Dashiell Hammett | A Typology of Hammett's Plots | Fly Paper | The Gatewood Caper | A Loss of Feeling | One Hour | The Scorched Face | Tom, Dick, or Harry | Creeping Siamese | The Green Elephant | The House on Turk Street | Other Early Stories | Continuing Characters in the Op Tales | The Big Knockover | Male Relationships | Woman in the Dark | Laughing Masks | Red Harvest | Red Harvest and Left-Wing Politics | The Dain Curse | The Maltese Falcon | Sam Spade Short Stories | Nightmare Town | Two Sharp Knives | The First Thin Man | This Little Pig | Secret Agent X-9 | Film Versions | Recommended Reading

A Guide to Classic Mystery and Detection Home Page

Dashiell Hammett

Recommended Works:

Red Harvest (1927)

The Big Knockover

The Continental Op Nightmare Town Lost Stories All of the stories in The Continental Op, and several from The Big Knockover and Nightmare Town, are available in the Hammett omnibus Crime Stories and Other Writings (2001), edited by Steven Marcus. They are reportedly reprinted there in their original pulp magazine form, too.

Dashiell Hammett

Among Dashiell Hammett's works, I like the Continental Op stories best, and a few other works he wrote at the same era, such as "Nightmare Town" and "A Man Named Thin". The Op stories are available in five books, the story collections The Big Knockover, The Continental Op and Nightmare Town, and the story sequences Red Harvest (1927) and The Dain Curse (1928). The Op is an operative for the (fictitious) Continental Detective Agency, hence his name. Hammett began publishing the Op stories in the pulp magazine Black Mask in October 1923.

The first Op story, "Arson Plus", shows the routine of a private investigator for a large detective agency. He interviews suspects and witnesses, inspects the scene of the crime, cooperates with the local police, and has operatives in other cities run side investigations. The story is low key and with an atmosphere of "realism": it looks like a major attempt to show the realistic investigative technique of a p.i. in detail. Later Hammett works, such as "The Scorched Face" (1924), continue in this vein. These stories strongly recall the realistic police work of Freeman Wills Crofts, then at the peak of his influence and prestige. "Arson Plus" contains other features the recall Crofts and the Realist school of which he was a leader: the plot centers around that Croftsian standard, the alibi, and is implemented through that Realist school technique, the "breakdown of identity". The last third of Crofts' best known novel, The Cask (1920), is dominated by the sleuthing of an English private investigator, but most of Crofts' books feature the police. Hammett's stories look like an attempt to do for the private investigator what Crofts did for the police. The detective technique of Hammett's hero, consisting of interviewing witness after witness, often fairly blindly, hoping to turn up clues after accumulating a mass of random details, also has roots in Crofts' books, where his policemen do the same thing. This technique was preserved and expanded in Hammett's successor Raymond Chandler, and has become a staple of today's p.i. novels. There are other perhaps more superficial signs of Croftsian influence in early Hammett, as well: the grotesquely appearing corpse in "Bodies Piled Up" recalls the one in The Cask, and the use of sinister basements in Crofts and Freeman is echoed in the basement finale of "The Scorched Face". The second Op tale "Slippery Fingers" (1923), reuses a plot idea associated with R. Austin Freeman's first novel, The Red Thumb Mark (1907).

Carroll John Daly was already publishing private eye stories in Black Mask for around six months before Hammett created the Op. His heroes, Terry Mack and Race Williams, appeared in tales that were more openly adventure stories than Hammett's more "realistic" portrayals. They are full of slangy dialogue by a first person narrator, unlike Hammett's. They also have what I have called the pulp style of plotting, which would be very popular among later pulp writers, although largely absent from Hammett's works.

Hammett was not content to be merely a straightforward purveyor of realistic investigations in the Croftsian manner, although this continued to be an important element of his writing. His work soon evolved into several uniquely personal directions.

The common plot background of most of Hammett's best stories is a region where all rule of law and authority has broken down. There are gang towns in Red Harvest, San Francisco during a mass outbreak of crime in "$106,000 Blood Money", an island taken over by gangsters in "The Gutting of Couffignal", Western Towns in "Corkscrew" and "Nightmare Town", and even a Balkan kingdom in "This King Business". This lawless setting gives Hammett's works a flavor not found in any other writer. The anarchic background seems to stand for some sort of mental breakdown as well, an anarchic letting loose of all repressed possibilities of human existence, both good and bad. The laws of human relationships seem to be redefined in such situations, too, where people do not relate to each other according to standard practices, but keep negotiating and renegotiating their positions relative to each other, as in the complex standoffs in "The Whosis Kid".

There is a profound sense of abnormality about Hammett's works, but also an exciting sense of new possibilities.

Hammett has few actual imitators, despite the popularity of his fiction. Raymond Chandler seems to be more of actual model for many current private eye writers. This is even though many people, myself included, regard Hammett as the greater writer. Hammett's works would be very difficult to imitate. They are highly grounded in plot. First an author would have to construct a background situation of anarchy. Then he or she would have to create a complex formal mystery puzzle plot - Hammett usually had these in his work. Lastly all of this would have to be woven into an adventure story. This is a tremendous job of work, and probably too complex to form a model for other authors. Chandler, whose effects of situation, character and prose style are relatively plot independent, can far more easily form a direct influence. Similarly, Hammett's brilliantly intricate dialogues would be hard for most other authors to emulate.

A Typology of Hammett's Plots

Hammett's tales break down into a series of groups and subgroups. These groups essentially form a tree-like classification, the kind of pattern known to biologists as a taxonomy or cladogram.

First the puzzle plot tales, i.e., stories with a mysterious situation solved by a detective.

1) Some of Hammett's puzzle plot stories show the influence of the Realist School, including alibis and/or the "breakdown of identity". These include the first Op story, "Arson Plus" (1923), and the linked pair of tales "The Tenth Clew" (1924) and "A Man Named Spade" (1932).

While the short "The Joke on Eloise Morey" (1923) is not especially in the Realist mode, Hammett later expanded upon its plot ideas to create two much more complex works with puzzle plots: "The Golden Horseshoe" (1924), and "The Main Death" (1927). "The Main Death" has an especially ingenious plot, leading to a creative development of alibis in a Realist style. "The Golden Horseshoe" has clever additions involving the "breakdown of identity", used to create its puzzle plot - although not for an alibi.

"The Joke on Eloise Morey" also serves as the basis for the opening situation of "Zigzags of Treachery" (1924). The back-story in "Zigzags of Treachery", revealed in its solution, also has ingenious plot elements of the "breakdown of identity", although not for the purpose of creating alibis, either.

"Slippery Fingers" (1923) is a simple tale directly imitative of a Realist novel, R. Austin Freeman's The Red Thumb Mark (1907).

2) Next come a distinctly different series of puzzle plot stories, "Women, Politics and Murder" / "Death on Pine Street" (1924), "Nightmare Town" (1924), and "Two Sharp Knives" (1934). All of these stories deal with urban corruption. These works' solutions all have key elements in common, as well, but are otherwise quite disparate as plots. "One Hour" (1924) has some similarities in approach to "Nightmare Town", as does a work related to "One Hour", "A Man Named Thin" (1926 ?). These tales form an important strand in Hammett's fiction, some of his most imaginative and unusual puzzle plotting.

The stories in Red Harvest (1927) have both similarities to and differences from the above tales. All deal with the same corrupt urban politics. In addition, the third section of Red Harvest (Chapters 15 - 20) has the same sort of puzzle plot as the above tales; this is the most creatively plotted section of the book. The second section (Chapters 8 - 14) combines elements related to the solution of "Women, Politics and Murder" with new puzzle plot elements involving a "dying message".

Perhaps coincidentally, "Women, Politics and Murder" / "Death on Pine Street", "One Hour", "A Man Named Thin" and the third section of Red Harvest are also puzzle plots, in which the movements of characters on city streets are part of the puzzle.

While these tales do not reflect Realist school ideas, they do draw on plot elements Hammett pioneered in "Arson Plus". They are like giant versions of the smaller-scale ideas in "Arson Plus", developed on a scale that draws in whole institutions: the city in "Nightmare Town", the print shop in "One Hour".

3) "Zigzags of Treachery" (1924) and "The Assistant Murderer" (1926) both include elaborate criminal schemes or hoaxes that manipulate victims. They are perhaps related to the "Nightmare Town" series of stories above, especially "Nightmare Town" itself. Other elaborate criminal schemes and hoaxes in his work, perhaps distantly related to the above two stories, are the brief con game finale of "The House on Turk Street" (1924), and the cult group Part II of The Dain Curse (1928). The crime plot of "Woman in the Dark" (1933) also seems like a simpler version of the approach in "Zigzags" and "Assistant Murderer", although its complex network of personal relationships seems closer to those of The Glass Key (1930). A non puzzle plot tale perhaps related to "Woman in the Dark" is "Laughing Masks" (1923).

Perhaps coincidentally, "Zigzags of Treachery" and "The Assistant Murderer" are two of Hammett's tales most involved with complex tailing of suspects.

