Saturday, February 23, 2008

Dashiell Hammett

I am apparently one of those people who, if asked what their favorite kind of book is, will say whatever it is they are reading at the time. For the last several years my answer would be, "Young readers' fiction, especially fantasy," since I got hooked on Harry Potter. For several months before that, it was, "Charles Dickens," as I was reading a long string of his books when I met Harry. Before that it was "Naval adventure," thanks to the works of C.S. Forester. And so on. But for a few months about ten years ago, my favorite thing to read was the Hardboiled Detective Story.

Hardboiled fiction, like Isaac Asimov's brand of science fiction, flourished in the era of pulp novels and magazine serials between the 1920s and 1940s. It is a very gritty style of mystery. Typically marked by hard-drinking, brutal, rather flawed heroes and a startling-for-the-times frankness about sex, they challenge the stereotype of the mystery genre as a boring story in which nothing happens between the crime and the solution. There is plenty of action in them, and a lot of soul-searching, and moments of existential despair, and you see the mixture of good and evil in everyone. And the final dividing line comes down to the detective's commitment to seeing that murderers get what they deserve (for instance, a noose around their neck). But the way he figures out whodunit, and the way he brings in the bad guy, is fraught with surprises, false endings, and bitter irony.

So basically, there's no chatty little scene where all the suspects sit around the drawing room while the sleuth sips tea and checks off one suspect after another. These are mysteries with teeth. And none bite harder, in my opinion, than the pulp novels and short stories of Dashiell Hammett (1894-1961).

Hammett worked in many trades, and served our country in both World Wars. Nevertheless he was also imprisoned for refusing to inform on his politically radical associates in the "Red Scare" of the 1950s. Among his many jobs was a stint as an operative for the Pinkerton Detective Agency, which I am sure paid off when he wrote his great detective stories, especially the ones featuring the Continental Op. His great success was as a writer, though his actual writing career was quite short. Hammett's books include some of the most famous hardboiled novels ever, which have inspired several famous films and a long-running classic radio program (The Thin Man, which, in turn, has inspired countless crossword clues). They are also some of my favorite books in the "mystery" section.

Some other authors with a similar outlook include Raymond Chandler, Erle Stanley Gardner, James M. Cain, and interestingly, C. S. Forester.

Why am I recommending these books to youngsters and Harry Potter fans? It's the obvious question, and a good one. Answer: some readers have asked me to provide some titles specifically for grown-ups. And perhaps some of them are like me, able to fall in love with one genre of books after another. But basically, Hammett is an author I like, and hardboiled is a style of fiction that I like, so some of you may like it too. This is really an "adults-only" genre, though I have to admit that I myself felt its pull when I was a teen. So if you consider yourself grown-up enough, and Mom and Dad don't object, I'd say 16 is a good age to start reading about the hardboiled detective. But be careful. You might end up dreaming of working for Pinkerton.

The Dain Curse
by Dashiell Hammett
Recommended Age: 16+

The nameless narrator of this, and many other stories by Hammett, is the Continental Op (that is, an operative of the Continental Detective Agency, San Francisco office). In this case from 1929, he takes on one of his weirdest mysteries, involving drugs, religious cults, and murder.

The client is the heiress of the Dain family, which seems to be followed around by a fatal curse. People close to her keep dying bad deaths. Is she the killer, or is someone trying to frame her? Is she under a curse? Is a real live ghost involved? Could morphine-influenced dabbling in the occult be to blame? Or is Miss Dain herself a killer's target?

Never has the Op entertained so many theories that were, in many cases, so strange. But in this creepy, suspenseful, cleverly plotted story, starring one of the great unsentimental heroes of American fiction, nothing will surprise you more than the real solution to the puzzle.

You may also enjoy the numerous other stories about the Continental Op, including the novel Red Harvest.

Parental advisory: this book depicts heavy alcohol use.

The Glass Key
by Dashiell Hammett
Recommended Age: 16+

Of Hammett's hardboiled detective novels, The Maltese Falcon made the most memorable movie, and The Thin Man inspired the most popular broadcast series. And then there are any number of novels and short stories starring the nameless Continental Op. Seemingly lost in the shadow of these giants is this book, yet I think it is the best thing Dashiell Hammett ever wrote. I would even call it the most perfect hardboiled novel I have ever read. One of the few perfect novels, period.

The hero, like Hammett himself, is an alcoholic slowly dying of tuberculosis. His name is Ned Beaumont, and he is not a Private Eye. Actually he is just a gambler, by profession, and the brains behind local political-machine boss Paul Madvig, by avocation. Now Madvig wants to move up in the world, and one of the steps is to marry a wealthy senator's daughter. But before he can make this step, he finds himself the chief suspect in a murder. And the one person shrewd enough, relentless enough, and (maybe) loyal enough to find out who really did the crime is his friend Ned.

In a twisty, turny mystery full of action, suspense, red herrings, and devastating irony, Ned pursues the trail of the killer-- and eludes becoming the next victim. He gets knocked around a lot by bad guys. He gets tangled in a love triangle. With his increasingly frail health and growing cynicism about human nature, he comes to question the political system, the nature of right and wrong, and even whether his friend Madvig could actually be guilty.

