Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Happy birthday, Hammett

The greatest crime writer of all time, Dashiell Hammett (left), was born 120 years ago today. (Yes, the greatest, notwithstanding the Times of London's bizarre ranking a few years ago, which had Hammett 13th and Ian Rankin ninth, possibly because Rankin, unlike Hammett, had a serving British prime minister ready to write an appreciation to accompany the list.)

Hammett is probably best known for his five novels and for the movies made from two of them:
The Maltese Falcon and The Thin Man, but I'll celebrate his birthday with a post about one of his short stories. And here all my posts about the real greatest crime writer ever. Click the link, then scroll down.)
 ===================
"And I praise the dead who have already died, more than the living who are still alive."

Koheleth (Ecclesiastes) 4:2
In these troubled times, when uncertainty walks to and fro in the land and up and down in it (and when outside commitments again cut into my reading and blogging time), I seek consolation in scripture, and I open those books from which everything that followed derives.

Take the beginning of "The Big Knock-Over":
"I found Paddy the Mex in Jean Larrouy's dive.

"Paddy an amiable con man who looked like the King of Spain showed me his big white teeth in a smile, pushed a chair out for me with one foot, and told the girl who shared his table:

"`Nellie, meet the biggest-hearted dick in San Francisco. This little fat guy will do anything for anybody, if only he can send 'em over for life in the end.'"
What does that passage give us? Lean, smart, tough-guy prose, of course, the best that anyone has written in crime fiction, but also deadpan, almost surreal humor: What is someone named Paddy doing with a nickname like "the Mex," and vice versa?  I'd also argue that Hammett's granting Paddy a personality and a prominent role in the scene, and thereby contributing to the illusion of a coherent, believable world and not just a cops-and-robbers story, is a dim, distant forerunner of Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö's similar accomplishment. Far-fetched? It's not the most outrageous claim ever made on behalf of a foundational text.

Then there's the nickname itself. Strip "The Big Knock-Over" of everything but its monikers, and it's still better than most crime fiction that went before and came after: Itchy Maker. Bluepoint Vance. The Dis-and-Dat Kid. Spider Girrucci. Alphabet Shorty McCoy. Bull McGonickle, "still pale from fifteen years in Joliet." Toby the Lugs, "Bull's running mate."  L.A. Slim, "from Denver, sockless and underwearless as usual, with a thousand-dollar bill sewed in the each shoulder of his  coat." Big Flora. The Motsa Kid.

That's at least as good as all the begats and lists of warriors in those other foundation texts.

© Peter Rozovsky 2012

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49 Comments:

Anonymous solo said...

Have you ever read the Elmore Leonard introduction to THE FRIENDS OF EDDIE COYLE, Peter? He says:

In the beginning, both Higgins and I had to put up with labels applied to our work, critics calling us the second coming of Raymond Chandler. At the time we first met, at the Harbourfront Reading in Toronto, George and I agreed that neither of us had come out of the Hammett-Chandler school of crime writing. My take on THE FRIENDS OF EDDIE COYLE, for example – which I’ve listed a number of times as the best crime novel ever written – makes THE MALTESE FALCON read like Nancy Drew. Our method in telling stories has always been grounded in authenticity based on background data, the way it is as well as the way such people speak. We also agreed that it’s best not to think too much about plot and begin to stew over where the story is going. Instead, rely on the characters to show you the way.

Dashiell Hammett as Nancy Drew? Hammett lacks authenticity? I like Leonard's books but what the hell would he know about authenticity? He was a copy writer for an advertising agency before he became a writer. In contrast, Hammett spent years working for the Pinkertons.

In the same intro Leonard gives us a clue where this idiotic notion comes from:

Higgins has been called the Balzac of Boston while I’ve been labeled the Dickens of Detroit. We didn’t discuss it, so I’m not sure what George thought of his alliterative tag. What I wonder is who I’d be if I lived in Chicago.

A charmless cunt, maybe. Leonard has bought into the notion that crime/genre fiction is crap. The poor bastard thinks he's writing 'literature'. And that that's the only thing worth writing.

