Books Essay

A Radical Pessimist’s Priceless Patter

Dashiell Hammett took the detective story out of the parlor and into the street

By David Lehman | September 7, 2015
Humphrey Bogart, Mary Astor, Peter Lorre, and Sydney Greenstreet in The Maltese Falcon (1941)
Humphrey Bogart, Mary Astor, Peter Lorre, and Sydney Greenstreet in The Maltese Falcon (1941)


The Jeopardy category is Opening Lines, and the literary answer is “Two Bars, 52nd Street.” You need to ask what works begin in such venues. One comes to mind quickly enough, but if you have only an out-of-towner’s awareness of New York City and you have not paid close enough attention to W. H. Auden’s “September 1, 1939,” you may misread yourself 10 blocks down past Times Square.

Written on the grim Friday when Nazi Germany invaded Poland and World War II began, Auden’s poem finds the poet sitting at “one of the dives / On Fifty-second Street” as a “low dishonest” decade reaches its foul culmination. In its heyday, 52nd was “the street that never sleeps.” Signs today identify it as “Swing Street” because it once boasted a plethora of jazz clubs (Jimmy Ryan’s, The Three Deuces, the 21 Club, and Kelly’s Stables, where Coleman Hawkins played his tenor sax). Auden wrote his poem at the Dizzy Club, a gay bar at 62 West 52nd, where a Beefsteak Charlie’s recently stood.

The other important literary work emanating from the spirit of 52nd Street in that decade is Dashiell Hammett’s The Thin Man. Published in 1934 but written when Prohibition was still the law of the land, the novel opens with its reluctant detective hero, Nick Charles, “leaning against the bar in a speakeasy on Fifty-second Street,” waiting for his wife to finish her Christmas shopping so she can join him for cocktails and wisecracks. The Thin Man is the last and in some ways the least characteristic of Hammett’s five novels, but its charm endures and readers unfamiliar with this pioneer of the American hard-boiled tradition may well want to start here, if only because of the air of compulsive intoxication and gallows humor that pervades the writing and gives it a glow of romance not ordinarily found in the genre.

Although in tone the two works could not be more different, The Thin Man illustrates a prime assertion Auden makes. The decade was “low [and] dishonest” not only because, on the macro level, would-be statesmen convinced themselves that appeasement of an intransigent and ruthless foe was a wise policy, but also because Prohibition effected a structural dishonesty in urban American life. Until Prohibition was repealed on December 5, 1933, anyone having a drink was breaking the law, and people continued to drink, and to do so with gusto, to such an extent that violating the Eighteenth Amendment became a badge of honor. The excessive drinking in The Thin Man, a book in a genre resting on principles of justice, is thus a sign of a certain desperation and ennui as well as a winking dishonesty in law enforcement.

The Thin Man features the husband-and-wife team of Nick and Nora Charles and their schnauzer, Asta (a fox terrier in the 1934 movie in which suave William Powell is Nick and Myrna Loy is his irresistible mate). The Charleses have come to New York from San Francisco for the holidays. Nick left the detective business when his wife came into a comfortable inheritance six years earlier, and he would much rather drink another Scotch and soda, wake up hung over, and pour himself a fresh one to “cut the phlegm” than engage in any shenanigans with shysters and gonifs. But when an eccentric inventor disappears and the missing man’s secretary is murdered, Nick gets involved; he knows the people. And after as many cocktails as clues, Nick fingers the killer in a penultimate chapter in which, in classic detective novel fashion, all the suspects assemble for the final revelation and showdown around a dinner table.

The thin man of the title refers not to Nick Charles but to a character who isn’t there, a character “as thin as the paper” that bears his name on checks, letters, and telegrams. When the killer is unmasked, Nick—who has only recently taken a bullet for his troubles—anticipates what will happen next. In an exquisite example of Hammett’s action prose (as I think of it), he tells us he

slammed [the killer’s] chin with my left fist. The punch was all right, it landed solidly and dropped him, but I felt a burning sensation on my left side and knew I had torn the bullet-wound open.