The result is a book so clear, clean, and tightly woven that, if you bend it, it snaps back, and a hero so cool that you can see his breath when he talks. Without the slightest hint of sentimentality, it builds to an emotionally crushing ending. I love this book. Are you ready for it?

Parental advisory: this book depicts heavy alcohol use.

The Maltese Falcon
by Dashiell Hammett
Recommended Age: 16+

This is the book that got me hooked on hardboiled fiction.

Perhaps few of today's film fans have seen it, but the picture based on this novel - starring Humphrey Bogart as private eye Sam Spade - has made a lasting impact on American culture. More of you might remember the Steve Martin parody, Dead Men Don't Wear Plaid, which just proves how deeply this story resonates in our memory. And though Sam Spade appeared in only the one novel and three short stories, in the heart of mystery lovers he stands beside such long-running hardboiled heroes as Philip Marlowe and Perry Mason. That is a testimony, I think, to what a great book this is.

My personal testimony is that I gasped, I literally gasped, at the power of this book. It hit me like a series of body-blows. I had to go back and read the whole climactic chapter aloud, blowing my nose like a foghorn. Not that it's sentimental. As far from it as can be. Yet somehow, that makes it so powerful!

A mystery is the kind of book most easily spoiled by a detailed synopsis, so I'll keep it to this: Sam Spade is a hard-drinking, skirt-chasing, tough customer whose partner in a two-man P.I. agency gets murdered... and Spade, who was fooling around with his partner's wife, becomes Suspect #1. What with eluding cops, all of whom are various shades of dirty, and trying to find out what's so important about a bird-shaped statue before the bad guys get hold of it, Spade has a lot on his hands. But until he finds out who really dunit, his neck is on the line.

And for those of you who already know this masterpiece, I have only these words: "If they hang you, I'll always remember you."

Parental advisory: this book contains heavy alcohol use.

Red Harvest
by Dashiell Hammett
Recommended Age: 16+

The Continental Op is the narrator of most of Hammett's "pulp fiction" short stories, and a couple of novels too. A mysterious character, he gives several false names but never his real one. An operative from the San Francisco office of the Continental Detective Agency (apparently a fictionalized version of Pinkerton), the Op is a big, barrel-shaped, hard-drinking, straight-shooting customer with guts of steel and a mind like a diamond-tipped drill. And as this story depicts so well, he is also ruthless when crossed.

It's a pretty disturbing story, actually. Sent to solve a case in the fictional city of Personville (often pronounced "Poisonville"), he instead finds himself caught in the middle of a political machine meltdown. Crooked politicians, crooked cops, and just plain crooks - who usually get along so well - are suddenly at each other's throats. And when a particular dame bites the dust, and even the Op doesn't know for sure whether he did her in, he decides it's payback time. Only instead of killing all the bad guys, he works out how to get them to kill each other.

As I said, disturbing. I think the movie Last Man Standing might give you an idea. But in its terse, tense, gripping way, this is also a masterpiece of hardboiled fiction. The dialogue snaps. The plot writhes with irony, double-cross, red herrings, and surprises. There is action, suspense, and perhaps what would once have been considered a subversive political message. And though the mystery will keep you guessing, the most fascinating mystery of all lies in the heart of the Continental Op himself.

Parental advisory: this book depicts violence and heavy alcohol use.

The Thin Man
by Dashiell Hammett
Recommended Age: 16+

If you have spent any amount of time doing crossword puzzles, you probably know that Nick and Nora Charles are the couple at the center of this story, and their dog's name is Asta. If you didn't know that, you now know the solution to an average of 1.5 clues in every crossword puzzle you'll ever run across. Roughly. Is it reasonable for crossword writers to expect you to know whose dog Asta is? For the generation that grew up listening to the popular radio show, based on the movie, based on this book, the answer is yes. The rest of you just have to figure it out on your own.

Nick is a former operative for a detective agency, whose wife Nora came into some money. Since then they have been living the high life in San Francisco. Now they are back in New York, staying in a nice hotel, drinking too much, and walking their dog into all kinds of places where they don't allow pets nowadays. Being a detective is all in Nick's past... until an eccentric inventor named Clyde Wynant, a former client of Nick's, disappears. And leaves his secretary lying murdered.

Now a lot of people want Nick to find Wynant, who is suspected of the killing. And a lot of people don't want Nick to find Wynant, who may not even be alive for all Nick and Nora know. Or Asta, for that matter.

Besides being a spiffy mystery, it's also a luxurious depiction of the way the Upper Half lived in the 1930s. The sort of book that makes you want to move to New York right now, if only it would be just like it was in about 1933. Maybe it isn't exactly Hammett's masterpiece, but it's got all the elements that make a good hardboiled crime novel - with the interesting twist that the sleuth is happily married.

Parental advisory: this book depicts heavy alcohol use.

EDIT: The movie referenced above was only the first of a series of movies between 1934 and 1947 based on the characters of Nick and Nora Charles, played by Myrna Loy and William Powell. There was also a TV series based on this book, from 1957 to 1959.

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