This week an English newspaper published an article that you see every once in a while. It published its view of the 20 best crime novels of all time. You can read it here. I love articles like this, not just because I love crime fiction and hearing what people think about it, but also because I love best-of lists. They carry so much baggage with them, from accusations of being too heavily weighted towards modern trends, to only including established classics. They are both subjective and overly objective at the same time. Whatever the inherent faults in the compilation of such a list, there is almost always one name that continually appears. Whatever the motivation of the list maker you will nearly always find the name, Dashiell Hammett. This week’s list is no different and now seems as good a time as any to indulge ourselves in the star quality that is his work.
If you take a look at the list you’ll see that it references The Thin Man (1934). Quite right too in my view (except that the list isn’t my view) as it introduces readers to the characters Nick and Nora Charles. The characters reappeared, under Hammett’s stewardship and then guided by others once Hammett had sold the rights to their use, many times. They were, and are, phenomenally successful and The Thin Man remains an excellent story. When I read this latest list this point kept coming back to me. How does a story endure, how does it remain on a list 80 years after publication? Hammett’s book isn’t the oldest on the list, that honour goes to a volume of Edgar Allan Poe stories from 1852, but at a time when other novels have long disappeared into the forgotten corners of libraries and bookshelves, some stories still find new audiences. Given the nature of the publishing industry today and the increasing number of titles available and the way in which they are made available, to endure for this long is extraordinary. Hammett and his contemporaries, some of whom also appear on the list, were part of an incredibly rich period in American crime fiction, one that casts a long shadow over the genre.
America in the inter-war period was in a hurry to move forward. Its crime fiction output exploded and gave rise to the creation of the hardboiled detective genre. Most detective characters written at this time are aspirational representations of the people other people want to be, or the people that writers think we want to be. But nobody actually thinks that the real detective world is full of femme fatales, exciting car chases and near-constant action do they? Hammett knew that detective work was often boring, mundane, devoid of pretty much everything that would appeal or could be classified as entertainment. What he did, rather than inject reality with the same dramatic tension as his contemporaries was to confront it, to show life as it really was. He made detectives dull, spies and operatives methodical and he showed that characters were at their most believable when dealing with ordinary things. But he also made them deeply flawed, much more so than the thin veneer of inscrutability that some of his contemporaries applied. Hammett’s characters were both corruptable and corrupt. Deep down they were the people that Hammett feared he himself had become.
Take The Continental Op, a character who appears in several of Hammett’s stories, either novels or individual contributions to Black Mask Magazine. My favourite outing for the character is Red Harvest (1929). Hammett had, earlier in life, been an operative for the Pinkerton Detective Agency, a real-life institution still in existence, albeit in a different form, and one used by other crime fiction writers (the agency appears in the 1915 Sherlock Holmes novel The Valley of Fear by Arthur Conan Doyle). Hammett used his time there as the basis for Red Harvest. His own life was defined by his job, and it floods through his characters, particularly The Continental Op. When the Op wakes up one morning next to the body of a brutally murdered woman you can sense that Hammett is confronting his own past, rather than laying out a future for his character. Hammett’s job at the agency was his life, but that also meant that his life was a job. Hard, uncompromising, unglamorous yards. Not exactly the American dream. James Ellroy, the author of LA Confidential (1990), also on this week’s list, once wrote that all of this meant that Hammett possessed the gab of the grift. I’d do anything to be able to come up with that, let alone be the person it is describing.
Some books are timeless in their capacity to provide enjoyment, and remain rooted in bestseller / greatest / best / favourite (delete as appropriate) lists no matter what the current fad or trend. This is partly because lists are nearly always flawed in some way, and partly because of the breathtaking quality of certain writers. Writers like Hammett, who rather than shy away from his darkest fears actually wrote them down and laid them bare. He looked at a country that was desperate to inject glamour into a society ravaged by war and then the Great Depression and he gave it The Continental Op. In Red Harvest and then The Dain Curse (1929) he eschewed everything that you think of when you think of the hardboiled genre. He gave it a literary incarnation of himself. An incarnation that was reluctant, plodding and matter of fact. That is brave beyond words.
Hammett once said that all of his characters were based on people he knew or knew about. His unique skill was in giving us characters that seemed both new and familiar at the same time. The Continental Op, Nick and Nora Charles and of course, Sam Spade. This, by Sam Spade from The Maltese Falcon (1930) in response to the assertion that he always has a smooth explanation to hand.
What do you want me to do, learn to stutter?
So good. Then, now, always.