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