4) Hammett wrote a series of tales in which the detective tracks down the source of a series of anonymous letters or phone calls. These include "The Nails in Mr. Cayterer" (1926), the first section of Red Harvest (Chapters 1 - 7), and The Glass Key (1930).

5) Like Red Harvest, "Corkscrew" (1925) is a story in which the Op plays warring factions of a town against each other to destroy them. Like the first and last sections of Red Harvest, this work contains a pure, but very simple, whodunit plot. The early story "Bodies Piled Up" (also known as "House Dick") (1923) has a similar mix of gang warfare and a simple puzzle plot. The novella "This King Business" (1928) completely lacks a puzzle plot, but otherwise resembles "Corkscrew" in that it deals with competing factions, this time in a Balkan kingdom. The mainstream tale "This Little Pig" (1934) deals with competing cast and crew on a Hollywood set, played against each other by the narrator.

6) The largest group of Hammett's puzzle plot stories all deal with threats to a victim, in which the Op or other detective tries to intervene. These stories also tend to have some common approaches in their solution. One series of such tales is "Night Shots" (1923), "The Farewell Murder" (1930), and "They Can Only Hang You Once" (1932); the last two of these stories use plot material from the first. Closely related in style to these stories are such individual works as "Creeping Siamese" (1926), and "Death and Company" (1930). Finally we have the related stories in which the Op looks for a woman who is kidnapped: "The Gatewood Caper" (1923), or missing: "Fly Paper" (1929). Both of these classic stories have much to say about personal relationships.

Related to these is a series of stories which began with "Who Killed Bob Teal?" (1924). The solution to a murder in "The Gutting of Couffignal" (1925) belongs here, although not its main robbery plot. There is a simple whodunit plot woven into his novel The Maltese Falcon (1929): the mystery of the murder of Spade's partner, Miles Archer; it derives from the ideas in "Bob Teal", as well.

7) Hammett's puzzle plot stories about large scale robberies: "Tom, Dick, or Harry" (1925), "The Gutting of Couffignal" (1925). These works have solutions related to the above "threat" tales. They also show signs of influence from the Realist school. "The Big Knockover" (1927) is a non puzzle plot story, about the same sort of large scale robbery as "Couffignal". The early non puzzle plot "The Green Elephant" (1923) also contains a brief robbery that shows similarities in the ones in the above stories.

8) Hammett wrote some stories with suspicious looking female characters. In these tales, the events of the story keep getting different explanations. These multiple explanations are simpler and more uniform than the multiple solutions favored by Golden Age writers such as E.C. Bentley, Anthony Berkeley, and Ellery Queen, usually concentrating instead on different explanations, motivations and guilty parties for a single crime. Still, they can show ingenuity. Often times the different solutions involve elements of framing. These tales include two of Hammett's weakest short stories, "The Girl with the Silver Eyes" (1924), and "Dead Yellow Women" (1925); and the multiple stories told by Brigid in The Maltese Falcon (1929).

9) Stories which involve continuous detection, such as "The Scorched Face" (1925), and "Too Many Have Lived" (1932). In these stories the mystery is solved bit by bit, like peeling away the layers of an onion. These stories are mysteries, and they are superbly plotted, but they do not quite contain a puzzle plot, in the sense of a initial, well defined riddle which is given a solution at the end of the tale. Both of these tales start out as missing person cases; in both the detective begins by doing systematic interviewing of the acquaintances of the missing person. This relentless flow of investigation gets the process of detection and discovery going. The cooperation / non-cooperation of witnesses with the sleuth's questions gives drama to the investigation. This actually becomes part of the puzzle plot in "Too Many Have Lived", an interesting form of clue. Perhaps coincidentally, both "The Scorched Face" and "Too Many Have Lived" have a character named Ferris.

Now for the non-puzzle plot stories: pure thrillers with no mystery to be solved. These also fall into series.

10) Some of Hammett's works deal with a complex standoff among a group of disparate characters. These works include "The House on Turk Street" (1924), "The Whosis Kid" (1925), and "Ruffian's Wife" (1925). The great bulk of the novel The Maltese Falcon (1929) also falls into this category, the parts dealing with the intrigue over the Falcon itself. In this category we could also include such rather distantly related tales as Hammett's early Westerns, "The Man Who Killed Dan Odams" (1923) and "Afraid of a Gun" (1924), and Hammett's late mainstream story, "Night Shade" (1933).

11) Hammett wrote two stories about boxing: Chapter 9 of Red Harvest (1927), which functions essentially as a standalone short story in that work, and "His Brother's Keeper" (1934). These works have many similarities in plot. The love life of the characters, and big city politics, also converge in the later tale, in a way reminiscent of Red Harvest and "Women, Politics and Murder". In some ways these boxing stories are related to the standoff tales above. The fighting in the ring is similar to the fighting the characters do in rooms in the standoff tales, and the characters in the boxing stories are often renegotiating their positions with each other, just as in the standoff stories.

12) Two early, very short mainstream stories that anticipate the romantic triangles of The Glass Key (1930) are "The Barber and His Wife" (1923) and "The Dimple" (1923). Both of these tales are minor.

13) There are the circular fables. These are very short stories in which the protagonist undergoes a change of attitude or point of view, one that involves a disconcerting shift in his life. Often times, he ends up not liking it, and reverting to his original position. These include "The Road Home" (1922); "The Green Elephant" (1923); and the Flitcraft episode, in Chapter 7 of The Maltese Falcon (1929). The brief "Albert Pastor at Home" (1933) is related to these, although it is both less circular, and more plot oriented than the above. All of these stories involve a change of city, and traveling around of the characters. "Ber-Belu" (1925) is a short non-mystery tale that shows some affinity to the circular fables. It involves their exotic locations, and their movement of the hero out and back into of his original position. However, the hero does not undergo a drastic change of orientation, unlike the true fables.

The Flitcraft story also has an ancestor in the Ashcraft plot that opens "The Golden Horseshoe". Both involve upper middle class men who abandon their wives for trivial reasons. Both have the wife hiring a private detective to track the men down in another city. Flitcraft's professions, real estate and auto salesman, are those of the polished young men in "The Scorched Face". Hammett sees such glad-handers with polished facades as covering personality depths.

14) Two of Hammett's novels contain dream sequences. These are found in Chapter 21 of Red Harvest (1927), and Chapters 8.4 and 10.3 of The Glass Key (1930). The first involves the endless pursuit of "The Road Home", and the change of cities found in all the fables. The second dream (in The Glass Key) perhaps symbolizes the change of attitude or life that is so troubling to the protagonists of the fables. Both dreams, like the Flitcraft episode, are inserted as basically non sequitor material in their novels; such an insertion signifies the books are participating in a Modernist literary aesthetic. However, a room rented by the murder victim and its keys plays a role in the puzzle plot of The Glass Key, and perhaps the dream sequence surrealistically echoes this plot.

15) "The Sardonic Star of Tom Doody" (1923) and "Itchy" (1924) are short tales of crooks who develop new personas. They are ingeniously plotted, and are at the borderline between Hammett's puzzle plot and non puzzle plot fiction. As close-up looks at transformations in the lives of small time crooks, they resemble "The Green Elephant" (1923) and the other circular fables. They also seem related to "Nightmare Town" (1924) and its neighbors among the puzzle plot stories.

16) There are also the sort of fact filled nonfiction articles that Hammett wrote, including "From the Memoirs of a Private Detective" (1923), and the 1930 newspaper columns reprinted in Richard Layman's Hammett biography, Shadow Man. A fiction story in the same style, full of ingenious legal tidbits, is "The New Racket" (also known as "The Judge Laughed Last") (1924). This work is barely fiction, concentrating on its legal ideas instead.

Some points might be added. First, Richard Layman in his Hammett biography, noted several of these connections: "The Tenth Clew" (1924) and "A Man Named Spade" (1932); "The Joke on Eloise Morey" (1923) and "The Golden Horseshoe" (1924); "Night Shots" (1923) and "They Can Only Hang You Once" (1932). Similarly, William F. Nolan pointed out the relationship between "Who Killed Bob Teal?" (1924) and The Maltese Falcon (1929). The above typology builds on their discoveries.

Second, the typology looks at the plots of Hammett's tales, especially his mystery plots and their construction. An analysis of Hammett's stories in terms of common patterns of theme or character would uncover a different pattern of connections. For example, the labor conflicts of "One Hour", the first quarter of Red Harvest, and "Too Many Have Lived" are a politically important subject running through Hammett.

Third, even in terms of plot, Hammett's tales show other interrelationships as well, across these boundaries. The wife-girlfriend-maid triumvirate of "Women, Politics and Murder" later shows up again in "The Main Death". So do incidents and events from the plot. However, the central puzzle plots of the two stories are radically different from each other. Similarly, plot material is reused, and thoroughly reworked, between "Creeping Siamese" (1926), and "Too Many Have Lived" (1932). Both stories, for example, contain a middle aged executive in the film distribution business. Another example: the runaway spouses in "The Golden Horseshoe", the Flitcraft episode, "Two Sharp Knives".

