DASHIELL HAMMETT: CRIME STORIES & OTHER WRITINGS
by Dashiell Hammett and Stephen Marcus (Library of America, $35)
NO MATTER HOW much you admire Dashiell Hammett's work, you may feel uncomfortable finding it all duded up on acid-free paper between the chaste linen covers of a Library of America edition. Hammett was a pulp writer and proud of it. He didn't aim to write "American literature," and in fact, his influence on American literature has been slim. More's the pity.
On American art in the widest sense, Hammett's influence is immense, though indirect, through the medium of film. His genially bloody romances of the underside of the American dream didn't just shape Hollywood's (and Paris', and Hong Kong's, and Tokyo's) approach to subject matter and dialogue style; his narratives taught the camera new ways to tell a story. Consider the following unedited excerpt from "The Big Knockover," one of two plot-linked "novelettes" published in Black Mask in 1927:
There was some sort of traffic jam on Market Street, so I set out afoot, turning off along Grant Avenue.
A few blocks of walking, and I began to see that something was wrong with the part of town I was heading for. Noises, for one thing—roaring, rattling, explosive noises. At Sutter Street a man passed me, holding his face with both hands and groaning as he tried to push a dislocated jaw back in place. His cheek was scraped red.
I went down Sutter Street. Traffic was in a tangle that reached to Montgomery Street. Excited, bare-headed men were running around. The explosive noises were clearer. An automobile full of policemen went down past me, going as fast as traffic would let it. An ambulance came up the street clanging its gong, taking to the sidewalks where the traffic tangle was worst.
I crossed Kearny Street on the trot. Down the other side of the street two patrolmen were running. One had his gun out. The explosive noises were a drumming chorus ahead.
Rounding into Montgomery Street, I found few sightseers ahead of me. The middle of the street was filled with trucks, touring cars, taxis—deserted there. Up in the next block— between Bush and Pine Streets—hell was on a holiday.
It's not just the concreteness of Hammett's language that screams "action movie"; it's the way the author captures the feeling of action, movement through space, the tension between what's seen and heard and what's imagined ahead, the juxtaposition of routine background and shocking detail. The whole rhythm is cinematic, headlong, quick cut, here and now.
Hammett didn't invent the action film, but his work directly inspired some of the genre's ripest examples. The best-known screen adaptations of his work, The Maltese Falcon and The Thin Man-one all mood and shadows, the other screwball melodrama-don't display the influence most directly. In the formation of cinematic action style, 1929's Red Harvest casts the longest shadow. A laconic tale of an anonymous private dick who finds himself between two warring gangster factions and calmly proceeds to annihilate them both, Red Harvest was just too relentlessly, single-mindedly bloody to film when it was new.
NOT UNTIL 1961 did Hollywood learn exactly how much cinematic juice could be squeezed from Hammett's dry-as-desert-dust prose. And in samurai drag, at that. Even if you haven't seen Akira Kurosawa's Yojimbo, you've seen it: knocked off by Sergio Leone in A Fistful of Dollars, slavishly homaged in Walter Hill's Bruce Willis as Last Man Standing, or just hovering in the air of a hundred wanna-be film evocations of a strong, silent hero taking on a whole world of rot and coming out slimed but triumphant. And Yojimbo, minus the swords and funny haircuts, is already there in Red Harvest.
For all his fidelity to the hard-boiled pulp tradition, Hammett wasn't willing to mine the same vein over and over like his more self-consciously literary West Coast counterpart Raymond Chandler. The Dain Curse is a failed but still magnificent attempt at stitching a tough-tec hide over a high-Gothic plot skeleton. The Glass Key (ripped off without so much as a tip of the fedora by those prankish Coen boys in Miller's Crossing) is the most tautly crafted of Hammett's novels, but it digs deeper into the dynamics of male-male affection than many far more "serious" works.
With the publication of this second volume, the whole of Hammett's literary output is back in print, though not exactly in the form in which it was originally published. Substantial portions of the five novels that made Hammett respectable reading for American literati were cobbled together from earlier pulp publications, and the current collection wisely doesn't waste space on duplicating that material, already issued by the Library of America last year.
But even if you already own that volume, this one, containing virtually all the pulp tales not later recycled (plus some previously unpublished material) is still a must for your bookshelf. Hammett's special qualities shine brightest in short forms. Stories like "The Big Knockover" and "The House in Turk Street" and "The Girl with Silver Eyes" each provide an exhilarating jolt of adrenaline action, all the more effective for being served straight, no chaser, in the chunky shot glass of Hammett's prose.