What do you want me to do?” I growled at Guild [the police lieutenant on the case]. “Put him in Cellophane for you?”

What you take away from both the book and the movie is not the sleuthing but the chemistry between Nick and Nora—the latter said to have been inspired by Lillian Hellman, to whom the book is dedicated and with whom Hammett conducted a three-decades-long love affair. Copious amounts of booze are guzzled, and while it may be too early for breakfast, it is never too early to get, as they used to say, “tight.” Nora: “Why don’t you stay sober today?” Nick: “We didn’t come to New York to stay sober.” In a dangerous spot, Nick slugs Nora to remove her from the line of fire, which is pretty crafty of him, but when she comes to, five minutes later, she glares at him. “You damned fool,” she says, “you didn’t have to knock me cold. I knew you’d take him, but I wanted to see it.” One of the cops on hand all but whistles in admiration. “There’s a woman with hair on her chest.”

Born in Maryland in 1894, raised in Baltimore and Philadelphia, Samuel Dashiell Hammett is credited with having taken “murder out of the Venetian vase and dropped it in the alley.” The words are Raymond Chandler’s, from his essay “The Simple Art of Murder,” which is the closest thing to a manifesto for the American hard-boiled model. Chandler’s argument is cogent and rhetorically devastating. Prior to Hammett’s stories in Black Mask—his stories with the so-called Continental Op as their hero—the genteel detective story reigned supreme, and it was primarily a matter of artifice in the service of ingenuity. Chandler’s lampooning of the genre never leaves you, even if you refuse to give up your Ngaio Marsh and your E. C. Bentley. Until Hammett (Chandler wrote),

it is the same careful grouping of suspects, the same utterly incomprehensible trick of how somebody stabbed Mrs. Pottington Postlethwaite III with the solid platinum poignard just as she flatted on the top note of the Bell Song from Lakmé in the presence of fifteen ill-assorted guests …

Hammett is Chandler’s exemplar because he “gave murder back to the kind of people that commit it for reasons, not just to provide a corpse.” After serving as a sergeant in the First World War, Hammett held a variety of jobs before becoming a detective for the Pinkerton Agency. During the war, he fell victim to influenza and for the rest of his life suffered from serious illnesses of the lungs. At 48, he talked his way into serving as a sergeant in the Second World War. By then, he had completed or abandoned the literary career he embarked on in the 1920s, when the knowledge that he could die at any time prompted him to set up shop as a writer. The otherwise unnamed Continental Op is a short, stocky, middle-aged man who works for an unglamorous detective agency in San Francisco. He is a professional and a stoic, doing his job.

Hammett doesn’t waste words and doesn’t editorialize, and his simple, declarative sentences have a lot in common with Hemingway’s. Hammett can slam a story shut as—to draw imagery from abstract expressionist painters—an Ad Reinhardt black-on-black turns off the lights in the room where Mark Rothko has pulled down the shade. “The Big Knockover” ends in exhilaration—“What a life!”—and “The Gutting of Couffignal” concludes with the Op’s having to shoot a woman:

You ought to have known I’d do it!” My voice sounded harsh and savage and like a stranger’s in my ears. “Didn’t I steal a crutch from a cripple?”

Another story concludes with an extended conversation between the Op and the killer, who does most of the talking. The story ends as simply as such a story can: “They hanged him.”

If a strength of the classic detective story as practiced by Agatha Christie and Nicholas Blake is the baroque ingenuity of the puzzle and the cleverness of the detective in bypassing the false scents to arrive at the true if often outlandishly improbable solution, in Hammett quite a different pleasure awaits the reader—that of his prose and his depiction of a criminal milieu. The tone is established in the opening paragraph of his novel Red Harvest:

I first heard Personville called Poisonville by a red-haired mucker named Hickey Dewey in the Big Ship in Butte. He also called his shirt a shoit. I didn’t think anything of what he had done to the city’s name. Later I heard men who could manage their r’s give it the same pronunciation. I still didn’t see anything in it but the meaningless sort of humor that used to make richardsnary the thieves’ word for dictionary. A few years later I went to Personville and learned better.