Fly Paper

Hammett's "Fly Paper" (1929) at first glance seems like an intricately plotted thriller, but not one connected with his theme of social organization breaking down. But further reflection convinces that it is. The "social organization" of the story is not a government somewhere, but rather the institution of marriage. The four suspects in the story go through every possible permutation of how the institution of marriage can be subverted. (Of course, they are just "romantic" couples, not legally married people in the tale, but the idea is the same.) Hammett shows his great plotting skills in this tale. Although some critics like to claim Hammett as a "literary" figure from a different tradition than most mystery writers, it is important to note that here, as elsewhere, Hammett gets his major effects through his plotting. It is the plot that conveys the ever growing complexity of the relationships among his principals, bizarre relationships that subvert all our notions of romantic bliss. Hammett's skill with plotting is in the tradition of popular fiction in general, and Golden Age mystery fiction in particular.

The plot of "Fly Paper" is not only designed to explore unusual relationships. It also forms one of Hammett's stories which involve complex patterns of negotiations and interactions among a group of characters. The classic story here is "The Whosis Kid" (1925). Like that archetypal Hammett work, "Fly Paper" is also designed as an intricate dance, one in which the characters move in and move out in complex and beautiful ways.

The Gatewood Caper

"The Gatewood Caper" (1923) (also known as "Crooked Souls") has been filmed many times over the last twenty years as an episode of TV cop shows, without credit to Hammett. You have to wonder: when producers and writers in story conference decide to remake this kidnapping story or Woolrich's "Nightmare" or Fleischer's "The Narrow Margin" one more time, do they refer to these stories by name? Or has even the origin of these works been lost to Hollywood tradition?

In any case, this tale is generally considered the best of the early Continental Op tales. Hammett's early fiction has an austere quality, compared to that of his colleague and predecessor Carroll John Daly. The lurid events of the tale are narrated in a deliberately dry tone by the Continental Op, who has seen it all, and who is Not Emotionally Involved. More than just tone, however, the austerity is conveyed by the plot. The story focuses on a strong, plain symmetric plot pattern, and strips all irrelevant detail away to reveal that plot. There is something contemplative about the story: it exists mainly to unveil a certain pattern, and hold it up to the reader's and author's gaze for contemplation.

"Fly Paper" and "The Gatewood Caper" are linked. The later story seems to grow out of plot elements of the earlier. Everything, especially the personal relationships among the younger characters, has grown more complex in the later tale. Hammett's storytelling in 1929 is much more fluid. It sweeps the reader along pleasantly.

A Loss of Feeling

Several characters in Hammett's stories seem to lack all emotion. These include the beleaguered farm wife of "The Man Who Killed Dan Odams" (1923), the promiscuous girlfriend in "Women, Politics and Murder" (1924), and the Old Man, the chief of the Detective Agency, in the Continental Op stories. The Old Man has had all emotion burned out of him by his work. It is partly all the violence he has seen, but Hammett also intimates that it is the Old Man's manipulativeness that has drained him of feeling. He is used to arranging the lives of other people for his personal gain, or that of the Agency's. His lack of feeling helps him do this, but Hammett hints that the converse is true: that exploiting others has caused his feelings to die. "Die" is the operative word here: in the Old Man's case it is clearly a spiritual death. Hammett's treatment of this is close to J.G. Ballard's in the 1970's. One of Ballard's persistent themes in that decade was what he called the "death of affect" - a global loss of the ability to feel anything even in the face of the most sinister catastrophes. Ballard ascribes this loss to everybody, part of a change in human nature during the 20th Century, whereas Hammett restricts it to certain characters. The farm wife in "Dan Odams" has so many problems that her loss of feeling seems "natural", but the Old Man is clearly seriously flawed as a person. Hammett does not explicitly ascribe any cause to the girlfriend's lack of emotion in "Women"; my linking it to her casualness in sexuality might be an effect, not a cause, of her loss.

Hammett is perhaps more interested in this effect, anyway. One of Hammett's fundamental themes is that of social institutions breaking down. In stories like "Fly Paper" (1929), and also to a degree in "Creeping Siamese" (1926), this includes the institution of marriage, and in fact all romantic couplings. Here the heroine's lack of feeling allows her to treat adultery with a reductive casualness that goes beyond almost anything seen in literature. It reminds one of Hawthorne's account of the institution of marriage being melted down by the Shakers in such stories as "The Canterbury Pilgrims" and "The Shaker Bridal", and the abandonment of all human institutions in "Earth's Holocaust". Hammett's treatment is not simple coldness, and it completely lacks the selfishness or manipulativeness often found in moralists' condemnation of adultery. Rather it focuses on a lack of feeling, and its logical consequences. This logic is pushed to almost philosophical dimensions - one feels some logical paradox is being evoked. This use of logic is typical of Hammett: all his stories of the collapse of institutions push to an ingenious logical extreme the consequences of some unique breakdown, usually one the reader has never before imagined, let alone experienced. This aspect of the story reaches its peak when the heroine describes why she broke up with the (dead) hero.

In all of these stories, it is the actual content of the relationships described by Hammett that is the key element. This web of relationships imagined by the author sets forth Hammett's concepts. It is this actual content, not any literary style or tone, that conveys Hammett's ideas. This web of relationships is essentially a matter of plot.

One Hour

"One Hour" (1924) is notable for the number of clues Hammett includes pointing to the bad guys guilt and their hidden scheme. No less than six clues are embedded in the tale.

Two of the clues involve the geography of the streets, on which the crimes take place. Hammett also used street geography as part of a puzzle plot in "Women, Politics and Murder" / "Death on Pine Street". The reader has to play close attention to the positions, movements and directions, of a number of characters.

A man not knowing something he should have known, if his story were true, is another clue. The chief clue in the first section of Red Harvest involves identifying the only character who knew something, a parallel concept.

Hammett delivers the solution in two parts. Fairly early in the story, the Op identifies the bad guys. This is a shock effect: it looks as if he has far too little information at this point to solve the case. It is a noteworthy coup of mystery plotting. Then, at the end of the tale, the Op gives a full exposition of the clues and the fine points of a reconstruction of the crime. This recalls in formal terms, the solutions of mysteries by many authors.

The Scorched Face

"The Scorched Face" (1925) shows much outstanding detective work. It starts out with the private eye hero performing the sort of relentlessly routine detective work, that Hammett seems to have modeled on the police work in Freeman Wills Crofts (Chapters 1-3). Eventually the Op gets stuck, and cannot figure out how to proceed further in his investigation. Then, the Op gets a brilliant idea (Chapter 6), which allows him to gather whole new sets of evidence (Chapter 7). This solves the case, and the rest of the story is essentially a thriller. The new idea and its implementation are a masterstroke of detection.

The Op gets his key idea (Chapter 6) when he starts looking for connections among the victims. This recalls a bit the tabulation in "Nightmare Town", where the hero starts looking for connections between odd facts and events in the story. "Nightmare Town" has some interesting philosophical discussion about the human mind's search for connections. However, "Nightmare Town" does not immediately move to any new detective work approaches after this discussion. By contrast, "The Scorched Face" immediately has the Op develop some innovative detectival concepts.

Before this, there is a change of pace scene in the countryside (Chapter 5). Here, a country Deputy Sheriff follows tracks through a nature area. Such tracing of trails of evidence form an ancient tradition in detective fiction. They were part of the repertoire of such Realist school writers as R. Austin Freeman. Hammett is once again showing his roots in such Realist School authors as Freeman and Crofts.

Right from the first Op tale, "Arson Plus" (1923), the Op is often shown as working on a case in collaboration with the policeman assigned to it. Many of these cops are only seen in a professional context. The Op's police contact in "The Scorched Face", Pat Reddy, is unusual in that we get a whole back-story, describing his personal life (start of Chapter 4). This back-story is almost a tale-within-a-tale, like the Flitcraft episode in The Maltese Falcon.

Like the policeman in "Arson Plus", Pat Reddy is young, making a contrast with the more middle-aged Op. In other tales, the Op develops friendships with young men who are college educated, or who have other indications of middle-class status. By contrast, Pat Reddy is conspicuously working class, something emphasized by his back-story. Pat Reddy also proves to be far more morally reliable than the middle class friends of the Op, who often turn out to have a corrupt side.

SPOILERS in the rest of this discussion.

"The Scorched Face" recalls short stories by Arthur B. Reeve, "The Social Gangster" and "The Tango Thief" (1915), in Reeve's collection The Social Gangster (collected 1916). Both Reeve and Hammett look at possibilities for upper middle class, socially prominent women to have sex lives outside of the "loving girlfriend or wife" norm. In Reeve, the women hire gigolos, and take part in a world of dances and teas. These gigolos are men-for-hire, who have beautiful clothes and manners, and who function as sex objects - but who also exploit the women in sinister ways. "The Scorched Face" pushes such possibilities to extremes. In Reeve, the women are merely hiring men for liaisons, and taking part in night clubs where their social life is outside of upper class male control. In Hammett, there is full scale non-standard sexual behavior. The gigolos of Reeve, who are sinister enough, get transmuted to predatory young men who are seemingly respectable in Hammett. These young men also have polished manners and fancy clothes. Both authors look at a sexual role reversal: women having promiscuous sex lives, instead of men; men as polished sex objects under a female gaze, instead of women prettied up to serve as courtesans for men. Explicitly in Reeve, and implicitly in Hammett, these possibilities for women are seen as new, and linked to modern social trends: in Hammett, the consumer culture of the 1920's.

