye:
To my mind, Hammett is the intelligent reader's writer. He takes the oft-cited writer's aphorism "show, don't tell" to an extreme rarely found these days. For those readers who love working things out for themselves, Hammett's without equal. Hammett observed. He didn't make judgments. There's no authorial intrusion in his writing. In fact, in The Maltese Falcon it could be said that there's no protagonist intrusion (as in all Hammett's third-person novels), in that the author never states what Sam Spade is thinking or feeling. Pretty incredible, even by contemporary standards, but it must have had one hell of an impact 75 years ago.
Much as I love Falcon, The Glass Key is the novel that blew me away. There, Hammett displays an astonishing level of detachment, writing in a supremely reportorial manner (an aspect heightened by Ned Beaumont always being referred to by his full name). Hammett tells us what his characters do, and what's done to them (and the physical responses to those actions). In the amazing chapter "The Dog House," Ned Beaumont is beaten unconscious, gets up again, is beaten, and gets up again, in a seemingly endless cycle. It's heartbreakingly unsentimental.
"When he awakened again he could stand, and did."
There's a sentence to make you weep.
Hammett's influence on modern practitioners is detectable in the diverse styles of such superb wordsmiths as Elmore Leonard, Victor Gischler, Scott Phillips, Dennis Lehane, Ken Bruen and many other hard-boiled noirists. Has he influenced my own writing? Yep, without question, there's more than a "dash" of Hammett in there.
Victor Gischler, author of The Pistol Poets and the forthcoming Suicide Squeeze:
Like many people my age, I grew up watching black-and-white movies on cable, so I encountered Hammett's The Maltese Falcon as a film long before I read the book. I think a bunch of smarter folks than I can talk more intelligently about the novel, so let me restrict my comments to the film version. I really believe it is a collaboration of elements that made the hard-boiled private detective an iconic fixture in American culture. What would Bogart be without Hammett's Sam Spade? Who would Spade be without Bogart's face? Author, actor and character are all great individually, but it's the collaboration -- all of the elements falling into place at just the right time -- that cements this iconic detective into America's collective consciousness. Dashiell Hammett is one of the greats, and The Maltese Falcon is a film classic as well as a landmark novel.
I first encountered Dashiell Hammett by watching the Bogart classic movie at a film festival. I was knocked out by its intense dialogue, bleak characters and the way it reveled in a generalized moral turpitude. A film that made no excuses. I started the book the next day, and found that everything I liked about the movie was infinitely richer in the book. The dialogue snapped, crackled and popped, the characters were deep and dark, and even the hero lied to himself as easily as he did to others.
Hammett taught me that a world of moral gray tones could be as evocative and dynamic as the bright, sunny colors of other fiction. That characters could use language that was not only interesting, but defined the character, rather than showboating the writer.
Hammett set a high mark and gave a good ride. No writer could ask for a better legacy.
Tom Nolan, author of Ross Macdonald: A Biography and editor of The Couple Next Door: Collected Short Mysteries, by Margaret Millar:
When Ross Macdonald (born Kenneth Millar) was a teenager in Kitchener, Ontario, Canada, circa 1930, the new novels of Dashiell Hammett, thought by certain powers-that-be to be too rough for public consumption, were hidden away in a back room of the public library. Millar/Macdonald discovered Hammett's fiction, which proved crucial in shaping his world-view and his own later writing, on a rack in the downtown Kitchener pool hall.
When I, at age 11, first found Dashiell Hammett's third novel, The Maltese Falcon, in 1959, it was in plain view on an open shelf at the Amelia Earhart Regional Library in North Hollywood, California (though I later learned that several works listed in the card catalogue there, including James Joyce's Ulysses, were kept in a locked annex). But, some 30 years after its first appearance, Hammett's Falcon still had the power to startle at least this young reader. After skimming certain sentences ("'I've given you all the money I have ... What else is there?' She suddenly moved close to him on the settee ... 'Can I buy you with my body?'"), I hesitated to bring Falcon home, for fear of its effect on my parents. Maybe, I thought, I'd better read this here ...
Now, in the 75th anniversary year of its book publication, The Maltese Falcon may no longer shock in that manner. But this extraordinary classic has never run out of ways to enthrall readers.
You may, for instance, purposely focus on a different character each time you read the book. Or you might try to answer the question: "When does Spade know for certain who killed Miles Archer?" Always you can marvel at the craft with which Hammett plants his clues (a hotel-room receipt, for instance) and has them pay off later.
For me, Falcon is like Hamlet: it never exhausts its potential to surprise and engage. When I re-read it most recently, I was struck by its hyper-precise descriptions of characters' physical displays of stress: Brigid O'Shaughnessy, who "held herself straight in front of [Spade] though her knees were trembling, and she held her white panic-stricken face up high though she couldn't hold the twitching muscles of mouth and chin still"; Casper Gutman, whose "attempt at a smile was not successful, but he kept the resultant grimace on his mottled face. He licked dry lips with a dry tongue. His voice was too hoarse and gritty for the paternally admonishing tone it tried to achieve." These are observations, gleaned from life, of a novelist who was once a detective and who saw and remembered how humans behave under pressure.