Julian Symons, the distinguished British crime novelist and historian of the genre, believed The Glass Key is the best of Hammett’s novels. I respectfully disagree, though Hammett himself had a special fondness for this “record of a man’s devotion to a friend” (Chandler’s phrase). The Dain Curse may be the least consequential of the five novels, but it does propose an analogy between the detective (who describes himself as “a middle-aged fat man”) and his novelist friend. Consider this snatch of dialogue, in which the novelist (“he”) is the first speaker:

“Are you—who make your living snooping—sneering at my curiosity about people and my attempts to satisfy it?”

“We’re different,” I said. “I do mine with the object of putting people in jail, and I get paid for it, though not as much as I should.”

“That’s not different,” he said. “I do mine with the object of putting people in books, and I get paid for it, though not as much as I should.”

I would venture the opinion, without needing to issue a spoiler alert, that The Dain Curse works out the exact degree of generic resemblance—and ultimate difference—between detective and novelist.

The sociologically inclined may advocate Red Harvest as Hammett’s novel of choice, perhaps because the city, whether pronounced “Personville” or “Poisonville” in the beloved Brooklyn manner, is a vision straight out of Thomas Hobbes’s Leviathan. It is like a fleshed-out footnote to the Hobbesian notion that man, if his impulses are left unchecked, will lead the life of anarchy, each out for himself, with chaos and bloodshed for all. Although Hammett, in 1937, may have joined the Communist Party USA (he became a leftist hero when, in the 1950s, he refused to name names and had to serve five punishing months in jail), his point of view may be said to be not Marxist but Hobbesian, as Columbia professor Steven Marcus writes in an influential essay: “It is a world of universal warfare, the war of each against all, and of all against all.”

The Thin Man may take place in New York, The Maltese Falcon and The Dain Curse in San Francisco, but Poisonville is the default landscape of Hammett’s imagination, a place lacking the central superego that Freud considered vital to civilization. Very few of Hammett’s characters do the right thing except when it coincides with their own self-interest. Many more are as aloof from the concepts of right and wrong as from those of good and evil.

Reading Chandler, you get the idea that Hammett’s superiority to, say, Dorothy Sayers has to do with the latter’s gentility and the former’s true grit. Hammett’s prose has a terse eloquence, and a bite. In The Maltese Falcon (1930), his best novel, each wisecrack adds its touch to the portrait of detective Sam Spade, the book’s hero. Spade is a loner by instinct, though when the book begins, he is part of the firm of Spade & Archer. When his partner is killed, Spade spends no time grieving. In the aftermath of the shooting, one of the first things he does—besides fending off the advances of Miles Archer’s widow—is to order his secretary to have the front door repainted with his erstwhile partner’s name removed.

No sentimentalist, Spade can, as the situation requires, disarm a gunman, turn the tables on a burglar, endure a Mickey Finn, talk his way out of a sticky situation, and feign a temper tantrum to get what he wants. When a character says accusingly that Spade has a smooth explanation for everything, the latter replies, “What do you want me to do? Learn to stutter?” This is more than a witty comeback; it conveys something essential about the character of a detective in the kind of world Hammett depicts. Your confidence is half of what you bring to any case. Spade conveys his attitude in little asides throughout the book. When a cab driver remarks sympathetically that a detective’s way of earning a living is “a tough racket,” Spade replies, “Well, hack-drivers don’t live forever.” “Maybe that’s right,” the cabbie says, “but, just the same, it’ll always be a surprise to me if I don’t.” This remarkable exposition of a trait of human nature shuts up Spade for the rest of the ride.