What's really ironic about his comment is that he doesn't seem to realize that the writers he considers to be literary geniuses, Dickens and Balzac, were hugely popular writers in their day, and because of that popularity were generally despised by critics who considerd them to be nothing more than talented hacks. The kind of hacks that he seems to think Hammett and Chandler were. No wonder the poor bastard blushed like a thirteen year old with a bad case of puppy love when Martin Amis threw a few kind words his way.

January 06, 2012  
Anonymous Elisabeth said...

What is someone named Paddy doing with a nickname like "the Mex," and vice versa?

Peter,
This is possibly a reference to the many Irish who, during the potato famine, went to Mexico instead of the United States. Some fought on the side of (Catholic) Mexico during the Mexican-American War in Saint Patrick's Battalion.

So, "Paddy the Mex" would have been the son or grandson of one of these immigrants.

I first found out about this bit of 19th century history in a film, One Man's Hero, (1999), starring an actor I once liked quite a bit, Tom Berenger.

This Web site has more info. Interesting factoid from the site: Only a few towns in Mexico lack a street named O'Brien, which, later on, became the Spanish "Obregón." There's also an "O'Brien City," better known as Ciudad Obregón, in the northern state of Sonora.

solo, re [Elmore Leonard] was a copy writer for an advertising agency before he became a writer. In contrast, Hammett spent years working for the Pinkertons.

Just to "prove" that Hammett was the best ever... he wrote ad copy for the Albert S. Samuels Jewelry Company in San Francisco while working for them in the early 1920s. "The pay was $350 a month--about four times the income from his writing and pension combined," Selected Letters of Dashiell Hammett, 1921-1960, Layman and Rivett, eds., 2001. In October 1926, Hammett's article "The Advertisement Is Literature," was the lead article in the trade publication "Western Advertising" and the first of several articles he wrote for WA.

January 06, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Solo: Writing advertising copy must similarly be similarly responsible for the authenticity that pervades Leonard’s Westerns. With the caveat that I don’t know the context of Leonard’s remarks, I’d say your evaluation of his character sounds about right.

Hammett inauthentic? I’ll remember to call Leonard artificial the next time someone praises his pared-down dialogue. Funny thing is that not all of Higgins’s technique has aged well – certainly not as well as the best of Hammett. Leonard’s foolishness reminds me of rash adolescent rebellion of which one repents later, the way Johnny Rotten admitted that yeah, he and the rest of the Sex Pistols really dug the Who. The one bit of slack I will cut him is that I can well imagine frustration with Chandler/Hammett comparisons. Everybody gets compared to those guys, especially to Chandler, and some of the comparisons are pretty damned far-fetched.

I do note with interest that Leonard and Higgins met at the Harbourfront readings. The Harbourfront Centre hosts fine crime writers to this day.

January 06, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I've seen some of Hammett's advertising copy!

I knew that Bernardo O'Higgins was one of the founders of Chile, but I did not know about an Irish connection to Mexico. In retrospect, my crime fiction reading should have led me to suspect such a connection. Paco Ignacio Taibo's protagonist is named Hector Belascoarán Shayne and has an Irish mother.

January 06, 2012  
Blogger adrian mckinty said...

Solo

Nicely put. And dont forget Hammett was a Sergeant in WW1 not an officer. And in WW2 he reupped and refused again to become an officer.

The only bad ass ad man I can think of is Lee Marvin's father.

January 07, 2012  
Blogger seana said...

Actually, one of the members in the Finnegans Wake group whose last name is Cavanaugh has an ancestor who started out fighting for the U.S. but then joined hte a group that they had more in common with the Mexican side and defected. I believe they were captured and executed eventually. It was probably that same St. Gabriel's battalion. There is a picture of them in the Irish pub we frequent. I'll have to ask her more.

January 07, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I'll have to explore further the possibility that Elmore Leonard may be an arsehole. Did Lee marvin's father ever kill someone who made fun of his prose?

January 07, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Seana, your Cavanaugh friend will like find ample material in the family archives should he or she turn to writing fiction.

Some Irish pub I was in -- had a men's room covered with great Irishmen who had fought for and in other countries. Bernardo O'Higgins was on the list. I don't remember any Mexicans.

