Eddie Muller on Dashiell Hammett
He only finished five novels, but they echo throughout the history of crime fiction: gangland sagas (Red Harvest), family intrigues (The Dain Curse), hardboiled detection (The Maltese Falcon), political thrillers (The Glass Key), and blithe, murderous farce (The Thin Man)--all originated with Hammett.
What made his work special, why it remains vital more than eighty years after it was first published, is that Hammett brought the real world into mystery fiction. Or, as Chandler put it so well, "He gave crime back to the people who committed it for a reason"--distinct from the armchair detectives for whom the genre was merely a puzzle-solving amusement. Sure, Hammett knew how to goose a story along with melodramatics, and he ramped up the sex and violence to sate the cravings of the pulp readers who were his biggest fans, but behind this low-brow product was a high-minded intellectual: insatiably curious, extraordinarily well-read, socially conscious, a serious-minded craftsman. He played at being indifferent, but knew he was changing the game.
He also was an alcoholic, a womanizer, and inveterate gambler. And a good husband and father. He was a patriot and a Communist. He absorbed a world of contradictions and had the keenness of intellect and the storytelling intuition to transform it all into prose that is still emulated today, if rarely equaled.
Oh, and one last thing. If you watch me hosting the Hammett tribute on June 7 and think I'm mispronouncing his name: I'm not. It's Dash-EEL, not DASH-ill, as it's been mispronounced for decades. His full name is Samuel Dashiell Hammett, the middle name honoring his mother's family, whose lineage stretched back to the Huguenots of 17th century France. If you've named your son or daughter after him, don't worry--you can pronounce it anyway you want. But for the record, he pronounced it Dash-EEL.
I've chosen to show: The Maltese Falcon (1931, novel), City Streets (1931, original story), After the Thin Man (1936, original story), The Glass Key (1942, novel).
By Eddie Muller