One reason that John Huston’s 1941 movie of The Maltese Falcon is an all-time great is that the director had the good sense to stick to the dialogue as Hammett wrote it. (A second reason is the splendid Warner Bros. cast.) Both book and movie are fast-paced, quick-talking excursions into a criminal milieu of heartless cold-bloodedness on the one hand and of a certain delightful eccentricity on the other. Gutman the “fat man” (Sydney Greenstreet); Joel Cairo, stinking of cologne (Peter Lorre); Brigid O’Shaughnessy, ruthless but skillful at putting on a helpless act (Mary Astor); and Wilmer the undersized gunsel seething in frustration (Elisha Cook Jr.): not one is easily forgotten. All are in pursuit of a priceless bauble—the “dingus,” Spade calls it—with a fabulous history. It is the statue of a falcon, painted jet black, the paint concealing the jewels that make the object worth millions.

The main characters are no more plausible than the dramatis personae of your standard classic mystery tale, in which we meet such types as the retired army colonel and his shrewish wife, the rich widow with the timid paid companion, the starlet who has a secret, the surgeon with a résumé of indiscretions, a couple of loud American tourists, and the beautiful, self-centered
newlywed who has antagonized all the others. The difference is one of style, and to some extent of nationality. In their setting, their language, and their emphasis on action rather than cogitation, Hammett’s murder mysteries are American with a vengeance, not least in their ability to convey the illusion of the real in dialogue and descriptive prose that is as vigorous and unliterary as the native vernacular at its most vivid.

For the sake of possessing the bejeweled bird, four men die during the course of The Maltese Falcon, all but one of them offstage. The elusive bird has most recently traveled from Hong Kong to San Francisco on a steamship, La Paloma, whose captain delivers it to Spade. It is the last thing Captain Jacobi (played by the director’s father, Walter Huston) gets to do.

When the cast reassembles to examine the prize, the statue turns out to be a fake. There are no jewels beneath the skin. The black bird in Spade’s apartment is a mere replica. The disappointment is immediate (Cairo to Gutman: “You imbecile! You bloated idiot!”) but short-lived. Gutman, the fat man, does the math. He has spent 17 years looking for this avian statuary. If he must now go to Istanbul and spend an extra 12 months on the quest, that would add only “five and fifteen-seventeenths per cent.” “I go with you!” Cairo enthusiastically chimes in. For the sake of the falcon, Gutman is also willing to provide a fall guy to take the rap for a murder. He sacrifices his own bodyguard to the cause. In another priceless piece of patter, he addresses Wilmer: “I want you to know that I couldn’t be any fonder of you if you were my own son; but—well, by Gad!—if you lose a son it’s possible to get another—and there’s only one Maltese falcon.”

In the movies, Humphrey Bogart plays both Sam Spade and, in the film version of Chandler’s The Big Sleep, Philip Marlowe. Casual viewers may be excused for not detecting the salient differences between the men. Sam Spade is the more ambiguous figure. In the first paragraph of The Maltese Falcon, we learn that Spade “looked rather pleasantly like a blond satan,” the rather pleasantly softening the image of a satanic hero. Sam dares the world to surprise him. At the end of the chapter, Spade’s partner leaves the office to do what Brigid O’Shaughnessy, alias Miss Wonderly, has hired the firm to do. Spade: “What do you think of her?” Archer: “Sweet!” and “Maybe you saw her first, Sam, but I spoke first,” in response to which Spade “grinned wolfishly, showing the edges of teeth far back in his jaw,” before rolling a cigarette. “You’ve got brains, yes you have,” he says. It is as if part of him would not be surprised if he were seeing Miles Archer alive for the last time. And sure enough, the phone call that wakes him in the middle of the night is not good news.

Unlike Marlowe, “a shop-soiled Galahad” (Chandler’s phrase) who keeps his hands off his female clients unless she is played by Lauren Bacall, Sam in The Maltese Falcon takes up Miss Wonderly’s blatant offer: “Can I buy you with my body?” He goes to bed with Brigid and thoroughly enjoys his physical and sexual dominance of her. I use the phrase advisedly, because Sam’s handling of Brigid can be seen most accurately, I think, within the context of domination and submission, in which sexual activity involves an exchange of power. When searching for a missing thousand-dollar bill, for example, Sam orders Brigid to strip in the bathroom, keeping the door half shut, so only he can see her naked, while the three other sinister characters—the Fat Man, Joel Cairo, and the gunsel Wilmer—sit and grumble in the living room.