Through Hammett's unique combination of specific detail and objective point-of-view, his masterpiece seems always fresh. Nearly a century after it was published, The Maltese Falcon is both a brilliant period piece now and a work of startling newness.
Robert Eversz, author of the Nina Zero series (Burning Garbo, Digging James Dean):
Hammett and Chandler are to modern American crime fiction what Hemingway and Fitzgerald are to modern American fiction: twin pillars that support the work of everyone who has since written in the form. Like Hemingway, Hammett carved his prose to the bone, far less interested in crafting an elegant sentence than in creating a dynamic line that carries image and action in a brief, intense burst of words, like a straight-armed punch to the chin.
No one writing in the genre today can escape reading Hammett, no more than writers can escape reading Hemingway. His work is elemental to the genre, and arguably his greatest work, The Maltese Falcon, is equally important to postwar popular culture, with the literary and celluloid figure of Sam Spade largely creating the template for the tough-guy anti-hero, the kind of guy most French Existentialists could only theorize. Few fictional characters have rippled so widely through Western culture as Sam Spade, both in the original and in the countless take-offs he has inspired.
Hammett's influence is so pervasive that no one or several authors can legitimately claim to be his inheritors; rather, American crime fiction as a whole has inherited elements that Hammett either originated or wrote so authoritatively that we now think of them as his, from the McGuffin -- the thing that everyone is willing to kill for that drives the plot and turns out to be worthless -- to the hero's flinty-eyed kiss-off of the woman he loves but won't tolerate. Most writers have devised scenes that play off a motif read in Hammett. For one of my novels I reimagined The Maltese Falcon character of Casper Gutman as a smoothly avaricious Czech lawyer bribing government employees shortly after the end of the Cold War. Like many things inspired by Hammett, the character worked brilliantly.
Duane Swierczynski, author of Secret Dead Men and the forthcoming novel, The Wheelman:
Seeing that I was born 11 years after he died, and about 38 years after his last novel (The Thin Man) was published, I can't exactly claim to be a first-generation Dashiell Hammett fan.
In fact, I hadn't even heard of Hammett until 1988, when Al Dixon, my high-school history teacher, passed out a battered paperback anthology called The Great American Detective, starring Philip Marlowe, Nero Wolfe, Lew Archer, Perry Mason and yes, Sam Spade. I guess Mr. Dixon figured that if he was going to teach American history to a bunch of inner-city Philly kids, he might as well do it with babes and bullets. (You know what? He was right.)
Still, I can't say that the Spade story in that anthology ("Too Many Have Lived") rocked my world. Quite possibly, I skipped it. (Sorry, Mr. Dixon.) When I stepped into the world of hard-boiled noir, guys like Jim Thompson, David Goodis and James Ellroy were the ones holding my hand. But throughout the 1990s, as I devoured every hard-boiled novel I could find, many back cover blurbs drew comparisons to the same set of names. "In the tradition of Hammett, Chandler and Macdonald," they would read. Or Hammett, Chandler, Cain. Or Hammett, Chandler, Spillane. Sometimes even Chandler dropped off. But Hammett? Never. Hammett was essential.
When I finally picked up Red Harvest and The Maltese Falcon, I saw why.
If it weren't for a few dated references, Harvest's kinetic language and breakneck pace would appeal to any modern-day adrenaline junkie. C'mon. Does this sound like a 76-year-old talking?
I steadied my gun-arm on the floor. Nick's body showed over the front sight. I squeezed the gun. Nick stopped shooting. He crossed his guns on his chest and went down in a pile on the sidewalk.
And The Maltese Falcon blew my mind when I realized (ring ring, clue phone, it's for you, Duane) that the narration is complete external; at no point do we dip into Spade's mind. So many writers tell us what their characters are thinking. We don't have a clue about what's in Spade's mind except through what he says and what he does. Forget about the hunt for the goofy bird statute -- the Maltese Falcon is all about the mystery of other people.
Hammett did it first, did it best, and I wish I'd listened to Mr. Dixon a hell of a lot sooner.
Michael J. Koryta, author of Tonight I Said Goodbye:
My father was -- is -- a Humphrey Bogart fan, to the point that I grew up in a house that had a framed picture of Bogie in the basement (my mother never allowed it to journey up the steps). Movies like Casablanca, Key Largo and The Maltese Falcon frequently occupied our television screen in the evenings. Of all those early encounters with Bogart, the one that stands out most is The Maltese Falcon. Sam Spade was a different sort of hero to me, driven yet flawed, and he resonated in a different way. I was 15 when I read the novel and discovered why John Huston's screenplay had succeeded: He'd stayed true to the story and much of the dialogue of Dashiell Hammett's work. Earlier versions of the film, I learned, had failed as the directors strayed from Hammett's story.
