NOTE: The following article was first published on February 21, 2010. Thank you to John O’Neill for agreeing to reprint these early articles, so they are archived at Black Gate which has been my home for over 5 years and 250 articles now. Thank you to Deuce Richardson without whom I never would have found my way. Minor editorial changes have been made in some cases to the original text.
Much of what has been written about Dashiell Hammett’s The Maltese Falcon focuses on the novel as groundbreaking in its realistic portrayal of detective work. More in-depth literary studies tend to focus on the significance of Hammett’s shift in protagonist from the incorruptible and nameless Continental Op of his earlier work to the jaded self-portrait of the author as Sam Spade. In my view, this transition is primarily noteworthy in that Hammett’s protagonist changed from an idealized conception of the man he might have become had he remained a Pinkerton Operative (the Continental Op is based on Hammett’s boss during his stint with the Pinkerton Agency) to a more self-reflective portrayal of a man mired in moral conflict. Hammett’s own moral crisis would color his fiction from this point until he resolved his dilemma and settled into a life alternating his celebrity status with reclusiveness – a life whose one constant was Hammett’s complete lack of creative output for his remaining 27 years.
Many have speculated why Hammett’s creativity dried up when he and his muse and mistress Lillian Hellman had settled comfortably into something approaching unwedded bliss as the Nick and Nora Charles of the real world. My own opinion has been that once freed of the conflict of whether or not to walk a path of integrity or give in to the encroaching corruption that constantly assailed his world, Hammett had nothing further to draw upon for inspiration. Resolution was tantamount to becoming a spent force and Hammett was finished as a writer. The fact that he realized this dilemma was inescapable lies at the heart of both The Maltese Falcon and The Glass Key in their pursuit of empty dreams incapable of satisfying the characters whose lust is so great they are willing to die for or kill in their futile quests.
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Jonathan Latimer is sadly forgotten today. There was a time when his screwball private eye series featuring the rarely sober Bill Crane were bestsellers and even made the transition to the silver screen in the late 1930s, courtesy of Universal Pictures, in a fun trio of B-movies. Latimer was a respected Hollywood screenwriter of the 1940s who crossed over to television from the 1950s through the early 1970s, writing for such series as Perry Mason and Columbo. He also achieved instant notoriety as the author of the hardboiled detective novel, Solomon’s Vineyard, which was banned almost upon publication in 1941 and remained unavailable in its original form in the U.S. for decades.
The general consensus is with Solomon’s Vineyard, Latimer turned up the heat on hardboiled detective fiction and blurred the line between pulp and pornography. Most critics will claim that even today, readers would be hard-pressed to find a tougher or more shocking private eye novel. While public domain copies riddled with typos are easy to come by, I finally tracked down an affordable copy of an earlier edition and read the book for myself. I was shocked as well, not by the content, but to learn the book is clearly intended as yet another of Latimer’s laugh-out-loud farces, despite its reputation.
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The recent passing of veteran mystery writer Joe Gores on the anniversary of Dashiell Hammett’s own death set me thinking about Hammett’s enduring legacy and continuing influence on detective fiction.
Gores was born too late to fight for a place in the Holy Trinity of hardboiled detective fiction alongside Hammett’s immediate heirs Raymond Chandler and Ross Macdonald, but the influence of the man who did so much to transform hardboiled fiction was no less strong in Gores’ work.
While most commentators would agree that the DKA series was Gores’ crowning achievement, my own preference was for his 1975 novel, Hammett and his last book, 2009’s Spade & Archer.
Gores’ death led me to pick up Ace Atkins’ 2009 novel, Devil’s Garden. Atkins’ book is a semi-fictionalized account of Hammett’s real-life involvement as a Pinketeron operative gathering evidence for the scandalous Fatty Arbuckle trial in 1921.
Thirty-five years earlier, Gores had likewise fictionalized Hammett’s Pinkerton days when he immersed himself in real and imagined political corruption in Roaring Twenties San Francisco in his novel, Hammett.
When granted the honor of penning a prequel to The Maltese Falcon, Gores later drew heavily on Hammett’s own experiences as a Pinkerton to fill in Sam Spade’s back story. Atkins has much in common with Gores in that both men are natural writers who can easily make one envious of their prodigious talent and, at times, frustrated that they aren’t quite as perfect as you wish them to be.
No matter how many times I’ve read Hammett’s five novels and the posthumous collections of his short fiction, I never cease to be amazed at his perfection. Chandler’s remark that Hammett repeatedly wrote scenes that struck readers as wholly original is not mere hyperbole; it still rings true today despite the endless parodies and imitations. It is also what makes following in his footsteps so difficult.
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