If you happen to visit San Francisco, and walk down its Burritt Alley, your attention may be drawn to a plaque, marking the approximate spot where “Miles Archer, partner of Sam Spade, was done in by Brigid O’Shaughnessy. A particularly lurid crime? It was — in an epoch-marking work of a different kind of crime fiction.
The struggle between good and evil, or order and chaos — represented in literature through crime fiction — began with absolute heroes and villains before the ambiguities and complexities of post-First World War life, and new patterns of crime demanded a change in their depiction.
In the forefront was an ex-private detective-turned-writer, with less than half-a-dozen novels from little over a decade in his over six-decade-long turbulent life, but still having wide-ranging cultural impact — of which the plaque is just one example.
Dashiell Hammett (1894-1961), whose 124th birth anniversary falls on Sunday (May 27), may be more famous amid hardcore aficionados of hardboiled crime, of which he was a pioneer, but his significance is certainly not limited to it.
The prevalence of lurid, but realistic crime usually with elaborate cover-up attempts, or a town with a dark secret — which an outside protagonist, sent there to investigate, discerns and deals with, or a character who does not let his personal or moral beliefs interfere with his work can be credited to him.
These motifs are not confined to literature, but can also be seen in a range of iconic films from Akira Kurosawa’s “Yojimbo” and Coen Brothers’s “Miller’s Crossing”.
But Hammett’s most prominent contribution was the self-confident, wise-cracking, and unsentimental but still honourable Sam Spade, who is tarnished but not too much and can resist femme fatales — who not became the archetypical American private detective, but also inspired a raft of print and reel — and real-life — characters.
And Spade did this through just one book – “The Maltese Falcon” (1930) — and its 1941 film adaptation starring quintessential ‘Tough Guy’ Humphrey Bogart.
That was the crowning achievement of Hammett — whose fame rests on five novels — of which “Red Harvest” (1929), and “The Dain Curse” (1930) were both assembled from four inter-connected stories each out of the 36 featuring the nameless short, heavy and balding but tough “The Continental Op” (the other stories are available in anthologies) and then the Spade book.
Then there is “The Glass Key” (1934), a volatile mix of crime and politics, and finally “The Thin Man” (1934), starring ex-detective Nick Charles, who gets pulled back in the field, with his glamorous socialite wife, Nora, to help him. After this, Hammett had severe writer’s block and just managed one play in the rest of his life.
But while Hammett’s life — becoming a Pinkerton detective, his contacting tuberculosis, leaving his family to write — initially for pulp magazines, his wide knowledge, his love affairs (especially with playwright Lilian Hellman, his companion till the end), his World War II service, his Communist leanings (which led him to be blacklisted and serve a prison term), can be found in the introductions to any good edition of his works (especially Vintage Crime’s Black Lizard or Hachette UK’s Orion imprints), it is his art that is key.
His gifted contemporary — and successor Raymond Chandler of ‘Philip Marlowe’ fame — puts it best, saying Hammett “took murder out of the Venetian vase and dropped it into the alley”.
“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 duelling pistols, curare, and tropical fish. He put these people down on paper as they are, and he made them talk and think in the language they customarily used for these purposes. He had style, but his audience didn’t know it, because it was in a language not supposed to be capable of such refinements…,” he said in his 1950 essay “The Simple Art of Murder”.
This is obvious across Hammett’s work — be it the descriptions: “…Her body was erect and high-breasted, her legs long, her hands and feet narrow. She wore two shades of blue that had been selected because of her eyes…” (Brigid), or action: “‘Stop, you idiot!’ I bawled at her. Her face laughed over her shoulder at me. She walked without haste to the door, her short skirt of gray flannel shaping itself to the calf of each gray wool-stockinged leg as its mate stepped forward. Sweat greased the gun in my hand.. And I put a bullet in the calf of her leg.” (‘The Continental Op’).
And there is the crisper dialogue: “He went like that,” Spade said, “like a fist when you open your hand” or as Nick holds: “She keeps trying and you’ve got to be careful or you’ll find yourself believing her, not because she seems to be telling the truth, but simply because you’re tired of disbelieving her.”
If you read Hammett’s books and see the films, you’ll find it hard to spot differences – in plot and dialogue especially. How many writers can claim that?
(Vikas Datta is an Associate Editor at IANS. The views expressed are personal. He can be contacted at [email protected])