After reading The Maltese Falcon, I devoured the rest of Hammett, including every Continental Op story I could find. His writing -- clear and focused and capable of creating vivid images in the mind's eye -- carried a story in a way I hadn't seen before. When I read my first Dennis Lehane novel, it was strictly because of a blurb that called him the "hippest heir to Hammett and Chandler." I've agreed with that blurb as I have read Lehane in the years since, and I think it shows how relevant Hammett is today. It's been 75 years since he published The Maltese Falcon, but his name still carries enough weight that publishers believe it will help sell a book. Another endorsement of Hammett's modern relevance? I was only 16 when I bought that Lehane book based upon the Hammett comparison. As a writer who wasn't born until decades after the man's death, I can say with conviction that Dashiell Hammett's work still matters, and that his legacy continues to affect contemporary crime writing.
Leonce Gaiter, author of Bourbon Street:
In Red Harvest, the Continental Op gets pissed enough at the viciously corrupt citizens of "Poisonville" that he makes it his business to bust their rackets. He visits the hospital deathbed of a former looker who has some information to help him blow the whole town wide open.
Terrill Lee Lankford, author of Earthquake Weather:
What do you remember of your first introduction to Hammett and/or The Maltese Falcon?
I was introduced to The Maltese Falcon by viewing the 1941 Huston/Bogart version of the film when I was a teenager. I loved it and it made me seek out the novel. When I read the book I was amazed at how closely the filmmakers had adhered to the text. It was a lesson that more of Hollywood should have learned (and there's still time). Don't mess with a great book. Some things don't need to be "fixed."
How do you interpret Hammett's impact on American crime fiction?
He laid the foundation for hard-boiled fiction. Everyone else is just building on it.
Has his work influenced your own?
Hammett's no-nonsense approach to the work is inspiring. I'd like to strive for that kind of crystalline detachment and clean storytelling, but it is beyond my ability. He still manages to save my ass in small doses, though. If a particular passage gets too muddled, it's not a bad idea to ask yourself, "How would Hammett clean this up?" The answer always involves surgery. Or a mercy killing.
Does Hammett still matter in this crazy modern world of ours?
Hammett matters because he gave us great characters and great stories. He broke a lot of new ground and paved the way for generations of writers to come. He continues to teach aspiring writers how to get the job done. All they have to do is pick up one of his books and take the crash course by reading him.
And which authors do you think best carry on the "Hammett tradition" today?
I'm not sure of his direct influence on any of these writers, but when I read a lot of my favorite contemporary authors -- Mike Connelly, Jeff Parker, Robert Stone, Kem Nunn, Joe Lansdale, Scott Phillips, to name a few -- I can tell they've read Hammett at some point in their lives. And, as my favorite celebrity inmate likes to say, "It's a good thing."
Ed Gorman, editor, short-story writer and author of the Sam McCain detective series (Save the Last Dance for Me, Breakup Up Is Hard to Do):
I heard Sam Spade before I saw him. He was portrayed on radio by Howard Duff back in the late 1940s when I was a kid. I heard some of those old shows recently. Duff was a good choice. He wasn't a tough guy, per se, but an ordinary man who could be tough when he needed to be.
I remember being disappointed when I saw Bogart as Spade in The Maltese Falcon. I never believed his tough-guy stuff because that's all he was, tough. No grace notes, no believable vulnerability as Spade. I think Duff was closer to Hammett's version.
But then I thought Spade was inferior to the Op, anyway. The Op remains for me one of the most believable investigators in crime-fiction history. In the days when I was a reporter and freelance magazine writer, I did a fair share of pieces on police officers in many cities. The best of them struck me as much closer to the Op than to Spade. Spade is a figure of romance; the Op is the nickel and dime of investigative work. One of the boys.
It has become fashionable to think of Raymond Chandler as a wry poet and not really a pulp writer at all. I think that's probably true.
But I think there is the truth of the streets in Hammett that Chandler never got to. There is an abiding loneliness in the Op as he drops in and out of lives in the course of his work. He is a surgeon, dealing with a cancer. But for all of the terrible things he sees and hears on the streets, be they streets of gold or streets of blood, Hammett gives him only one real relief, the mercy and prison of his isolated drinking, which the reader gets only in tiny bits. But I think it's fair to extrapolate.
Marlowe is a lonely man, too, of course. I picture him in a decent apartment, round about midnight, sitting solitary in an easy chair, a bottle of good bourbon and a glass on the table next to him. Good bourbon and the consolation of philosophy are his solace, with maybe the radio lending a few minutes of comfort with Rodgers and Hammerstein -- "My Funny Valentine," say, or "Spring is Here."
Midnight for the Op, when he isn't working, makes for a different picture: a simple sleeping room and cheap bourbon and the sounds of the other boarders, old and finished men, coughing up in their sleep. He's about to take the day's last swig of hootch. And when his own cigarette hack explodes, it's funny. He sounds just like the old men down the hall. | February 2005