It seems to me that there is entirely too little screaming about the work of Dashiell Hammett. My own shrill yaps have been ascending ever since I first found Red Harvest, and from that day the man has been, God help him, my hero; but I talked only yesterday, I forget why, with two of our leading booksy folk, and they had not heard of that volume, nor had they got around to reading its better, The Maltese Falcon.
From Dorothy Parker’s 1931 New Yorker review of The Maltese Falcon and The Glass Key, entitled, Oh Look–Two Good Books! She was a poet, you know.
Hammett was a major writer, for a lot of reasons, one of them being that the texture in his writing comes so very much from himself. Writing inside an action genre, where subtleties of character and milieu are not primary considerations, he nevertheless was, word by word and sentence by sentence, subtle and many-layered, both allusive and elusive, delicate and aloof among all the smashing fists and crashing guns.
From The Hardboiled Dicks, a lecture given by Donald Westlake at the Smithsonian in 1982, which I’ve quoted from in the past, and probably will again, but you can read the whole thing in The Getaway Car. Cut out the middleman.
Well, that was a long break. I’m still pondering on a problem piece (political), but while that was percolating, and I was crouched forlornly by my mailbox, waiting for somebody to drop a copy of Westlake’s Red Harvest screenplay in it, I said to myself, “Hey, maybe I should read The Maltese Falcon. I hear that’s pretty good.”
Yeah. Never read it. I started, years ago, but could not get past Spade being a ‘blonde Satan.’ Which he’s not, really. Well, he gets up to some deviltry, but he has light brown hair. Light brown isn’t blonde. What was Hammett thinking? Probably not that his snarky shamus would be forever linked with some black Dutchman with a lisp, who had just ditched Broadway for Hollywood. (Grofield would not approve.)
I have this thing, where when I read the book a movie I love was based on, the two duel for supremacy in my mind while I read. Sometimes they fight to a standstill. Sometimes the movie wins. Usually, the book triumphs. This was one of those times. Huston great, Hammett greater. I still heard Bogie’s voice when I read Spade’s dialogue, but even that began to fade after a while.
Movies. They screw with your perceptions of the books. Damn them anyway. The good ones in particular. And none better than Huston’s. But never mistake the packing material for the contents. Excelsior.
So I read it, then read some things about it, came to some conclusions, and after banging my head on my desk a number of times at all the things I knew now that I coulda shoulda woulda known back when I started work on this blog, I did still more reading. I’m all Kindled up now, ready to dig deep. New worlds to conquer.
See, I mainly just read the Op stories for background. Having been assigned Red Harvest for a college course eons before, I knew Westlake had taken that as his model for his anti-Op Tim Smith, in Killing Time. It served as the backbone for several of his most interesting books.
Likewise, I read The Thin Man, because Westlake cited it as an influence on the Mitch Tobin mysteries. But somehow, the other stuff didn’t pull me in. I didn’t have the right key to open it. (Glass, of course.) Why it somehow never occurred to me that Westlake would have learned from everything written by a man I’ve many times described here as his most important literary influence….
Well, you see, we don’t scream enough about Hammett. Mrs. Parker was right. We know of him, of course. We honor and homage him, we review and reference him, we parody and plagiarize him, we anthologize adapt and and assay him, we do guided tours of San Francisco based on him, and we even write lengthy scholarly biographies and other erudite tomes about him, a privilege accorded to precious few pulp writers. We know of him. But do we know him? Not really. Not most of us.
And just as Sergio Leone began his career in earnest by copying Kurosawa, almost shot for shot–well Westlake was never that incautious (movie directors can afford lawsuits a lot easier than novelists), and he went out of his way to contradict and revise his mentor, but fact is, a bit of creative copying can teach you things you can’t learn any other way. It shouldn’t be how you finish, but it’s the only way to begin.
Hammett was a part of Westlake to the very end, but it’s at the start that the influence is most powerful–and, if you’re looking close, obvious. I can see it all so clearly now. I couldn’t then.
And because by the early 60’s, Westlake was more and more aware that his future was in novels, not short stories, it’s the five Hammett novels–each one different from the last–that we need to put under the magnifying glass now.
Hammett died on January 10th, 1961, which I would think only intensified Mr. Westlake’s devotion, but he was already on the case. Just five months earlier, in August, Westlake’s first novel under his own name (also the first he’d want anybody to know he’d written) had gotten a quick complimentary write-up in Criminals At Large, Anthony Boucher’s round-up mystery column in the New York Times.
Brief and glancing as that Boucher review is, Hammett is referenced in it. As is a novel by Hammett. That’s what we’re looking at next. It’s late Hammett, but we’re doing this in Westlake’s order.
Touché, Boucher. You got it. Why didn’t I? Oh right. Never read the book. (Or in this case, even watched the movie). Man in the middle. That’s me.
Care for a cartoon, while I ratiocinate?