Both Reeve and Hammett also perhaps have a gay subtext. Forbidden sexual lives carried on in secret; gay men looked at as polished sexual objects: both are elements that might suggest the experiences of some gays in this era. The blackmail that eventually erupts in "The Scorched Face" was often based in real life on hidden gay lives. "The Scorched Face" also contains Myra Banbrock, whose early description of her bobbed hair and masculine demeanor suggests a possibly lesbian character.

The conclusion of "The Scorched Face" recalls a Sherlock Holmes tale by Conan Doyle, "The Adventure of Charles Augustus Milverton" (1904).

Tom, Dick, or Harry

"Tom, Dick, or Harry" (1925) is a puzzle plot mystery, about a robbery. The story has two sets of solutions. The police and the Op come up with one set of solutions in the middle of the story. An entirely unrelated solution is then propounded by the Op at the end of the tale.

The middle solutions recall characters in "The Scorched Face":

The Op is inventive and logical, in coming up with a whole set of variant solutions based on these two characters.

The second, ultimate solution differs from those in the middle of the tale, in that it is based on reasoning from clues. The Op finds a whole series of clues pointing to the guilty party. These clues involve both discrepancies, and claims by a suspect that are implausible.

The second solution combines more than one Hammett approach. In some ways, it is just another of the long sequence of Hammett tales reusing ideas from "Night Shots". (The middle solutions are all variations on the "Night Shots" concept too.) This in itself is not very creative. But the second solution in a small way, also recalls the "hoax groups of crooks" found in tales like "Nightmare Town" and "One Hour": with the difference that in "Tom, Dick, or Harry" the hoax is restricted to a single crook, rather than a group of people.

The Op performs an interesting piece of detection, when he looks for people who have just moved into the apartment building. Hammett works regularly feature real detection. Another example is "The Scorched Face", Chapter 6, where the Op starts to look for connections among victims - one of the best detection ideas in Hammett.

Creeping Siamese

"Creeping Siamese" (1926) has an unusual opening, right in the front office of The Continental Detective Agency itself. It shows the Op talking to the cashier, and other routine business of the Agency going on. While Hammett's successor Frederick Nebel often took us inside his sleuth Cardigan's detective agency, this sort of inside look is much rarer in Hammett. The Op also cracks a funny wisecrack in this tale to the police, another rarity. The Op's humor is usually pretty dry; Hammett had little use for the exuberantly wisecracking detective later made popular by Raymond Chandler.

This story also shows an approach common in Hammett's work: the characters constantly discuss elaborate adventures they have had in their previous lives, which took place in exotic ports all over the world, but the actual action of the tale never leaves San Francisco.

"Creeping Siamese" has a number of interesting clues to its solution:

The strange appearance of a sarong in San Francisco is a puzzle, that eventually gets a plausible explanation. It forms an interesting mini-puzzle in the tale.

SPOILER: The solution does odd things with the apparent time-table of the events. It is a bit odd, because such juggling does not really affect the main puzzle plot structure of the story, and could have been omitted. Still, it is imaginative. Hammett would go on to use such time-table and fake attack ideas in "The Main Death" (1927), one of his best-plotted puzzles. The ideas in "The Main Death" are even subtler.

The Green Elephant

"The Green Elephant" (1923) is a minor tale, about a crook plagued to the point of collapse by psychological feelings of fear and stress after a job. This was a favorite theme of slick magazine tales of the era: see Sinclair Lewis' "The Willow Walk" (1918), and some of Octavus Roy Cohen's stories about Jim Hanvey (circa 1922), both of which appeared in The Saturday Evening Post. The whole theme always seemed very dubious and implausible to me, but its moralism undoubtedly appealed to the middle class editors of the day: a crook brought low by the psychological effects of his own ill gotten gains. Hammett's story duly appeared in The Smart Set, a magazine with slick pretensions. One gets the feeling of the author mechanically following a popular literary convention.

More personal is Hammett's look at the life of crime as just another business; most of the crooks in the story have part time or temporary jobs to tide them over. Hammett also shows interest in a brief but exciting street robbery. Both the robbery and the criminal economics focus on Hammett's chief subject, an area where crime has taken over and broken down social institutions. The robbery anticipates the one in "The Big Knockover" (1927), and so does the huge size of the loot.

The House on Turk Street

"The House on Turk Street" (1924), like the later "The Whosis Kid" (1925), deals with a series of standoffs between a gang of crooks and the Op. These stories are thrillers, or adventure stories, and do not have mystery puzzle plots.

Hammett shows plenty of plot ingenuity, however, in coming up with different combinations of confrontations between the characters. Each character in the story is constantly using some other character to neutralize or destroy some third character. Lies and ingenious schemes abound. Each character has a very different personality, strengths and weaknesses; Hammett weaves these into their schemes.

After the main story in "Turk Street" is over, a brief coda describes the con game the characters were working before the Op captured them. This introduces a whole new set of permutations and roles for the characters to play. This con game anticipates in some aspects the one that forms the main plot of "The Scorched Face" (1925). There is the same psychological manipulation of the victims, and the same sense of social shame.

Other Early Stories

"Ber-Belu" (1925) (also known as "The Hairy One") is sometimes described as a mainstream story; it is definitely not a mystery. It actually falls into the tale of exotic adventure. Set among the Sula Islands in the South Pacific, it is full of exotic detail that Hammett presumably acquired in his reading. John Russell published a then well known collection of quite similar South Sea tales, Where the Pavement Ends (1919), and the pulp magazine Adventure specialized in such stories in the 1920's. So Hammett's story falls into what was then a well defined category of genre fiction. "Ber-Belu" is consistent with Hammett's theme of a region where law and order has broken down. In Hammett's, and Russell's, version of the South Seas, there is no law and order at all. The region is full of violent macho men who fight and attack whomever they please, and whenever their passions and emotions are aroused. Since no one actually gets hurt in Hammett's story, we are in the realm of wish fulfillment fantasies for men, a place where Real Men can fight whenever they feel like it. This sort of fiction is essentially a macho fairy tale, a story which seems to be menacing, but which really provides a form of emotional gratification for the reader.

The much longer "This King Business" (1928) is similarly a tale of Balkan adventure and revolution, rather than a mystery story. The revolution is a palace coup. It is not any sort of mass revolutionary movement. There is no trace of Marxist ideas in the story, or for that matter, anti-Marxist ideas. It simply does not deal with a mass revolution of any sort.

Roy Scanlon, the US chargé d'affaires, is one of several Hammett characters that have an unusual way of talking: Scanlon keeps contradicting himself, offering numerous conflicting answers to the Op's questions. Hammett probably thought such an individual speech pattern helped characterize people in his tales. Robin Thin, the narrator of "A Man Named Thin", also talks distinctly.

Continuing Characters in the Op Tales

In "The Tenth Clew" (1924), the Op has a friendly relationship with a policeman, Detective Sergeant O'Gar of the San Francisco Police Homicide Detail, with whom he shares the investigation essentially as a partner. Hammett puts a great deal of emphasis on the realistic depiction of both police and private eye detectival investigations in the story. Their skills are shown as different and complimentary. The whole portrait recalls Anna Katherine Green's similar depiction of police and amateurs working together in Book 2 of The Leavenworth Case (1878), although one doubts Hammett had this in mind as a model. In the Op tales, Hammett likes to show the Op using the resources of the Continental detective agency. He sends out telegrams to agents in other cities, has operatives shadow suspects, and uses the agency's files.

Like the Op, O'Gar is middle aged and experienced; at 50, he is somewhat older than the Op. O'Gar is described in "Women, Politics and Murder" / "Death on Pine Street" (1924) as squat, blue eyed, with a bullet shaped head, and grizzled. In Part II of The Dain Curse, we learn in passing that O'Gar is a good Roman Catholic, not surprising in that he is that sociological cliché of the 1920's, an Irish policeman. In his Hammett biography, William F. Nolan says that O'Gar first appeared in "The Gatewood Caper" (1923). He returns in such later stories as "Zigzags of Treachery" (1924), "Women, Politics and Murder" (1924), "The Golden Horseshoe" (1924), "Creeping Siamese" (1926), "The Big Knockover" (1927), "Fly Paper" (1929), and Part I of The Dain Curse (1928), where he is partnered with Pat Reddy, the young cop of "The Scorched Face" (1925). It is good to see the solitary Op having a friend.

O'Gar's commander Lieutenant Duff appears in "The Big Knockover", "106,000 Dollars Blood Money", The Dain Curse and "Fly Paper".

