Golden Age of Detective Fiction Forum

June 5, 2009

Thoughts on Dashiell Hammett

Filed under: Dashiell Hammett — Jon @ 4:38 am

I’m finishing reading a collection of short stories by Dashiell Hammett and I’d like to share some thoughts.

“Dash” was no fan of Van Dine, as evidenced by his scathing review of The Benson Murder Case. Still, his sparse prose and behaviorist approach fulfill Van Dine’s commandments regarding characterization, atmosphere and description in a way no attempt by a Golden Ager (including Van Dine himself) ever achieved – and yet manage to be extremely evocative and insightful.

Hammett’s refusal of getting inside his character’s heads eliminates one of the genre’s most enduring problems, that is, how can you build a character, offer him a background and give the reader a glimpse into his thoughts while at the same time keeping his/her guilt secret? P.D. James’ latest work is a good illustration of the contradictions to which attempts at having it both ways (in-depth psychological study and mystery plot) lead. Hammett’s approach works much better as it casts us as bystanders knowing nothing for certain of the characters but what they’re willing to show and tell.

Both of the reasons stated above make me wonder whether Hammett’s approach might not be used to great advantage in traditional mysteries.

Finally, I’m not hardboiled scholar and so I am open to correction, but it seems to me Hammett didn’t make much of a splash in the mystery field until the Queens “rehabilitated” him in the Forties. I mean, he was popular with hardboiled folks, but doesn’t seem to have elicited much reaction in other circles – JDC for instance was much more “interested” in Chandler, and regarded him as a bigger threat to traditional mystery writing, than Hammett. This might explain why Chandler was ultimately more influent, coming to set the template for later hardboiled fiction, while Hammett’s discoveries never enjoyed a crossover.



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