Zigzags of Treachery

Raymond Chandler remarked, “Hammett took murder out of the Venetian vase and dropped it in the alley…”

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A couple months ago, I decided that I wanted to read The Thin Man. Years ago, I had seen the film and loved it. After finishing the book, I was captivated by Dashiell Hammett’s writing style, characterization, and his penetrating use of story. This was not a “boiler-plate” detective story but a series of intense characterizations with zigzagging plots, and powerful emotional and even ethical decisions. And thus began my several-month journey of reading “everything Hammett”.

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Although Hollywood would make a total of six Thin Man films, there was only one novel about Nick and Nora Charles that was written by Hammett. In that work, the husband and wife team reluctantly become involved in unraveling the whereabouts of a missing man. The novel includes many gritty details omitted from the film. The book must be read but don’t miss the films either. They are delightful and while the first is the best, all in the series are engaging and fun to watch.

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Next, I chose The Maltese Falcon. Again, although I was familiar with the film, the book made a stronger impression. I don’t want to spoil the plot, but Hammett’s writing brilliantly reveals how Sam Spade realizes the identity of the murderer. That element alone, I feel, captures the innovation and realism of Hammett’s writing. It is not some obscure poison or cliche literary clue, but a brilliant eye for the small detail that reveals so much that Hammett, through Spade, employs to firmly convince the reader of the suspect’s guilt.

The National Endowment for the Arts published an excellent audio guide, written and produced by Dan Stone, on The Maltese Falcon. I thoroughly enjoyed listening to this guide and recommend it.

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On to Red Harvest, a political corruption novel tour de force with its own twisting tales, and a story that certainly confirms the idea that politics have always been the same. Don’t miss this one!

The Dain Curse is often given a less favorable review and since I can barely remember it (even though I only read it a few weeks ago), I’ll have to agree.

The Glass Key was said to be one of Hammett’s favorites and I can understand why. It is an intense emotional journey with a surprising ending that I won’t spoil for you.

And then let us not forget his short stories. Between 1923 and 1927, Hammett published thirty-two short stories in Black Mask. My favorite short story was “Zigzags of Treachery” with its brilliant plot that stays true to its title! I’ve greatly enjoyed so many of his short stories and I think that fans of this genre will love them, too. To read his short stories, check out Crime Stories and Other Writings published by Library of America, Nightmare Town: Stories and The Big Knockover: Selected Stories.

Born in May of 1894, Hammett worked for the Pinkerton Detective Agency from 1914 to 1918 and then again from 1919 to 1921. He served in WWI in the Motor Ambulance Corps and in WWII in the Aleutian Islands as an Army Sargeant editing the Army’s newspaper. During his service in WWI, he contracted tuberculosis. Hammett was a political activist and a confessed Marxist. He was a staunch anti-fascist yet was a member of Keep America Out of the War (apparently a subcommittee of the League of American Writers). However, immediately after Pearl Harbor, he used his influence to gain enlistment and serve in the Army.

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Contemporary Authors had this to say about Hammett’s entanglement with the prosecutors of the Red Scare: “In April of 1953, Hammett was called to testify before the Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations of the Committee on Government Operations, chaired by Joseph McCarthy. His testimony before that committee is often quoted. Asked by McCarthy if he would ‘purchase the works of some seventy-five Communist authors and distribute their works throughout the world,’ Hammett replied, ‘If I were fighting communism, I don’t think I would do it by giving people any books at all.’” Clearly, Hammett was a complex man.

But back to his literary works… After the publication of The Thin Man, Hammett stopped writing. Some have speculated that this was because of his disillusionment with Hollywood. Others feel that he wanted to resume writing after WWII but the political blacklisting and Congressional issues defeated him.

I’ve read all of his novels and now most of his short stories. His novels were, in a word, captivating. As many, including Raymond Chandler, have noted, Hammett was an innovator in his writing and his style. He led the movement of change in detective fiction and has left us with a penetrating and overall timeless look into people, politics, and motives. I highly recommend a journey into the world of Dashiell Hammett.

-Ann Marie

~Ann Marie is the Library Director for the Oliver Wolcott Library and has, as her husband has said, “an inordinate fondness for detective mysteries

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