In any case, this is for me one more example of a lesson I have learned elsewhere repeatedly: the U.S. is not the only nation of immigrants in the Americas. I have heard Italian and German spoken in Brazil.

January 07, 2012  
Blogger Joe Barone said...

Of all the "classic" detective writers, Hammett is my favorite.

January 07, 2012  
Blogger adrian mckinty said...

Peter

No but he did teach Lee how to shoot by making a film of himself firing a Colt 45 to show Lee the precise grip. Oh and he served in WW1 and WW2 as well. On the line both times.

When Lee was wounded at the Battle of Saipan he probably thought he was the family badass but then his old man comes back from Germany...

January 07, 2012  
Anonymous I.J.Parker said...

Don't like Hammett. Don't understand all that idolizing.

January 07, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Joe, just when I'm ready to cast my vote for Hammett, I'll pick up some Chandler. That's OK; the world is big enough for both.

January 07, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Adrian, so young Lee was a sensitive, quiet boy until his father toughened him up?

January 07, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I.J., I do understand the idolizing, and I've contributed to it. But I think Solo's purpose was not to praise Hammett (or Chandler) but rather to suggest that Leonard is a bit of an ass.

January 07, 2012  
Anonymous I.J.Parker said...

Hmm. Don't know Leonard. Might not like him either. My tastes have changed. I used to read American P.I. novels, but they got to be so formulaic. And I shouldn't say that. There are exceptions, like Chercover. Plus I'm a member of PWA who are the nicest people in the world.

January 07, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Chercover is one of the nicest people in the world, and I once made a post or two about things he does to keep the P.I. genre fresh. Like Hammett, he was once a private investigator, so he comes by his authenticity honestly.

January 07, 2012  
Anonymous solo said...

Like a bad rash, the Irish get everywhere. Apart from the ones you and Elisabeth have mentioned, there's William Brown from Mayo, who established the Argentine navy, William Lamport from Wexford, supposedly the original of Johnston McCulley's characterl Zorro, and of course there's Anthony Quinn, for whom I, on behalf of the Irish people, apologize unreservedly. Sadly, not every cross between an Irish man and a Mexican woman can turn out well. And if I refer to the Irish as a rash, it's only because I see all humanity that way.

Lee Marvin is one of my favourite actors, so I'm grateful to Adrian for enlightening me about Marvin's parentage, about which I had known nothing. Passing over the incongruity of using the terms advertising executive and badass in the same sentence, I have to confess I was impressed by Marvin pere's name: Lamont Waltman Marvin. Now there's a name. A man might be ignorant, lazy and possibly even deranged and yet such a name would probaby be enough on its own to propel a man to greatness.

IJ's comment about Hammett is tantalizing, but not very revealing. I wonder which of Hammett's failings as a writer bother her.

I feel bad about being so rude about Leonard, given how much I've enjoyed so many of his books.

January 07, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Solo:

De gustibus non disputandum est, as Lamont Waltman Marvin no doubt remarked frequently. I won't hold I.J. to account for not liking Hammett's prose.

Here in Philadelphia, I have often passed the grave of the father of the American Navy, the Wexford-born Commodore John Barry.

No need to feel bad about Leonard, assuming you quoted him accurately. Let this be a reminder that those we admire need not always be of sterling character and unompeachable opinions.

January 07, 2012  
Blogger adrian mckinty said...

Peter

Funny you should mention the US Navy. One of its first successful engagements was at a place called Carrickfergus with John Paul Jones in the Ranger capturing HMS Drake. John Paul Jones of course was Scottish.

January 07, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Would that be right near Andrew Jackson's alleged ancestral home?

January 07, 2012  
Blogger seana said...

Everyone gets down on advertising writers, but it's good practice. Or at least Salman Rushdie is not ashamed of that part of his past. And Dorothy Sayers got a wonderful mystery out of her time in that field as well.

January 07, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I once said, not entirely as a joke, that headline writing was the closest thing to haiku being praticed regularly in America. I imagine something similar might be true of advertising copy. The writer needs to get to the point quickly.

The one Sayers novel that I've read, Murder Must Advertise, makes superb use of her advertising background. A background in advertising may be responsible for whatever authenticity the book possesses. I'm not sure the same is true of Leonard's books.

