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Analysis of Dashiell Hammett’s Novels

Unlike most of their predecessors in the genre, Dashiell Hammett’s detectives live and work, as did Hammett himself, in a world populated with actual criminals who violate the law for tangible personal gain. Significantly, Hammett did all of his creative writing during the years of Prohibition, when lawlessness was rampant and organized crime was rapidly gaining a foothold in the American social structure. Prohibition indeed functions prominently in all of Hammett’s published work as background, as atmosphere, and frequently as subject. In Red Harvest, Hammett’s first novel, a loose confederacy of bootleggers, thieves, and hired killers has set up what appears to be a substitute government, replacing law and order with values of their own; the resulting Hobbesian chaos clearly reflects, however indirectly, Hammett’s own developing political consciousness. There is little place in such a world for genteel detectives cast in the mold of Dorothy Sayers’s Lord Peter Wimsey; accordingly, Hammett presents in the Continental Op and his successors the kind of detective who can deal routinely and effectively with hardened criminals. As Raymond Chandler observed, “Hammett gave murder back to the kind of people who commit it for reasons.”

Within such an evil environment, the sleuth often becomes as devious and mendacious as those whom he is pursuing, remaining faithful nevertheless to a highly personal code of honor and justice. Sam Spade, perhaps the most intriguing of Hammett’s literary creations, is so well attuned to the criminal mind that he often appears to be a criminal himself; he is known to have been involved romantically with his partner’s wife and is thus a likely suspect after the man is murdered. Nevertheless, at the end of The Maltese Falcon, he persists in turning over to the authorities the thief and murderess Brigid O’Shaughnessy, despite an acknowledged mutual attraction. Ned Beaumont, the protagonist of The Glass Key, remains similarly incorruptible despite outward appearances to the contrary: A detective by temperament, if not by trade, Ned serves as friend and aide to the rising local politician Paul Madvig, involving himself deeply in political deals and trades; still, he persists in revealing a United States senator as the murderer of his own son and insists that the senator stand trial rather than commit suicide. The law of the land, however tarnished, remains a strong value in Hammett’s novels, suggesting an abiding need for structure against the threat of anarchy.

With The Thin Man, Hammett moved in a new direction. For the first time, humor became a significant element in Hammett’s fiction, infusing the novel with a lightness of tone that sets it quite apart from the almost documentary seriousness of Red Harvest and The Glass Key. Its protagonist, Nick Charles, has retired from the detective trade after his marriage to the rich and pretty Nora, some fifteen years his junior. Released from the need to work, he clearly prefers the carefree life of parties, travel, hotels, and round-the-clock drinking, all the while trading jokes and friendly banter with his attractive wife and other boon companions. Nevertheless, some habits die hard, and unpredicted events soon bring Nick’s well-honed detective instincts back into operation. Moving back and forth between speakeasies and his lavish hotel suite, getting shot at by enraged gangsters, Nick urbanely unravels the mystery until, to no one’s real surprise, one of his many casual friends stands revealed as the culprit.

It is no secret that Hammett, in his portrayal of the witty Nora and her relationship with Nick, was more than a little influenced by his own developing relationship with Lillian Hellman, who returned the favor in her several volumes of memoirs. Like Nick, Hammett at the time of The Thin Man was approaching middle age without the need to work, free at last to indulge his taste for parties and other carefree pursuits. The Thin Man, although certainly not planned as Hammett’s final novel, is in a sense a fitting valedictory, an exuberant tour de force in which, ironically, the tensions contained in the earlier novels are finally released and perhaps dissipated. An additional irony exists within the book: Nick and Nora Charles may well be Hammett’s best-known literary creations, perpetuated by the film version of the novel as well as by several sequels scripted in Hollywood by Hammett himself.

Red Harvest
Hammett’s first published novel, Red Harvest, originally serialized in Black Mask, delivers in ample portion the harsh realism promised in its title. Indeed, the high body count of Red Harvest may well have set a kind of record to be met or broken by later efforts in the detective genre. Hammett’s intention, however, is not merely to shock the reader; seen in retrospect, Red Harvest emerges as a parable of civilization and its possible mutations.