Hammett develops parallel - but separate - military backgrounds for O'Gar and the Op. In "Creeping Siamese", we learn O'Gar spent four years in the South Seas in the military. In "This King Business", the Op mentions his history as a Captain in military intelligence during the war. "This King Business" also mentions the Op's twenty years of experience as a detective.

The manager of the San Francisco branch of the Continental Detective Agency is known as "The Old Man". He runs through many of the tales: "Zigzags of Treachery", "The Girl with the Silver Eyes", "The Whosis Kid", "The Scorched Face" (the story where we learn about the Old Man's loss of feeling, apparently for the first time), "Dead Yellow Women", "Creeping Siamese", "The Big Knockover", "106,000 Dollars Blood Money", "Fly Paper", and Red Harvest.

Dick Foley is the Continental Detective Agency's top expert on shadowing. He runs through the series, in "Slippery Fingers" (1923), "House Dick"/"Bodies Piled Up" (1923), "Zigzags of Treachery", "The Girl with the Silver Eyes", "The Scorched Face", "Dead Yellow Women", "The Big Knockover", "106,000 Dollars Blood Money", "The Main Death", the second half of Red Harvest, The Dain Curse. He is mentioned off-stage in "The Gutting of Couffignal".

Young Bob Teal, a promising newcomer to the Continental Detective Agency, also debuts in "Slippery Fingers" and returns in "Zigzags of Treachery". He meets his fate in "Who Killed Bob Teal?" (1924).

In "Creeping Siamese" we meet Tommy Howd again, the fourteen-year-old Continental Detective Agency office boy who showed up earlier in "The Whosis Kid" (1925). Howd returns in "106,000 Dollars Blood Money", and is also referred to in "The Main Death" (1927).

Fiske, the "night man" at the Continental Detective Agency, appears in "Dead Yellow Women", "The Big Knockover", "The Main Death". Fiske is a good-natured bore who likes to tell jokes. Fiske only seems to appear on the telephone, talking to the Op on his calls to the Agency at night.

Mickey Linehan is another Agency operative. He appears in "The Big Knockover", "106,000 Dollars Blood Money", "The Main Death", the second half of Red Harvest, The Dain Curse.

A character in "The Girl with the Silver Eyes" is Porky Grout, the sleazy, unreliable underworld informer. He had previously appeared in "House Dick"/"Bodies Piled Up" and "Zigzags of Treachery".

At the other end of the social scale, Vance Richmond is a high-toned lawyer who occasionally hires the Op to help his clients. He appears in "Zigzags of Treachery", "One Hour" and "The Golden Horseshoe".

The Sam Spade tale "A Man Named Spade" mentions O'Gar in passing. This links the world of Sam Spade, to that of the Continental Op.

The Big Knockover

"The Big Knockover" (1927) is best in its first half, which details the big crime and its aftermath. The ingenious plot here comes out of the big caper tradition - or does it create that tradition? It is hard to tell, but it is the first such story known to me. Unfortunately, the second half of the story is just one violent action scene after another. These resemble a bit Carroll John Daly's "Three Gun Terry" (1923). These sort of action scenes would become a cliché in later Black Mask tales: in Horace McCoy's "Frost Rides Alone" (1930), for example, the hero has to fight his way out of a crowd, just as in Hammett's "Knockover". Unlike much of Hammett's work, this tale never builds up a puzzle plot. The work as a whole is far more of a piece of straightforward, linear storytelling than is much of Hammett's fiction. The plot of the story is consistent with Hammett's theme of social institutions breaking down, and crime reigning supreme. But this breakdown is much less subtle than in many Hammett stories: the criminals just take over the streets here.

The story's sequel, "106,000 Dollars Blood Money" (1927), is uninspired. These two stories show Hammett's first attempt to write a really long fiction: they are just about half as long combined as each of Hammett's five novels. The survivors and peripheral characters of the first tale assume center stage in the second, including the mastermind of the first story, who slips through the detective's fingers at the end of the first tale. This is precisely the technique that will be used by other Black Mask writers to create serial stories. Erle Stanley Gardner did similar things in his Ed Jenkins tales, as did Raoul Whitfield. So little early Black Mask fiction is available from the 1920's that it is hard to know if Hammett created this technique, or whether he was merely following well defined Black Mask practice. Hammett used a similar approach in the earlier two part series consisting of "The House on Turk Street" (1924), and "The Girl with the Silver Eyes" (1924).

Male Relationships

The Op has a friendship with young Jack Counihan in "The Big Knockover". It is easy to hear the pride in the Op's voice at this young man's college education. Hammett makes all of this end tragically in "Blood Money", but I have never liked this. This relationship gets replayed in the Madvig-Beaumont partnership in The Glass Key, which also pairs a vital older man of working class origins with a good looking younger man with a college degree; but that novel's obscuritantist narrative technique makes it colder and less involving. A precursor here is the handsome young cowboy Milk River the Op meets in "Corkscrew" (1925). The Op takes on Milk River to work as his detective partner, just as he took on Jack Counihan in "The Big Knockover". There is always something a bit sinister about these young men; most are crooks of one sort or another. The likable Milk River is described as one of the rowdiest and most ruffianly of the local troublemakers; Ned Beaumont in The Glass Key is a crooked political fixer in Baltimore. Similar young men in the Op stories include Eric Collinson in The Dain Curse, Lionel Grantham in "This King Business", and Bob Teal in "Who Killed Bob Teal?" (1924). Most of their descriptions stress the perfect "regularity" of their handsome features; they are instantly recognizable as versions of a common character.

One also notes the character of glamorous Larry Ormsby in "Nightmare Town" (1925), and his friendship with the tough hero Steve Threefall. Another tough detective - good looking young man pair is Alec Rush - Hubert Landow in "The Assistant Murderer" (1926), although Rush and Landow never develop much of a personal relationship. The relationship between the brothers in "His Brother's Keeper" (1934) also falls within this pattern: there is the tough but sincere pugilist who narrates the story, and his slick, good looking, and somewhat crooked brother who manages his prize fighting career.

These relationships between men, all of a common pattern, are the most important relationships in Hammett's stories. They are the emotional heart of his work.

The male-male relationships often seem to be gay love stories. The tales stress the desirability of the young man, and the other man's feelings for him. The imagery sometimes is fairly explicit in showing the attraction of one man for the other: see the opening of "Nightmare Town".

However, none of these relationshsips is ever explicitly labelled as gay in the stories. By contrast, Hammett included a negative, stereotyped portrayal of the villain Joel Cairo as gay in The Maltese Falcon. Cairo is called "queer" in the novel, and Hammett's 1929 letters to his publisher refer to the "homosexual parts" in the book. Hammett's letters also suggest that he thinks The Maltese Falcon is perhaps the first mystery novel to include gay characters.

Class imagery also runs throughout these stories. The older man is often marked as working class, the younger as college educated, upper class, or working in a white collar job.

Before most of these are the well polished young men in "The Scorched Face" (1925), such as the automobile salesman Wayne Ferris, and real estate salesman Raymond Elwood. The working class Op immediately wonders what is lurking behind their facade. The salesmen in "The Scorched Face" are different from other Hammett young men. They are NOT part of a relationship with an older man. They also are described in terms of their well-dressed appearance, rather than in terms of the handsomeness of their facial features. Their appeal is in terms of class accoutrements, rather than physical good looks. They are also representatives of the explosively growing consumer culture of the 1920's, selling cars and real estate. Hammett himself would soon join this sales force, as an ad copy writer for a jewelry store. Hammett wrote several glowing articles (1926-1928) about his ad work, in the trade publication Western Advertising.

Also unusual in Hammett: the detective hero of "A Man Named Thin", Robin Thin. Thin is the poet son of an insurance agency manager, and does sleuthing for them. Robin Thin is a burlesqued intellectual, a parody of the aesthetes of the era. He also turns out to be a brilliant sleuth. Early in the story, Thin is attracted to a lavender dressing gown he sees in a store window. In the 1920's and 30's, lavender was a color instantly associated with gay people, in the public mind. Thin's interest in this color is a signal to the reader that he is gay. It is most unusual to see an explicitly gay detective, in this time period. Robin Thin is the narrator of his tale, like the Continental Op, and like the Op, Thin gives the reader little mini-lectures on detective technique.

Woman in the Dark

The variation on the male-male relationship in the late story "Woman in the Dark" (1933) seems like a sad change to Hammett's pattern. Here, unlike the upper crust Collinson and the positively aristocratic Grantham, it is the older man Robson who is the social aristocrat, and the handsome young man Conroy is simply described as being a "parasite" on him. The older man is purely rotten in this novella, as well. The two men are in a murderous triangle with the heroine of the story, just as in "Corkscrew" and The Glass Key. It is as if the relations of the earlier stories had imploded and collapsed. Hammett is looking at what might happen in a more downbeat, perhaps more "realistic" version of this relationship.

Hammett includes, by contrast, a new sort of egalitarian relationship between men in this tale, that between the ex-con Brazil and his former cellmate Donny Link.