In a book full of reversals and revelations, the ultimate one occurs when Sam and Brigid are alone, their former companions having fled from the apartment. Now, finally, Sam confronts Brigid with Miles Archer’s murder—the one formal problem in the novel, as Chandler points out. Back in chapter two, Hammett gives us the only clue we really need when police detective Tom Polhaus shows Spade the corpse of his partner. “His gun was tucked away on his hip,” Tom says. “It hadn’t been fired. His overcoat was buttoned. There’s a hundred and sixty-some bucks in his clothes.” Spade’s opinion of Archer is unflattering—“He was as dumb as any man ought to be”—and yet in pursuit of a gunman he would not have entered a dark alley with his gun holstered and his overcoat buttoned. “But he’d’ve gone up there with you, angel, if he was sure nobody else was up there.” Brigid, appealing to her sexual bond with Sam, tries desperately to talk her way out of the accusation. In vain. “I’m going to send you over,” he says. “If they hang you I’ll always remember you.”

Sam coolly says to Brigid: “I’m not going to play the sap for you.” The phrase resonates in both book and movie, not merely because sap alliterates with the detective’s name but because the worst thing a sapient being can be in this moral universe is a sap. (Earlier, when Spade tries to sell police lieutenant Dundy on a cock-and-bull story he has devised, he uses the word for its rhetorical force: “Don’t be a sap, Dundy.”) Sam isn’t a sap. No, he is “a character” (as Gutman says), “wild and unpredictable” (as Brigid says). That he is unpredictable is undeniable, and if his actions confuse, it is deliberate. Barbara Deming, in her book Running Away from Myself, articulates the problem.

Why does he entangle himself with this woman to begin with? The moment they meet, he knows her for what she is; he doesn’t exactly believe her story. “This is hopeless,” he says—then makes the case. “Loyalty is a good word from you!” he mocks—and then walks into her embrace. This is the sequence of things. And then finally, “I won’t play the sap for you,” he says, “because all of me wants to,” and he painfully disentangles himself from her arms. A curious sequence.

Well, yes and no. Film noir depends on the male capacity for being a sap and for generating sap, the one activity leading to the other.

Spade, no sap, gets paid—not exorbitantly—in cash. (“We didn’t exactly believe your story,” he says. “We believed your two hundred dollars.”) You may suppose he gets his rewards in romance, sex, and adventure, but it is easy to overestimate the glamour of living in jeopardy. Aside from her sexual favors, Brigid, too, can be described, in the most complimentary sense, as “a character.” “I am a liar,” she blurts out at one point, with the hush of melodrama that Mary Astor beautifully provides. “I have always been a liar.” Why, to echo Deming’s question, does Sam “entangle himself with this woman to begin with?” Because, for one thing, the private eye can’t choose among clients. Because all clients are fundamentally as risky and unreliable and false, though not all are as attractive or as sexually available as Brigid. Because she does have something to offer him, something that begins but does not end with her body. And because the detective’s best line of defense in this universe is to be “wild and unpredictable”—to get what you can, enjoy it, but choose wisely at the life-or-death moment.