Nowhere in Red Harvest are Hammett’s intentions more evident than in his choice of location, a mythical western community called Personville, better known as Poisonville. Some fifty years after the lawless days of the Wild West, Personville/ Poisonville has yet to be tamed, even as outlaws have been replaced by gangsters with East Coast accents wearing snap-brim hats instead of Stetsons. The Op, sent to Personville at the request of one Donald Willsson, makes an appointment with Willson only to discover that he has been murdered before the planned meeting can take place. Undaunted, the Op proceeds to investigate Donald Willsson’s murder, plunging deeper and deeper into the town’s menacing and malevolent atmosphere. Among the more likely suspects is Willsson’s father, Elihu, the town boss, who may well have tried to put a stop to his son’s muckraking activities as publisher of the local newspaper. Other suspects, however, are present in abundance, at least until they begin to kill off one another during internecine combat partially masterminded by the Op. The Op, it seems, is particularly skillful in setting the various criminal elements loose upon one another, paving the way for eventual martial law and relative peace, “a sweet-smelling and thornless bed of roses.” In the process, however, he frequently faces criminal charges himself; at the same time, the authorities who are pressing the charges may well be as corrupt as the more obvious criminals. In such an environment, the closest thing to a moral imperative is the Op’s own case-hardened sense of justice.

The major weakness of Red Harvest is a bewildering multiplicity of characters and actions; often, a new character will be introduced and established, only to be killed on the following page. The acts of violence, although symptomatic of social ills and not included for their own sake (as in the work of later hard-boiled mystery writers such as Mickey Spillane), are so numerous as to weary even the least squeamish of readers, although a number of scenes are especially effective; in one, the Op, watching a boxing match that he has helped to “unfix,” stands helpless as the unexpected winner falls dead in the ring with a knife at the base of his neck.

The Dain Curse
Later in the same year, 1929, Hammett published The Dain Curse, another formerly serialized novel featuring the Op as narrator and main character. Less sophisticated in its presentation than Red Harvest, The Dain Curse is more severely hampered by a multiplicity of characters and plot twists, all turning around the possibility of a family “curse” brought on by incest. Despite some rather skillful and memorable characterizations, The Dain Curse is generally agreed to be Hammett’s weakest and least effective novel. Significantly, it is the last of Hammett’s novels to feature the Op and the last (until The Thin Man, a different sort of novel) to be narrated in the first person.

The Maltese Falcon
Hammett’s third novel, The Maltese Falcon, narrated dispassionately in the third person, combines the narrative strengths of his earlier works with a far more developed sense of characterization. Its protagonist, Sam Spade, although enough like the Op to be his slightly younger brother, is a more fully realized character caught and portrayed in all his ambiguity. Clearly the “brains” of the Spade and Archer Agency, he is careful to turn over to Miles Archer the case of a young woman client in whose presence he senses trouble. When Archer, blinded by the woman’s flattery, goes forth to his death, Spade is hardly surprised, nor does he take many pains to hide his recent affair with the woman who is now Archer’s widow. Spade, meanwhile, has grown tired of Iva Archer and her advances. Himself under suspicion for Archer’s murder, Spade delves deeper into the case, learning that the young woman has given a number of aliases and cover stories. Her real name, it appears, is Brigid O’Shaughnessy, and it is not long before Spade connects her to a ring of international thieves, each of whom seems to be competing with the others for possession of an ancient and priceless treasure known as the Maltese Falcon. Supposedly, the football-sized sculpted bird, encrusted with precious stones, has been stolen and repossessed numerous times in the four hundred years of its existence, having surfaced most recently in the hands of a Russian general.

Spade’s quest eventually brings him in contact with most of the larcenous principals except for the general himself (who at the end of the novel is found to have substituted a worthless leaden counterfeit for the genuine article). Among the thieves are two particularly memorable characters, interpreted in the John Huston film by Sydney Greenstreet and Peter Lorre, respectively: Casper Gutman, an eloquent, grossly fat manipulator and adventurer, keeps trying to maneuver Spade into his confidence; meanwhile, the other, Joel Cairo, an obvious homosexual and member of the international underworld, repeatedly (and most unsuccessfully) tries to intimidate Spade with a handgun that Spade keeps taking away from him. In 1930, Hammett’s frank portrayal of a homosexual was considered daring in the extreme; by 1941, it was possible for Huston to apply such a characterization to Gutman as well, whose homosexuality in the novel is little more than latent. The book, for example, mentions that Gutman is traveling with a grown daughter, but the daughter is never mentioned in the Huston film.