"Woman in the Dark" is part of Hammett's "slick magazine" period; the story was sold to Liberty, and Hammett's editor was none other than Anthony Abbot.

Here the rule of law has broken down, not because the world is in chaos, but because the police all kow tow to rich monster Robson. He can tell anybody anything, and the police of three cities will simply do his bidding. The police in the story function as a well oiled machine, but the sense of a world without civilized order is just as strong as in the rest of Hammett.

The first part of "Woman" is one of Hammett's stories of complex standoffs among a series of characters, like "The Whosis Kid". The second part shows the police disrupting and transforming the lives of the characters. There is a complex formal pattern in this section. The transformation is absolute, and shows Hammett's sense of social breakdown. The whole world of the characters can collapse and be changed in one step when the police move in. The transformative quality is also related to the "zigzag" effects Hammett often achieves with his detection. It shows the world making an abrupt left turn, and moving in a direction the reader and his characters did not anticipate. There is a complete new pattern "after" the police arrive, that is completely different from the world of "before". It shows Hammett's sense of formal imagination, developing complex plot patterns. This formal imagination is strongly in the tradition of Golden Age formal plot inventiveness.

Hammett's characters move into a new house in the second section of "Woman in the Dark", and the heroine gets a new bedroom and bathroom. This leads immediately to the police arrest, chronologically if not causally in the sequence of the story. Such anxiety about living quarters is a common feature in Hammett. There are the sinister cult houses of "The Scorched Face" and The Dain Curse. There are also the murderous assaults in the bedrooms of "Night Shots", "The Farewell Murder", and "They Can Only Hang You Once". This is perhaps a personal view of Hammett's. But it also reflects pulp traditions. For example, the sinister house of the Crime Club in Frank L. Packard's The Adventures of Jimmie Dale (1914 - 1915).

The next section includes a comparison between "Woman in the Dark" and "Laughing Masks".

Laughing Masks

Hammett's "Laughing Masks" (1923) is a minor adventure thriller without a puzzle plot. It uses that cliché, a hero who must rescue the heroine from the clutches of the villain.

Here the villain is a sinister Russian aristocrat, exiled to the USA by the Russian Revolution. Such aristocratic villains were not uncommon in American popular fiction of the time: the best known is probably the evil count in Richard Connell's "The Most Dangerous Game" (1924). Such aristocrats represent archaic survivals of the ancien regime, cruel men with absolute power over life and death in their domains, and absolute loyalty from their servants, who have the psychology of traditional vassals or serfs. Such domains are in Hammett's tradition of a region where all law and order has broken down. Connell and Hammett both exploit fears on the part of modern democratic readers that the horrors of aristocratic rule might somehow return. Later, John Dickson Carr will evoke such fears in the mock supernatural atmosphere of his novels. In both Connell's and Hammett's tales, the heroes are regular American guys, men who represent modern American democratic and common man traditions. Hammett's story also resembles Connell's in that both villains patrol their fiefdoms with packs of man eating hounds.

Hammett will return to the mood of this story later on with "Woman in the Dark" (1933). In "Woman in the Dark" the wealthy villain Robson is an all powerful man who controls everything within his territory, police included. He is hardly a foreign aristocrat like the menace in "Laughing Masks", but he shares his absolute power and sinister desire to control.

"Laughing Masks" and "Woman in the Dark" also share non-series heroes with similar psychology. Both heroes are trying to recover from a life of crime: Brazil in "Woman in the Dark" is a just released ex-convict, while the hero of "Laughing Masks" is a small time gambler and petty errand boy for the mob who wants to go straight. Both men have real self esteem problems. Hammett's work is full of young glamorous men who are rather innocently involved in a life of crime. These men are usually romanticized to the max. By contrast, the young heroes of "Laughing Masks" and "Woman in the Dark" are more realistic and less glamorous. Their life of crime has simply made them unemployable, un marriageable, and in general outcasts from a society they would like to join.

The most creative scene in "Laughing Masks" is the one in which the hero is threatened with a knife. It involves role reversals. Only Hammett could have come up with something this paradoxical. All the traditional relationships in this scene are turned completely inside out, and made exactly opposite of what they are in conventional works. Later in tales like "Fly Paper" (1929), Hammett will similarly invert the conventions of romantic relationships. Hammett had a very ingenious mind, and such transformations of relationships are a key element in his fiction.

Red Harvest

Red Harvest (1927) is a set of four linked stories, all telling a common story of corruption in a Montana mining town. The boundaries between the tales are disguised in the book publication of the work. But each story has its own puzzle plot, which comes to its own ingenious, surprise solution. Readers of the book will get more pleasure from the work, if they are aware of its structural features, and follow the different puzzle plots. Each quarter of the book comes to its own separate climax. The four sections are Chapters 1 - 7, 8 - 14, 15 - 20, and 20 - 27. Chapter 20 forms both an end to the third story, and the beginning to the fourth. The linked story series has a long and honorable tradition in mystery and science fiction. Although academic critics are obsessed with the novel, the linked story sequence has many artistic advantages over the novel proper, especially the ability to squeeze far more plots into one book. The plots can be told straightforwardly, at their natural length short story length, and with no padding. Such books can display the virtues of inventiveness and artistic economy.

Red Harvest is not Hammett's only tale set in the Pacific Northwest:

The characters of Red Harvest seem almost to parody Hammett's personal obsessions. The tone is one of detached comedy, making fun of things that Hammett had treated with emotional seriousness in his previous work. For example, Dinah Brand spoofs the crooked villainesses of such stories as "The Girl with the Silver Eyes" and "The Gutting of Couffignal". While they are portrayed as overwhelmingly attractive women whose shocking coldness lets them exploit and manipulate men, Dinah is a good natured joe who is openly mercenary about everything, telling her boy friends in advance that she is charging them by the hour. We first see her surrounded by her stock portfolios, summing up her investments, a classic comic image. Throughout the whole novel, she measures everything by money. And Dinah is a cut rate siren: a pretty but sloppy woman with stained clothes and poor makeup, she could only be a seductress in a town as hick as Poisonville. The whole portrait offers a note of comic emotional detachment, and one of realism as well: here is corruption as it actually happens, not as supervillains of crime, but the two bit denizens of a hick burg.

Max Thaler, a.k.a. "Whisper", takes off on the good looking young men who are always forming alliances with the Op. Like them a crook, in Max' case a gambler, he wants to be friends with the Op, but never makes it in the story. The Op is too busy using him as a pawn in his blowing up of Poisonville, and never notices him much as a person. The Op never responds much to any of Max' friendly overtures. Instead, he keeps having him arrested by the Chief of Police. In previous tales, this has been the tragic end of the story: Op sees young best friend and partner exposed as crook, and arrested or killed. Max is much more resilient than this however, and burlesques the tragic ends of these tales by escaping from the police. His two escapes at the end of the first two main divisions of Red Harvest are comic gems, involving mass resistance by force and guile to police power. Being turned over to the police here lacks the moral censure it attained in previous Hammett works, anyway, because the police in Poisonville are such open crooks.

Indeed, the crooked Chief of Police Noonan is one of the most comic characters in the book, always running off at the mouth with moral clichés, while using the police as essentially his own private hit squad.

Red Harvest and Left-Wing Politics

The politics of Red Harvest are complex. The only capitalist in sight, old Elihu Willsson, is an evil person, ruling through violence and imported gangs. However, Elihu Willsson is not just a capitalist: Similarly, his opponents are also depicted with some ambiguity. These include the radical union leader of the I.W.W., Bill Quint, and liberal reformer Donald Willsson. Neither man nor political approach is shown as being at all effectual in Poisonville. Quint, Donald Willsson and their contrasting approaches are prominent in the book's opening chapters (1-4). But after establishing their failure, the book has the Op come up with his own drastically different plan, one that involves neither radicalism nor liberalism (Chapter 5). The rest of Red Harvest shows the Op's plan in action. Both radical leftism and liberal reform fade into the background. Also, both radical and liberal are shown as flawed. The radical has advocated a campaign of industrial sabotage. And the liberal is an idiot Daddy's boy, who is out of touch with the crimes of his father.

Still, Red Harvest shows businessman Elihu Willsson as evil, and both his radical and liberal opponents as largely sympathetic human beings, whatever their failures. It is clearly a book that sees major problems with at least some businessmen and capitalists, although perhaps not "typical" US businessmen.

As far back as "One Hour" (1924), Hammett had included members of the I.W.W. and labor conflicts, as part of the puzzle plot of a mystery tale. "One Hour" does not endorse the I.W.W. or make political comments - but it does nothing to attack the I.W.W., either.

"Too Many Have Lived" (1932) also has a character whose profession is "fixing" labor problems for management - clearly violently. He is like a more polished version of the mob types brought in to "fix" the labor unrest, in the back-story of Red Harvest. We do not see this character in action against a labor union in the tale: the plot deals with a missing person case, and has no union or working man characters.