January 07, 2012  
Blogger seana said...

Headline writing is indeed an art form.

I missed the part where Leonard's ad background made him more susceptible to inauthenticity than anybody else.

Actually, I've never really understood what authenticity was in the first place.

January 07, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I've made snide remarks about authenticity, and I've wondered how critics and reviewers who invoke the term know what's authentic and what isn't. (As I recall, I first thought these thoughts when a review said David Mamet had captured the authentic speech rhythms of Great Lakes boatmen.)

So I don't know what authenticity is, nor do I khow whether Leonard captrues it better than anyone else. But Leonard started by implying that (a) Hammett was deficient in ways that Leoanrd himself and George V. Higgins were not, and (b) This deficiency was due in part to Leonard's and Higgins' greater insistence on authenticity.

Since Hammett had experience as a detective and published advice to detective-story writers on keeping their own work authentic, I can't feel too sorry for Leonard if any malicious teasing comes his way.

January 07, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Solo, in other words said, Who the hell is Leonard the copywriter to say that Hammett the detective wrote inauthentic detective stories?

January 07, 2012  
Blogger seana said...

Well, I'll agree to that. And I'm sure that Leonard is a bit past minding about any carping anyway.

January 07, 2012  
Blogger adrian mckinty said...

Seana, Peter,

Well for every Mad Men there's always a Bill Hicks to correct the balance.

January 07, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

And Solo, to give him his due, feels a twinge of regret about his comments because he has enjoyed Leonard's books. I'd guess that peonard's frustration must stem in part from furstration at fatuous comparisons to Chandler and Hammett. I would have sympathy for this. I woudl have elss sympathy for any feeling of suepriority he might have because he (and Higgins) did not write mere detective stories.

January 07, 2012  
Blogger seana said...

Terrific stuff.

Someone ought to put that in an ad. Make a fortune.

January 07, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Adrian, when did he record that clip? Funny he should mention arsenic because I know from all the authentic crime stories I read that arsenic penetrates the body more deeply the longer it remains in the body -- arsenic in one's hairs, for example, is a sign that one has been exposed to the stuff for a long time.

Well, marketing has been absorbed very, very deeply into the hair of every young person who uses an Apple computer, who regards Facebook as a tool of liberation, or who, no matter what product one asks for, responds with the phrase that began with McDonald's "crew" members hawking fries but has now spread: "Would you like a XXXX today?"

January 07, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Seana, Hicks' physical schtick is a bit annoying, but that's a fine clip. I can see why David Letterman might not like this guy.

Hmm, based on an exceedingly small sample, not being liked by Letterman is a badge of honor. Who else is on the list besides Bill Hicks and Harvey Pekar?

January 07, 2012  
Blogger adrian mckinty said...

Peter

Letterman also hates Crispin Glover. Glover can be precious but you've got to admire someone who did not let Steven Spielberg fuck with him. Spielberg and Zemeckis used Glover's image without permission in Back to the Future 2 and 3. Glover sued them and won.

Hicks is no fan of Jay Leno either. This bit is a classic:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ti73SgrLadU

Just ignore the visuals and listen.

January 07, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Well, I'm now a Crispin Glover fan. I wonder how much work he has had suing Spielberg.

I think late-night talk-show hosts deserve to be skewered, but the only place you're likely to see it is in an exceedingly mild version on another late-night talk show.

That's a good clip.

January 07, 2012  
Anonymous I.J.Parker said...

"authentic" = "believable". And that means something different for everyone. Still, it's very arguable, isn't it? People are forever claiming the most intimate knowledge of whatever it is.

Came across "Mad Men" belatedly and find I love the show. Is it finished? My bad taste perhaps, but it seems to be just the right mix of soap opera and social satire. Brilliant.

January 08, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I.J., I've wondered from time to time when the cult of authenticity developed. Hammett wrote a couple of magazine articles under the heading "Suggestions for Detective Story Writers" that consisted mostly of various ways to get details right.

I say that fiction need not be authentic, but it must be convincing.

January 08, 2012  
Anonymous I.J.Parker said...