In both novel and film, Spade’s character develops considerably as he attempts to deal simultaneously with the matters at hand and with his growing affection for the obviously perfidious Brigid O’Shaughnessy. In Brigid, it seems, Spade has at last met his proper match, a woman whose deviousness and native intelligence compare favourably with his own. In her presence, it is all too easy for Spade to forget the cloying advances of Iva Archer or even the tomboyish charms of his secretary Effie Perine; it is less easy, however, for him to forget the tightening web of circumstantial evidence in which he finds Brigid strongly enmeshed. After the coveted falcon has been revealed as a forgery, Spade confronts Brigid with evidence that she, and not her deceased cohort Floyd Thursby, fired the bullet that killed Miles Archer. For all Archer’s weaknesses and Spade’s personal contempt for the man, Spade remains true to the code that dictates arrest and prosecution for his partner’s murderer. Explaining to an incredulous Brigid that he still thinks he loves her but cannot bring himself to trust her, he declares that he is sending her to jail and may or may not be waiting when she is freed. They are locked in an embrace when the police arrive to take her away.

Considerably more thoughtful and resonant than Hammett’s earlier novels, The Maltese Falcon is his unquestioned masterpiece. The falcon itself, a contested piece of plunder that, in the novel, has occasioned theft and murder throughout recent history and that in its present form turns out to be a fake, is without doubt one of the strongest and best-developed images in contemporary American fiction. Another equally effective device, absent from the Huston film, is the Flitcraft parable that Spade tells to Brigid early in their relationship as a way of explaining his behavior. Early in his career, he recalls, he was hired to find a Seattle resident named Flitcraft who had disappeared mysteriously one day during the lunch hour, leaving behind a wife and two children. Spade later learned that, during the lunch break, Flitcraft had glimpsed his own mortality after a narrow escape from a falling beam. “He felt like somebody had taken the lid off his life and let him look at the works.”

During that same day, he abandoned his family, wandering for two years, after which he fashioned for himself in Spokane a professional and family life very much like the one he had left behind in Seattle. “But that’s the part of it I always liked,” Spade tells Brigid. “He adjusted himself to beams falling, and then no more of them fell, and he adjusted himself to them not falling.” Predictably, Spade’s narrative has little effect on Brigid; for the reader, however, it does much to explain Hammett’s approach to Spade as character and his own developing sense of the novelist’s art. During that stage of his career, Hammett moved from “looking at the works” (Red Harvest) to a mature sense of contingency in which one’s own deeply held convictions are all that matter.

The Glass Key
Acknowledged to have been Hammett’s personal favorite among his five published novels, The Glass Key is the only one not to feature a trained detective as protagonist. A rather unlikely hero at first glance, Ned Beaumont is tubercular, an avid gambler without a regular job. His principal occupation is that of friend, conscience, and unofficial assistant to Paul Madvig, an amiable politician of forty-five who, one suspects, without Beaumont’s help would have made even more mistakes than he already has. Himself the father of a grown daughter, Madvig is currently unmarried and in love with Janet Henry, daughter of an aristocratic and powerful United States senator. Janet has done little to encourage Madvig’s attentions, and Beaumont, for his part, is determined to prevent his friend from making a fool of himself. Complications arise with the brutal murder of Taylor Henry, Janet’s brother, who may or may not have been in love with Madvig’s daughter Opal. As usual in Hammett’s novels, there is an underworld connection; Taylor, it seems, was deeply in debt to a professional gambler at the time of his death.

As Madvig’s loyal friend and aide, Beaumont sets out to discover the truth behind Taylor Henry’s murder, displaying detective instincts worthy of Sam Spade or the Continental Op. Amid serious encounters with angry gangsters and corrupt police, Ned perseveres in his efforts to clear Madvig’s name of suspicion in the murder, fully aware that he may well be a suspect himself. Meanwhile, to both Madvig’s and Beaumont’s consternation, Janet Henry appears to be falling in love with Beaumont, if only because he seems to be proof against her charms. As the action proceeds, it becomes increasingly clear to Beaumont that Taylor Henry could only have been killed by the senator, who has somehow prevailed upon Madvig to accept the burden of suspicion. When Beaumont finally confronts the senator with his suspicions, Henry admits to killing his son in a fit of anger and tampering with evidence at the scene of the crime; he asks only that Beaumont give him five minutes alone with his loaded revolver. Predictably, Beaumont refuses: “You’ll take what’s coming to you.” Beaumont decides to leave town permanently, and, in a surprise twist at the end, he agrees to take Janet with him; the relationship awaiting them can only be surmised.