Any clear signs of left-wing politics in Hammett begin in 1936, when Hammett's letters suddenly erupt into a steady stream of Communist commentary. This will persist for decades, with Hammett heavily involved in Communist political activity from 1937 on, as Richard Layman points out. However, this is long after Hammett wrote his mystery fiction. As Layman also asserts, there is no clear evidence at this time, of what Hammett's actual politics were during the 1923-1934 era in which he wrote his mysteries.

Hammett submitted a review of Upton Sinclair's book Mammonart (1925) to a literary journal, The Forum, where Hammett published three other book reviews. Mammonart is a study of the canon of the world's literature, from a radical left-wing point of view. Mammonart judges all these works, on whether they support radical leftism and working class revolt. We know from Hammett's letters that he submitted this review circa 1926, but it was apparently never published in The Forum, at least under Hammett's name. I don't know whether the review survives among Hammett's unpublished papers, and have never seen any account of its contents. It is also unclear whether Hammett agreed or not with Sinclair's views. As a look at the canon of literature by a famous novelist, Mammonart would have been of interest to the readers of The Forum, even if they were in complete opposition to its far-left politics. Finding and publishing Hammett's review of Mammonart, if it still exists, might go a long way towards clarifying what Hammett's politics were during the 1920's, when he wrote his mystery classics. (Re-publishing Hammett's mystery reviews of this era would also likely tell us a lot about Hammett's ideas on mystery fiction.)

Also, at the very least, Hammett or anyone else who read Mammonart would be exposed to the idea that depictions of left-wing politics in fiction had political significance.

After Hammett's death, Lillian Hellman wrote that Hammett told her that his early work for the Pinkerton's involved strike-breaking in Montana's mining towns. Hellman's testimony is the only evidence for this assertion. Since Hellman was unreliable and a frequent liar about so many things in her memoirs, this statement must also be received with skepticism. Unfortunately, the concept of "Hammett as a strikebreaker" is now firmly ensconced into many accounts of Hammett's life. Red Harvest is thus treated as autobiographical. However, this whole approach is NOT based on good evidence. Hammett DID do some work as a detective in Montana during his Pinkerton years: his non-fiction article "From the Memoirs of a Private Detective" (1923) includes an anecdote about Hammett's work near Lewistown, across the state from Anaconda, the likely real-life model of Red Harvest. But like all of the authentic Hammett statements about his Pinkerton years, it discusses only regular detective work, never any strike-breaking.

The Dain Curse

Hammett's next book, The Dain Curse (1928), also consists of four linked mystery tales, each with its own solution. The first two tales in Dain are livelier than the last two, in my judgment, but the whole book is weak and second rate. The stories are mysteries, but the solutions of the first two tales come from left field and are not deducible from any clues or plot material at the beginnings of the tales; they are not "fair play", and cannot be classified a "puzzle plots" in any sense of the term.

The second story, Part II of the novel, shows Hammett working in the incipient weird menace tradition in the pulps. Such tales involve fake "supernatural" events, that are eventually explained rationally.

The Novels: The Maltese Falcon

Hammett's first real novels, as opposed to story sequences, are The Maltese Falcon (1929) and The Glass Key (1930). I don't like these books very much. Both are written with an unusual, even experimental technique, in which the characters' behavior is shown from the outside, but where their thoughts and feelings are not directly revealed. Critics have had a field day trying to resolve the ambiguities about what the characters are really thinking, but I just find the technique annoying. It seems to paint a woefully incomplete picture, and the characters seem to be just stick figures. Most of the characters in these tales seem unsympathetic, too. In addition, Hammett is a long way off from the outstanding plotting of his best Continental Op stories here. Critics have often pointed out that these books are more like mainstream novels than most mystery fiction of their era. This is true, but are they good mainstream novels? Many people have ascribed great literary merit to these books, but how much literary merit can there be in books with wooden characters, little plot, written in Basic English, and with nothing to say about society, nature, science or religion?

One might note some literary ancestors of Hammett's characters. Brigid, with her constant lying, and her never ending supply of plausible sounding fabrications, recalls the equally fluent liar James Dangle, in Freeman Wills Crofts' The Cheyne Mystery (1926). Like Brigid, Dangle also enters the novel under a pseudonym. The Cheyne Mystery also resembles The Maltese Falcon in that Dangle is part of a criminal conspiracy of several sinister characters, who are working together to recover a lost treasure. A character in the novel not part of the conspiracy is the sleazy private eye, Speedwell. His name recalls Spade, as do his corrupt methods, his pretty secretary, and the name of his small agency, Horton and Lavender's Private Detective Agency. Crofts' novel is utterly non-hard-boiled in tone, however, and Speedwell is a much less important character in it than Spade; he appears most prominently in Chapters 3, 9 and 14.

The pompous fraud Caspar Gutman, a purported English gentleman, recalls the character of Major Hoople in Gene Ahern's comic strip Our Boarding House (1923 - 1981). Both characters have a similar way of talking. Bill Blackbeard and Martin Williams' The Smithsonian Collection of Newspaper Comics (1977) reprints a 1929 sequence of Our Boarding House starring the Major.

Hammett's "The Main Death" (1927) contains a ancient Greek golden tiara. In some ways, it is an ancestor of the jewel-covered Maltese Falcon. "The Main Death" has a discussion of the psychology of collectors, and their obsession with mysterious, romantic sounding objects like the tiara - or the Falcon. Hammett worked in the jewelry business himself, as an ad man.

The Sam Spade Short Stories

In 1932 Hammett wrote three short stories about Sam Spade for slick magazines. Spade's only other appearance in Hammett's fiction was in The Maltese Falcon. Two are traditional Golden Age style stories, with puzzle plots, wherein Spade investigates murder among the upper middle classes: "A Man Called Spade", and "They Can Only Hang You Once".

"A Man Called Spade", is the first, longest, and weakest of the three works. As Richard Layman has pointed out, Hammett reused the initial situation of his early Op tale "The Tenth Clew" (1924) in this story. "A Man Named Spade" has all new characters, and all new writing - it does not reuse any of the text of the earlier story. Even odder, it has a brand new puzzle plot, different from the one in the original tale. Both stories' puzzle plots, while completely different from each other, show the influence of Freeman Wills Crofts.

Spade also works closely with the police. The single cop Sergeant O'Gar of the earlier Op series, is expanded into a pair in the Spade tales, Lieutenant Dundy and Sgt. Tom Polhaus. There are other named policemen too. They played a prominent role in The Maltese Falcon, and show up again as continuing characters in a subsequent Spade story, "They Can Only Hang You Once". The basic setup of the two short tales is pretty much the same as S.S. Van Dine's Philo Vance books, with the detective acting as friend and consultant to a well characterized squad of police. It is quite different from the earlier Op work. In the Spade tales, the equal relationship between the private eye and the police has disappeared. Instead the police are shown as being basically in a supporting role to Sam Spade, who functions as a genius detective in the Philo Vance tradition. The police here are honest, and do routine investigative tasks, with Spade coming up with the ultimate answers as to whodunit. Unlike the Op, the solitary Spade has no agency to call on, and does little private detective work. Instead he mainly helps the police question suspects, and then solves the case.

"They Can Only Hang You Once" (1932) seems to be Hammett's attempt to write an intuitionist, Golden Age style detective story. It involves an upper middle class family of suspects, including a lawyer and a stockbroker; there is more than one crime; it takes place in a large house whose architecture plays a role in the plot; there is a butler; and a long lost relative from Australia, reminiscent of that most Golden of Golden Age novels, A.A. Milne's The Red House Mystery (1922). Hammett's surprising solution involves the Least Likely Suspect. Sam Spade solves the mystery, not through any "realistic" detective work, but through insight into the crime, just as in the intuitionist school. Hammett does include some of his personal trademark, the collapse of a social institution; here it is financial relationships among a family that get melted down. Despite the way the story involves a different set of conventions, there is nothing of a light hearted jeu d'espirit about the tale. It seems instead to be a serious attempt to write a real detective story in a different tradition.

By contrast, the third Sam Spade story "Too Many Have Lived" (1932) follows Hammett's personal traditions. There is a hard-boiled setting among the underworld and corrupt urban types. Spade does some ingenious detective work tracking down suspects, and uncovering their hidden activities. This detective work is in the tradition of such Continental Op tales as "The Scorched Face" (1924). Spade also uses logical deduction for the ultimate solution. The puzzle plot has a zigzag quality sometimes typical of Hammett's mystery plot construction. First Spade uncovers a new perspective on one aspect of the crime. Then he unveils hidden truth on another. Then he goes back to the first, revealing new, and deeper, perspectives on it. And so on, back and forth between two directions. A somewhat similar zigzag approach is found in the first half of "The Scorched Face".