“Be reasonable,” Spade is told throughout the novel, usually by a sympathetic cop but by others too. But being “reasonable” is for saps. The “Flitcraft” story that Sam tells Brigid, seemingly just to pass the time, explains why. It is, in effect, a parable with a direct application to Spade’s vocation and his manner of conducting himself. A Tacoma man named Flitcraft disappeared one day, and Spade was hired to find him. There was no unusual bank activity or anything else to suggest that the disappearance was premeditated. Neither was there evidence of violence or foul play. What happened was that Flitcraft, strolling from the office on his lunch hour, narrowly missed being hit by a stray “beam or something” from a construction site. Had the beam hit him, he would have surely died. He did not conclude from his narrow escape that, in Hamlet’s words, “there is a special providence in the fall of a sparrow.” Rather, he felt, in Spade’s words, “like somebody had taken the lid off life and let him look at the works.” He had been a good citizen, a good husband and father, but what did it matter if life and death were a matter of chance? “The life he knew was a clean orderly sane responsible affair. Now a falling beam had shown him that life was fundamentally none of these things.” Flitcraft decided to make a break with his past—to leave everything behind in a fit of randomness. The splendid irony is that when Flitcraft was found in Spokane, he had “settled back naturally into the groove he had jumped out of in Tacoma.” He had a new wife, new kids, a new home, new job, all very like the ones he had left behind. “It seemed reasonable enough to him,” Sam tells Brigid. “He adjusted himself to beams falling, and then no more of them fell, and he adjusted himself to them not falling.”

In telling Brigid O’Shaughnessy the story of Flitcraft, Spade is telling her who he is: a Flitcraft who has no intention of settling down, or settling back, into a “groove.” No, life is not a “clean orderly sane responsible affair.” The universe is not rational, presided over by a benevolent deity. And therefore to “be reasonable” is to be out of step with life.

Spade’s is an even grimmer view of the universe than Auden’s on the eve of devastation. Auden ends “September 1, 1939” resolved to “Show an affirming flame” in the face of the forces of “Negation and despair.” Sam Spade, like his author, avoids these terms as he avoids all “those big words that make us so unhappy” (Stephen Dedalus’s phrase in Joyce’s Ulysses). But his refusal to “be reasonable” is a statement of radical pessimism. No wonder the French existentialists found the hard-boiled American detective novel so congenial.

Each of the “three women” in the chapter of that title is, in her own way, in love with Sam Spade. And each is kept at bay. Brigid O’Shaugnessy is the femme fatale par excellence—to associate with her is to court death and disaster—and the main drama centers on Spade’s relationship with her. But Effie Perine—Spade’s gal Friday, resourceful and smart—is not to be overlooked. Spade mostly calls her “angel,” but once he salutes her with “You’re a damned good man, sister.” The third of the three women is Iva Archer, Miles’s widow, who is depicted as one-half of a bad marriage. She calls on Sam, asking him whether he shot Miles and hoping the answer is yes. “That louse wants to marry you, Sam,” Effie says “bitterly,” which tells us all we need to know about Iva, and quite a lot about Effie. But equally telling is Effie’s reaction to Spade’s decision to turn in his murderous client. “She did kill Miles, angel,” Sam tells Effie, snapping a finger to show just how casual a killer Brigid is. Effie recoils from Sam: “I know—I know you’re right,” she says. “You’re right. But don’t touch me now—not now.” She says it “brokenly,” like a child disturbed by an unhappy ending and by the renewed proof that Spade may be good at what he does but is neither a gentleman nor a saint.

What we have in Sam Spade, then, is our old friend the romantic rebel, jaded in the Byronic manner, who views human nature as something incorrigible and whose mask of defense manifests itself in his “wild and unpredictable” behavior and in his self-reliance and competence. Not an ascetic, not self-righteous, he enjoys the company of women but refuses to sentimentalize them. In the end he adheres to a code, albeit a pragmatic one. He is a detective and must identify the culprit, whether it’s a he or a she, a beautiful temptress like Brigid or a dandified Levantine like Joel Cairo. As he explains to Brigid in a moment of rare earnestness, “when one of your organization gets killed it’s bad business to let the killer get away with it. It’s bad all around—bad for that one organization, bad for every detective everywhere.”

Spade’s quips and retorts are there not just for the sake of crackling dialogue but to develop the complexity of Hammett’s “blond satan” and to tell us the terms on which he is determined to meet an unreasonable world. There is a reason that Sam Spade—especially when portrayed by Bogart—appeals to us as a model, a rhetorical model or a model for the wounded hero who is down on human nature, given to understatement, and nevertheless capable of making the unexpected lofty gesture, sometimes a sacrifice, sometimes a dare.

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