Like The Maltese Falcon, The Glass Key is a thoughtful and resonant novel, rich in memorable scenes and images. The glass key itself occurs in a dream that Janet has shortly after the start of her problematical relationship with Ned: She dreams that they arrive at a locked house piled high with food that they can see through the windows, yet when they open the door with a key found under the mat the house turns out to be filled with snakes as well. At the end of the novel, Janet reveals that she has not told Ned all of her dream: “The key was glass and shattered in our hands just as we got the door open, because the lock was stiff and we had to force it.” Just as the Maltese Falcon dominates the book bearing its name, the glass key comes to symbolize the dangerous fragility of Janet’s life and especially of her relationships with men—Paul Madvig, her father, and finally Ned Beaumont. Born to wealth and privilege, Janet is potentially dangerous to herself and others for reasons that Hammett suggests are outside her control; she does not share in her father’s venality and is quite possibly a decent person beneath the veneer of her upbringing.

Not easily deceived, Ned Beaumont has been skeptical about the Henrys from the beginning; early in the book, he warns Paul against deeper involvement with either Janet or her father:

Read about it in the Post—one of the few aristocrats left in American politics. And his daughter’s an aristocrat. That’s why I’m warning you to sew your shirt on when you go to see them, or you’ll come away without it, because to them you’re a form of lower animal life and none of the rules apply.

To Beaumont, the Henrys are thoughtless and dangerous, much like Tom and Daisy Buchanan as seen by Nick Carraway in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby (1925). Janet, however, develops considerably during the course of the novel, and at the end there is just the barest chance that a change of scenery will allow her to work out a decent life in Ned Beaumont’s company.

The Thin Man
Fifth and last of Hammett’s novels, The Thin Man is the only one to have been written during his acquaintance with Lillian Hellman, whose witty presence is reflected throughout the novel. Thanks to the successful film version and various sequels, The Thin Man is, next to The Maltese Falcon, the most famous of Hammett’s novels; it is also the least typical.

The narrator and protagonist of The Thin Man is Nick Charles (born Charalambides and proud of his Greek extraction), a former detective in his early forties who has married the rich and beautiful Nora, nearly young enough to be his daughter. Contrary to popular belief, the novel’s title refers not to Charles himself but to one Clyde Miller Wynant, suspected of various crimes throughout the novel until the end, when he is revealed to have been the real killer’s first victim: Wynant, an inventor, is described as being tall and painfully thin; at the end of the novel, his bones are found buried with clothes cut to fit a much larger man. In the filmed sequel, however, the title presumably refers to the dapper detective himself.

Peopled with a cast of café-society characters in addition to the usual underworld types, The Thin Man is considerably lighter in tone and texture than Hammett’s earlier novels. Nick Charles, although clearly descended from Beaumont, Spade, and the Op, is nearly a playboy by comparison, trading lighthearted jokes and double entendres with his wife and boon companions. Close parallels may be drawn between Charles and the author himself, who by the time of The Thin Man had achieved sufficient material success to obviate his need to work. Lillian Hellman observes, however, that the actual writing of The Thin Man took place during a period of abstemious, almost monastic seclusion that differed sharply from Hammett’s usual pattern of behavior during those years, as well as from the carefree life ascribed to Nick and Nora in the novel.

Most of the action of The Thin Man turns upon the certifiably eccentric personality of the title character, Clyde Wynant, a former client of Nick during his latter years as a detective. Among the featured characters are Wynant’s former wife, son, and daughter, as well as his lawyer, Herbert Macaulay. In particular, the Wynants are memorable, deftly drawn characters, nearly as eccentric in their own ways as the missing paterfamilias. Wynant’s son, Gilbert, about eighteen, is notable for his voracious reading and morbid curiosity concerning such matters as murder, cannibalism, and abnormal psychology. Dorothy Wynant, a year or two older than Gilbert, keeps trying to parlay a former girlhood crush on Nick Charles into something more serious. Their mother, known as Mimi Jorgensen, is a vain, treacherous woman cut from the same cloth as Brigid O’Shaughnessy of The Maltese Falcon; she too makes repeated claims upon Nick’s reluctant attentions.

Throughout the novel, Mimi and her children coexist uneasily in a state of armed truce that occasionally erupts into open warfare, providing scenes of conflict between parent and child considered rather daring at the time. Among the featured characters, only Macaulay appears sane or even remotely sympathetic, yet it is he who ultimately stands accused of the financial double-dealing and multiple murders originally attributed to Wynant, not to mention the murder of Wynant himself.