Many of Hammett's characters lie repeatedly. We are used to this with Brigid in The Maltese Falcon, a character whose constant lying has been burlesqued in many movie spoofs. These often funny parodies accustom us to see this lying as a personal flaw of some of Hammett's characters. However, the lying also serves a structural purpose in the construction of Hammett's plots, for example, the lies of the wife in "Women, Politics and Murder". First we see one version of the truth, then the detective goes off and learns a fact from someone else than the liar. This enables him to ingeniously deduce that the liar's story is concealing something. This logical deduction is in the full tradition of detective story puzzle plotting. Then he goes back to the character, confronts them, and gets a fuller version of the real story. Then he goes off and gets another fact, which enables him to uncover further lies in the liar's tale, and the whole cycle continues. The liar can strip off several versions of illusion from the tale. The whole thing enables a "zigzag" effect: first one story, then another clue, then back to a second story, then back to a second clue, and so on, with the plot going back and forth between the unraveling story and the clues.

Nightmare Town

Among the many non-series Hammett short stories that are easily available today, the best one that I have read is "Nightmare Town" (1924). Written at the peak period of Hammett's creativity with the Continental Op stories, it is another look at a Western town where law and order has broken down, like "Corkscrew" and Red Harvest. The hero of the tale is both more drunken, and a lot more emotionally vulnerable than the Op. The tale has one of Hammett's best constructed mystery situations.

Many of the Op stories are puzzle plot works, with real mysteries to be solved. These fairly short tales remind one of nothing so much as the short stories Agatha Christie was writing during the same period. Hammett did not consider his work as separate from mystery fiction of his day; as a mystery reviewer, he covered the whole gamut of Golden Age authors.

"Nightmare Town" includes a standard feature of many detective stories: what Carolyn Wells calls a tabulation. A tabulation is a list, midway through the tale, summarizing all the mysterious situations and odd facts that have built up so far in the mystery (end of Chapter 8). Such tabulations already had a long history in mystery fiction before Hammett. This is followed in "Nightmare Town" by some interesting philosophical musings on the nature of thinking and analytical detective work.

Soon afterwards, "Nightmare Town" includes incidents that are totally surreal. Such bizarre, apparently unexplainable happenings also have a long tradition in detective fiction, before and after Hammett. Like other authors of mystery fiction, Hammett eventually explains such seemingly irrational events with full logic.

The first Op tale, "Arson Plus" (1923), falls into the puzzle plot category. Like "Nightmare Town", it develops another Hammett theme, illusion Vs reality. Many of Hammett's stories involve elaborate illusions created by the bad guys in the tales. Eventually the detective and the reader discover that the underlying reality is ingeniously different. The characters in the story are often playing very different roles than one would first guess. The whole effect is philosophically similar to those Hammett tales where social institutions break down; here it is the whole world which seemingly exists that breaks down. Just as characters often take on new roles in the social institution stories, subverting conventional social concepts, so in these illusion tales the characters' roles are fluid and unstable. Such works as "The Assistant Murderer" also fall in this category.

The hero Steve Threefall of "Nightmare Town" is not quite a full detective. While he does some investigation, mainly the solution is explained to him by a villain at the end. The hero does not figure out the solution for himself, using detective reasoning, the way a true detective would. Steve Threefall seems to be one of those dashing young engineering types, virile young men who roam the globe on big construction projects. Such young men were popular in adventure fiction of the day. Steve Threefall even wears the khaki clothes that were the high fashion prerogative of such heroes.

Larry Ormsby is the wealthy son of the local town boss, like Donald Willsson in Red Harvest. Both characters have genuinely strange relationships with their fathers. These relationships offer strange variations or breakdowns of traditional father-son ties. They recall such Hammett works as "Fly Paper", which offer off-trail collapses of traditional marriage.

Two Sharp Knives

One of Hammett's last mystery stories, "Two Sharp Knives" (1934), similarly involves a progressive uncovering of unexpected truths, stage by stage. The reader is kept continually off balance by Hammett's taking the plot in directions that this reviewer, at least, did not expect at all. Like many of Hammett's puzzle plots, this tale involves looking at the events of the story in a really different way than is first apparent. Hammett showed great imagination in the solutions to his puzzle plots. His technique here was in synch with the traditions of the Golden Age mystery, which encouraged ingenious solutions to mystery plots. Yet there is also something at once personal, unusual, and disturbing about Hammett's approach. The solutions involve such a skewed point of view on reality, that they have an effect that reality itself is breaking down. Or the effect is one of Alienation, a looking at events from such a different perspective that one feels alienated from daily life and common viewpoints. Hammett's mystery plots are both clever mysteries in the puzzle plot tradition, and alienated takes on reality.

"Two Sharp Knives" also involves Hammett's breakdown of authority, but in a subtle, off trail way.

The First Thin Man

Hammett wrote an unfinished mystery novel, often known today as "The First Thin Man" (1931). The draft comes without a solution to the mystery. Despite this, it is a fascinating read. It can be found in such Hammett collections as Nightmare Town and Crime Stories and Other Writings.

Elements of "The First Thin Man" recall the first quarter of Red Harvest (which is a complete mystery short story in-and-of-itself):

The detective in "The First Thin Man" recalls the Continental Op. Both work for the same kind of private detective agency. However, this detective has a name: John Guild. And he is always described as "dark", not fat like the Op.

Guild takes on the local DA as a junior partner, a man who the narrative stresses is young and "boyish". In fact, his name is Boyer. Guild and the DA are a bit like the experienced working class detective / younger educated pairs that run through Hammett. The DA is certainly both young and holding down a prestigious middle class job, like other such Hammett characters. But unlike most such men in Hammett, the DA is not especially good looking. And his relationship with Guild seems strictly professional, at least in the fragment we have. This makes it less personal than many such working class / middle class younger man pairs in Hammett.

During the investigation (Chapter 8,9), Guild flirts with the sort of solution Hammett previously used in "Women, Politics and Murder" / "Death on Pine Street". This shows some imagination, especially involving the phone call to the new suspect. However, as a whole these chapters' new suspicions do not add up to a complete solution of the crime. These ideas leave many unexplained elements.

Throughout the tale, the DA spins alternate solutions to the crime. "The First Thin Man" is full of countless diverging explanations of the mystery: all partial and incomplete, and all different from each other. Guild sometimes proposes alternate ideas himself. In such Op stories as "Tom, Dick or Harry", it was the Op who offered multiple solutions.

This Little Pig

Hammett's last published short story, "This Little Pig" (1934), is a darkly comic tale of Hollywood filmmaking. SPOILERS. "This Little Pig" is not a mystery or crime tale: it is mainstream fiction. But it does recall Red Harvest. Once again, we have the familiar Hammett background, of a situation in which authority and control has broken down. In "This Little Pig", it is a chaotic, out-of-control film production, in which nobody really is in charge. As in Red Harvest, the various members of the cast and crew are all competing with each other, to put their own agenda across - just like the gangsters in the novel. The narrator, an experienced Hollywood screenwriter, starts manipulating the characters, and playing them against each other: just like the Op did in Red Harvest. The manipulation forms a complex scheme. It is odd to see Hammett adapt his background and plotting technique to mainstream fiction. It shows that Hammett did not abandon his complex plot approach, when he conceived a mainstream tale.

"This Little Pig" is full of inside references to actors and occasionally directors. Most notably, Murnau and his picture Sunrise (1927) are mentioned as a landmark. There are also references to its star, Janet Gaynor.

Secret Agent X-9

This 1934 comic strip was written by Hammett, and drawn by the great Alex Raymond, before he went on to Flash Gordon and Rip Kirby. The writing is vivid and the art work is extremely beautiful. The early Hammett - Raymond strips have been reprinted complete not just once, but twice in recent years, in two different editions.

Film Versions

A year after its book publication, The Maltese Falcon was made into a movie. This 1931 Roy Del Ruth adaptation is in some ways the most faithful to the spirit of the book.

The second Maltese Falcon adaptation, Satan Met a Lady (William Dieterle, 1936), is more a parody than an adaptation in the conventional sense. The various conventions of Falcon, the betrayals, the lying, the perverse relations between Spade and women, are played for laughs. The characters' dialogue highlights and underlines these behaviors, and the whole thing comes across as deliberately over the top and exaggerated, perhaps with a touch of camp sensibility. There is a great deal of deliberately comic ham acting, especially from Warren William and Bette Davis. The Caspar Guttman character is turned into a woman, played by Aline Skipworth, and her relationship with her gunsel becomes even stranger in the process. Film histories tend to portray this version simply as a failed adaptation. It is not very good, but its unique aims should at least be taken into account in discussions.

Three feature length burlesques of The Maltese Falcon were made in the 1970's. Goodnight, My Love (1972), written and directed by Peter Hyams, is a well done little private eye movie, partly serious and partly tongue in cheek. This made for TV film has great fun with the Brigid character, played by Barbara Bain. It also has a terrific cast in Richard Boone, Michael Dunn, and Victor Buono. The broad spoof The Black Bird (1975) has a good performance by Stephane Audran, no less, in the Brigid role, but is otherwise the weakest of the three films. The Cheap Detective (1978), written by Neil Simon, is a combined spoof of Casablanca and The Maltese Falcon. It is much funnier than Simon's earlier mystery satire, Murder by Death (1976), but seems to be much less well known.

Recommended Reading

Richard Layman's Shadow Man: The Life of Dashiell Hammett (1981) is a highly informative biography. It has a complete bibliography of Hammett's writings.