“Here’s to plain speaking and clear understanding.”
Sydney Greenstreet’s character in The Maltese Falcon
Based on the novel by Dashiell Hammett
“Hammett made the detective story fun to write, not an exhausting concatenation of insignificant clues.”
Just as Raymond Chandler influenced other writers, other writers influenced him. And one of those writers was Dashiell Hammett (1884-1961) who The New York Times called ‘the dean of the hard-boiled school of detective fiction.” It’s interesting to note that Hammett was born before—and lived longer—than Chandler. But as I noted in a pervious post, Chandler was late bloomer and didn’t begin writing until he was into his 40s. Hammett was raised Catholic on a farm in southern Maryland and served in the US Army before writing the novels he is known for: The Thin Man, Red Harvest, The Glass Key, and The Maltese Falcon.
He once said, “All my characters were based on people I’ve known personally, or known about.” What follows is an excerpt from an essay by Chandler that was first published in The Atlantic Monthly in 1944:
“I doubt that Hammett had any deliberate artistic aims whatever; he was trying to make a living by writing something he had first hand information about. He made some of it up; all writers do; but it had a basis in fact; it was made up out of real things. The only reality the English detection writers knew was the conversational accent of Surbiton and Bognor Regis. If they wrote about dukes and Venetian vases, they knew no more about them out of their own experience than the well-heeled Hollywood character knows about the French Modernists that hang in his Bel-Air château or the semi-antique Chippendale-cum-cobbler’s bench that he uses for a coffee table. Hammett took murder out of the Venetian vase and dropped it into the alley; it doesn’t have to stay there forever, but it was a good idea to begin by getting as far as possible from Emily Post’s idea of how a well-bred debutante gnaws a chicken wing. He wrote at first (and almost to the end) for people with a sharp, aggressive attitude to life. They were not afraid of the seamy side of things; they lived there. Violence did not dismay them; it was right down their street.
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. They thought they were getting a good meaty melodrama written in the kind of lingo they imagined they spoke themselves. It was, in a sense, but it was much more. All language begins with speech, and the speech of common men at that, but when it develops to the point of becoming a literary medium it only looks like speech. Hammett’s style at its worst was almost as formalized as a page of Marius the Epicurean; at its best it could say almost anything. I believe this style, which does not belong to Hammett or to anybody, but is the American language (and not even exclusively that any more), can say things he did not know how to say or feel the need of saying. In his hands it had no overtones, left no echo, evoked no image beyond a distant hill. He is said to have lacked heart, yet the story he thought most of himself is the record of a man’s devotion to a friend. He was spare, frugal, hardboiled, but he did over and over again what only the best writers can ever do at all. He wrote scenes that seemed never to have been written before.”
The Simple Art of Murder