RARA-AVIS: RE: Hammett's acolytes

From: Vince Emery ( vince@emery.com)
Date: 02 Dec 2003

Chris asked:

> And, if there are writers one could point to
> as Hammett acolytes, who exactly would those writers be?

Donald Westlake: "When I was 14 or 15 I read Hammett's The Thin Man (the first Hammett I'd read) and it was a defining moment. It was a sad, lonely, lost book, that pretended to be cheerful and aware and full of good fellowship, and I hadn't known you could do that: seem to be telling this, but really telling that; three-dimensional writing, like three-dimensional chess. Nabokov was the other master of that."

Tony Hillerman: "If not the greatest, Dashiell Hammett is certainly the most important American mystery writer of the twentieth century, and second in history only to Edgar Allen Poe, who essentially invented the genre."

Ross Macdonald: "As a novelist of realistic intrigue, Hammett was unsurpassed in his own or any time."

P.D. James lectured here in San Francisco and said that Hammett is her favorite writer. Not her favorite genre writer--favorite writer period.

James Ellroy has written of about his admiration of Hammett.

Joe Gores, of course.

Don Herron wrote an Op-inspired short story that appeared in Dennis McMillan's Measures of Poison anniversary anthology and is working on more stories with the same character.

Walter Satterthwait also wrote a series of stories inspired by the Op.

How much does Bill Pronzini's anonymous San Francisco detective owe to Hammett?

Raoul Whitfield started writing before Hammett, then changed his style in obvious imitation.

Erle Stanley Gardner denied that Hammett influenced his writing, but if you compare Gardner's early mystery stories with Perry Mason, there can be little doubt that Hammett's stripped-down style rubbed off on Gardner.

Charles Willeford wrote about his admiration of The Maltese Falcon, saying that he re-read it every year.

How about acolytes outside the mystery genre?

Jack Kerouac described his own style as coming from Hammett (in On The Road he mentions San Francisco being the city of Sam Spade).

Kerouac wrote something about William Burroughs' novel Junkie being Hammett-inspired.

Lillian Hellman was not a writer of consequence until after she met Hammett.

Not to mention people who read Hammett and became detectives, like David Fechheimer, who read The Maltese Falcon, went to the nearest Pinkerton office, asked if they needed anybody with a beard, and has been an investigator ever since, or George J. Thompson, who wrote his doctoral dissertation on Hammett and quit teaching English to become a cop.

"So numerous have Hammett's progeny been-indeed the whole subgenre of cops and robbers stories that still flourishes in our popular media was ushered in by Hammett's break with the tradition of detective fiction he inherited-that much of the stunning freshness which earlier readers encountered in his work has inevitably been lost. Hammett invented the modern urban detective story; its poses, its dialogue, its rhythms, its ethos, its heroes and villains. There was nothing like them before Hammett, and much of what has come after has been mere variations-however talented, however clever-on the forms he created." -Dennis Dooley, Dashiell Hammett
(New York: Frederick Ungar Publishing, 1984), p xii.

Vince Emery Specialist in marketing communications Author, public speaker, teacher, and consultant Box 460279, San Francisco, CA 94146 USA vince@emery.com Phone 1.415.337.6000

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