Like Hammett’s earlier novels, The Thin Man is realistic in its portrayal of urban life during Prohibition, when the criminal element was even more visible and overt in its actions than in later times. Despite the witty urbanity of his characters, Hammett harbors few illusions concerning human nature. When Nora asks Nick at the end of the novel what will become of Mimi and her children, he replies, “Nothing new. They’ll go on being Mimi and Dorothy and Gilbert just as you and I will go on being us and the Quinns will go on being the Quinns.” The novel ends with Nora telling Nick that his explanation is “pretty unsatisfactory.” Perhaps it is, Hammett implies, but that is the nature of life.

Partly because of failing health and the pressures of work in Hollywood, Hammett published no fiction after The Thin Man. His reputation thus rests on a small and somewhat uneven body of work, redeemed by frequent flashes of brilliance. Notable for their influence upon the work of Raymond Chandler, Ross Macdonald, and a host of lesser writers in the mystery genre, Hammett’s novels have also exercised an immeasurable influence on novelists and filmmakers outside the genre.

Major works
Long fiction $106000 Blood Money, 1927 (also known as Blood Money and The Big Knockover); Red Harvest, 1927-1928 (serial; 1929, book); The Dain Curse, 1928- 1929 (serial; 1929, book); The Maltese Falcon, 1929-1930 (serial; 1930, book); The Glass Key, 1930 (serial; 1931, book); The Thin Man, 1934; Dead Yellow Women, 1946; Hammett Homicides, 1946; Complete Novels, 1999.
Short fiction: Secret Agent X-9, 1934 (with Alex Raymond); The Adventures of Sam Spade, and Other Stories, 1945; The Continental Op, 1945; The Return of the Continental Op, 1945; Hammett Homicides, 1946; Nightmare Town, 1948; The Creeping Siamese, 1950; Woman in the Dark, 1951; A Man Named Thin, and Other Stories, 1962; The Big Knockover: Selected Stories and Short Novels, 1966 (Lillian Hellman, editor); Nightmare Town: Stories, 1999 (Kirby McCauley, Martin H. Greenberg, and Ed Gorman, editors); Crime Stories, and Other Writings, 2001; Lost Stories, 2005.
Screenplays: City Streets, 1931 (with Oliver H. P. Garrett and Max Marcin); Mister Dynamite, 1935 (with Doris Malloy and Harry Clork); After the Thin Man, 1936 (with Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett); Another Thin Man, 1939 (with Goodrich and Hackett); Watch on the Rhine, 1943 (with Lillian Hellman).
Nonfiction: The Battle of the Aleutians, 1944 (with Robert Colodny); Selected Letters of Dashiell Hammett, 1921-1960, 2001 (Richard Layman with Julie M. Rivett, editors).
Edited texts: Creeps by Night, 1931 (also known as Modern Tales of Horror, The Red Brain, and Breakdown).

Source: Notable American Novelists Revised Edition Volume 1 James Agee — Ernest J. Gaines Edited by Carl Rollyson Salem Press, Inc 2008.

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Categories: American Literature, Detective Novel, Literary Criticism, Literary Theory, Literature

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1 reply

  1. Mr. Mambrol,

    What an incredible website! I want to compliment you on the depth of your analysis and on the range and quantity of authors you have covered on your website. That one person could accomplish this is truly astounding!

    I wanted to engage you in a conversation about Red Harvest. Like you, after my initial reading of the novel, I was shocked at the body count of the work. After setting the novel aside and giving it much thought, I thought that there was something more at play in this interesting novel. The Op who comes into the town of Personville, seems to be the one who causes it to be Poisonville. The sheer amount of chaos and mass death that he causes is nothing less than astounding. The Op seems less like an investigator and more like a force of nature. He is like an evil trickster god, like Loki causing strife and destruction to every person he encounters.

    This Op is a far cry from Sam Spade and especially Phillip Marlowe, a man who strives to uphold a code of honor and morals and not be consumed by his decaying and devolving environment. The Op, conversely, consumes this environment and plays deadly games with it. As corrupt and terrible as Personville is, it seems to only get worse when the Op invades it. The Op might have accomplished his mission, but the bloody results leave a bad taste in the mouth of the reader despite the hero winning out.

    I can’t help but feel that there is something more to this work as of yet undiscovered and was curious as to your thoughts on this topic.

    Thank you again, for such a wonderful website and the breadth of your work. It is truly an amazing accomplishment.

    All the best to you,
    Kris Baltin

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