Re: RARA-AVIS: Hammett: How he made it new?

From: Brian Thornton (
Date: 28 Jan 2009

  • Next message: Michael S. Chong: "Re: RARA-AVIS: Hammett: How he made it new?"

    I'm a big big Hammett fan, so I'm happy to weigh in on this topic. I'd also suggest you check the Rara Avis archives, as we've had extensive discussions about Hammett's work over the years on the Rara Avis list, and most of them have been decidedly fruitful.

    Since you've read Chandler's "The Simple Art of Murder," I'm sure you've likely come across his famous quote about Hammett that he took murder "out of the drawing room and put it back in the *alley* where it *belonged*." He did this in a clean, modern, economical prose that has weathered the past seven-plus decades well and reads as easily and clearly today as anything written by Hemingway (a contemporary of Hammett's. In fact we had at least one extensive discussion before comparing and contrasting Hammett's short stories with those of Hemingway, if memory serves correctly).

    Hammett's work was in a variety of ways a clean break with the Victorian literature of the previous age. Henry James he was not. And although hard-core enthusiasts live to point out that hack writer (and real world milquetoast) Carroll John Daly's chest-heaving, mouth-breathing, FantasyLand resident Race Williams preceded Hammett's Continental Op in the pages of BLACK MASK by a few months, I submit (as I have before) that while Daly has influenced a host of bare-knuckled writers from Mickey Spillane to.... uh.... Mickey Spillane, Hammett has influenced a far wider range of authors, including everyone from Hemingway ("The Killers" and "The Short, Happy Life of Francis MacComber" come to mind) to Sarah Paretsky and back again.

    And where Daly was a recluse whose work was based on not a shred of actual experience, Hammett had worked as a detective, and it showed. The realism and lack of sentimentality with which he imbued his work (especially the short stories) places him squarely in the Mark Twain/Jack London school of New Realist American authors.

    This is particularly true of THE MALTESE FALCON, arguably his least sentimental and most realistic novel. Sam Spade is not a nice guy, and I submit that the portrayal of him as a smooth operator just two shades shy of criminal in his actions is far more accurate than that of Chandler's Marlowe
    (or a host of other P.I.s who have followed). It's ironic to me that these two names "Hammett" and "Chandler" get grouped together over and over again in reviews, in articles about the genre, etc., because for all of Chandler's admiration of Hammett's work, the two were VERY different writers. In short, Marlowe the knight errant is every bit as much a denizen of FantasyLand as Race Williams (the fact that Chandler was ten times the writer that Daly was notwithstanding), whereas Spade reminds me of some of the folks I know in the "business" to this very day.

    And yet Hammett did so much more than this. Looking past THE MALTESE FALCON toward his further impact on 20th century American fiction, each of his books is in its way a trend-setter (with the notable exception of THE DAIN CURSE): RED HARVEST is one of the first of the so-called "Town Tamer" novels, THE GLASS KEY was as much of a rumination on the big city machine/ward politics of the late 19th and early 20th century as it was a mystery (and is every bit the equal of such nonfiction ruminations on big city machine politics as such memoirs as PLUNKITT OF TAMANY HALL), and THE THIN MAN was a happy wedding of the comedy of manners with the amateur sleuth tradition.

    This thread has been covered admirably in other posts by Kerry and many others, so I'll close for now. I hope we've helped!

    All the Best-

    Brian Thornton

    On Wed, Jan 28, 2009 at 5:43 AM, Seth Harwood <>wrote:

    > Gentle Rara-Avians,
    > Please indulge a question that might be less obvious to many than it
    > may seem to you. I'm teaching a Detective Fiction class right now in
    > San Francisco and we've started with The Maltese Falcon. I know this
    > is the book to start with, but I'm curious what you all have to say on
    > why? A question I'm posing here is: What did Hammett bring to the fold
    > that was new and started things fresh for our genre?
    > We've read "The Simple Art of Murder" and Hillerman's intro to the
    > Best American Mystery Stories of the Century, as well as a number of
    > other things I've been able to find and I'm definitely coming up with
    > some answers. BUT I keep thinking that it'd be interesting to see what
    > you have to say about this.
    > Please have at it.
    > Seth Harwood
    > author of the JACK WAKES UP
    > Coming May 5, 2009 from Three Rivers Press
    > Join the nation at, become a Palms Daddy/Momma!
    > [Non-text portions of this message have been removed]

    [Non-text portions of this message have been removed]

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