Yes. "Convincing" is a better word than "believable".

January 08, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Right -- provided that the author does not stray irresponsibly into misleading anachronism or inaccuracy.

Ronan Bennett, praised to the skies in this space and the holder of a doctorate in history, has this to say in his acknowledgments to Havoc, in Its Third Year:

"Which brings me, lastly, to the acknowledgment every novelist working with history must make that when conflicts arise between historical fact and the demands of the novel we tend to settle them in favor of the latter. This is a work of fiction."

January 08, 2012  
Blogger Fred Blosser said...

11 of the Alamo defenders were Irish by birth, according to the list in Walter Lord's A TIME TO STAND. Back to Hammett, "The Big Knock-Over" has my favorite Hammett line, characterizing the Op's boss: ". . .[The Old Man] was one of those cautious babies who'll look out of the window at a cloudburst and say, 'It seems to be raining," on the off-chance that somebody's pouring water off the roof." In Hammett vs. Leonard, I'll side with Hammett any time.

January 08, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Fred: I learn more about the Irish in the Americas every day. Thanks.

I love that line from "The Big Knock-Over." Another favorite is:

"He was a swarthy little Canadian who stood nearly five feet in his high-heeled shoes, weighed a hundred pounds minus, talked like a Scotchman's telegram, and could have shadowed a drop of salt water from Golden Gate to Hongkong without ever losing sight of it."

Hammett must have enjoyed the challenge of finding fresh ways to restate descriptions that needed to be restated because conventions demanded it.

I don't know if there need be any feud between Hammett and Leonard. Both are superbly talented, influential, and original writers, but Hammett is obviously the more important. I'll even give Leonard the benefit of the doubt and chalk his remarks up to frustration over silly invocations of Chandler and Hammett when discussing just about every non-cozy crime writer who followed them.

January 08, 2012  
Blogger seana said...

Mad Men is not over yet, I.J. They are starting to show trailers for the next season.

January 08, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Seana, I would imagine that the early seasons are available on DVD. If I decide one day to move on from my personal cultural zeitgeist, which is probably the early or mid 1970s, I should probably try to catch up on Mad Men.

January 08, 2012  
Blogger seana said...

Peter, they grew on me, but they may have ungrown on me in the last season. I do look forward to seeing where they head from here, though.

I think it must be incredibly hard to sustain a television series for any length of time. Things have to change, or what's the point? But if they change too much it's disaster.

January 08, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

The challenge must be like that facing authors of popular crime-fiction series: how to give the readers what the want while maintaining one's own interest and avoiding undue repitition -- the way Hammett finds an entertaining new way to say in "The Continental Op" that Dick Foley does not talk much.

January 08, 2012  
Blogger seana said...

Yes, it's similar, but I think probably harder. I think a book almost always has more avenues to explore than a TV episode. Usually there is some romance, which isn't always the case with crime stories, and if it's really popualr, the viewers want to see it complete itself in some way, but once it does, they become bored and there is nowhere else to go.


This isn't quite the problem with Mad Men, almost the opposite in fact, but there is still a problem.

January 08, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Hmm, it's probably no accident that the expression "jumping the shark" came from television rather than from books.

I would venture a tentative guess that television is more about buzz and atmosphere rather than about telling stories, which might give producers and writers less room to maneuver than novelists have.

January 08, 2012  
Blogger seana said...

Really I'm just making this up as I go along, but I think television is a lot more static than books are, though it might appear at first glance to be otherwise.

January 08, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I'm flying by the seat of my pants as well, but I think we reach similar conclusions. I say a hit TV series depends more on atmosphere and ambience than on story; you say TV is more static. We may be saying the same thing.

January 08, 2012  
Blogger seana said...

Right. I wasn't disagreeing with you on that, just thinking about the medium a bit more. It's funny, because even on action shows, where there are a lot chases and murders and explosions, the regular characters tend to remain a bit boxed in and in close relation to each other. Either that or they leave the show.

January 08, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Even on the most critically acclaimed shows, Bart Simpson still ahs four fingers, and most of the characters on Seinfeld lived in Midtown Manhattan without any visible means of support.

January 08, 2012  

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