Dashiell Hammett was born in 1894 in Maryland. He attended school until he was 14, and after having worked at various jobs at twenty he joined the Pinkerton Agency. He publishes stories starting in 1922, and serials starting in 1927 that would be brought together in a book in 1929. His final completed novel was in 1934. After having worked for Hollywood he would most notably influence the works of his companion Lillian Hellman. A Marxist, he was sent to prison for six months by the McCarthy commission, pursued by internal revenue, and after having lived in opulence was reduced to poverty. He died in 1961 of cancer, the final episode of the many pulmonary problems which, aside from alcoholism, wore him down. He is universally recognized as the founder of the American roman noir and the best representative of the genre. Which makes him the best novelist in the world since 1920, and I can prove it.
The Pinkerton Agency had prospered after one of its directors, James McParland, had infiltrated and destroyed, in 1875, the terrorist working class fraternity the Molly Maguires. Those we call “Pinkertons” in the first quarter of the twentieth century are armed strike breakers, informants, and agents provocateurs. At Pinkerton, Hammett was instead busy with “investigations and tailing.” Nevertheless, aside from the fact that his experience provided him with a mine of actual details, it is not a mater of indifference that the writer’s employer, in his first field, was an enterprise specializing in the applied class struggle. Hammett, aside from having passed though the First World Was (he was an ambulance driver) and caught there his first tuberculosis, has here a front row seat to get to know and greet the dawn of a terrible era.
And in fact, when Dashiell Hammett begins to be published, the first attempted world communist revolution had been vanquished everywhere for almost a half a century. Prohibition, organized crime, corruption, the interpenetration of politics, government, the economy, unions, police, bandits, etc, aren’t only picturesque things particular to the America of that period. It is everywhere in the world that rackets and gang wars are the reality of the times. And America is the center of this time and this world. And the American roman noir is thus, with its cinema and its jazz, the center of the culture of the time, the style of the era. We know that the genre of the American noir was first crystallized in popular and sometimes ambitious publications, especially the revue “Black Mask.” There, a few months before Hammett joined them, authors like Carrol John Daly (inventor of the tough detective) adopted., on subjects touching on crime a realist stylistic and moral position, i.e., one that is disillusioned. Hammett would perfect this position, notably via several private eye characters: the Continental Op, with neither name nor face in “Red Harvest,” Sam Spade of “The Maltese Falcon,” and later the happy and carefree Nick Charles of “The Thin Man.”
When historical evil is the victor for a long period, the law of the heart can no longer assign itself any good end, and man has at his disposal only evil means. In the heart of the private eye the law is reduced to an individual code of conduct, and this heart has hardened. Hammett’s heroes have only lying rotters to deal with; the pleasure they take in cleaning up a city or an affair is bitter, for the more they clean up the more the general filthiness of the world appears. Every lie proved false reveals a worse lie, and finally the truth, which is worst of all. And Dashiell Hammett thus drank almost as much alcohol as his heroes. Nevertheless, his ways were haughty and elegant. You need that.
In style too it’s a question of disillusionment. The beginning of the century, with the great Lenin and poor little Wilson among others, had shown where good intentions got you. The famous “behaviorist” style is the style of distrust and calm despair before the ruses of reason. It speaks only of what appears; it deduces reality from appearances, and not from the doubtful interiority of people. In Hammett, everyone lies, even posters, and those who think they are speaking the truth are instead expressing their false consciousness: they are naifs.
If we’d like, we could tie their literature to the French realism of the previous century, which grew out of an analogous disillusionment. We could note that Hammett began by writing poetry, like Raymond Chandler, just as the young Flaubert was a romantic. We should also see that Hammett’s style (like his inferior because pretentious contemporaries like Hemingway) is technically regressive. In the area of vocabulary and syntax he innovates some because he has published commonly used contemporary American English. But the text, from distrust and despair, is systematically purged of any embellishment, of any stylistic devices, of an poetic floating of meaning, to the point of becoming the contrary of an art object: a human bone. “I pushed the door and entered. The sound of water was coming from the sink. I looked in the sink.” Any appreciation of Hammett tends to be falsified, for the culture market, in developing with a panicked frenzy, valorizes everything, notably extra-artistic objects, in a crazed and indifferent manner. Detective novels, cartoons, Walt Disney, paintings by madmen and a thousand other things are touted with an equal promotional enthusiasm, under the imprudent pretext of consoling the oppressed creature. You and I know this well, at least I hope you do. In any case, we forget that the writings of Hammett and a few other authors were a necessary moment in the sighs and rages of the oppressed creature, a moment which has passed. The American roman noir, that is, in the first instance Hammett, completed its development long before the death of its founder. It delivered a negative judgment on literature and the entire society of its times. The affair of the present time is no longer this judgment, but rather its execution. Whoever now reads Dashiell Hammett with the simple pleasure of distraction should rather be frightened. For, to put it simply: this is why you will all die.
Source: Chroniques, Paris, 1996, Editions Payot;
First Published: Le Matin, August 16, 1980;
Written by: Jean-Patrick Manchette
Translated by: Mitchell Abidor
CopyLeft: Creative Commons (Attribute & ShareAlike)