Recently, I read again Hammett’s The Maltese Falcon in its original serialized form as published in Black Mask. Naturally, I took a look at the movie again too. Hammett was one of the early and best practitioners of the hard-boiled style of crime fiction, a crucial element in the evolution of film noir style.
I just finished two more of his novels, collected here: Red Harvest and The Dain Curse. I had read Red Harvest years ago, long before I knew anything of noir, and I was impressed, puzzled, and intrigued by the bloody mayhem of it. It’s a story of an anonymous detective from the San Francisco Continental Op who comes to Personville, known as Poisonville, a tough western mining town on a job. That job blossoms into a bloody gang war that he manipulates to achieve the destruction of the utterly corrupt locals who squeeze the place for all its worth. The story reminded me of westerns that center on the feuds between outlaws while the residents cower inside, like the spaghetti western, A Fist Full of Dollars. The violence is awful, the characters remorseless, and the narrator goes without sleep a lot, besides imbibing much gin. When he arrives in town, the tone of shabby, gritty lawlessness is set right away:
The first policeman I saw needed a shave. The second had a couple of buttons off his shabby uniform. The third stood in the center of the city’s main intersection – Broadway and Union Street – directing traffic, with a cigar in one corner of his mouth. After that I stopped checking them up.
Like everyone else in town, they’re on the take.
The Dain Curse is the story of non-stop murder by people associated with a bogus religious cult. It starts with a diamond heist, but moves on to morphine addiction, blackmail, ritual slaughter, and general insanity. The plot gets so complex that an entire chapter is needed at the end to unravel it, but after reading it, I still didn’t know how all the pieces fit together. On the other hand, I didn’t really care.
Hammett’s writing sometimes sharply characterizes people with a few deft strokes. I like the way he pegs the local DA as a self-important go-getter with political ambitions:
Vernon pushed aside a stack of papers with a the-world-can-wait gesture, and said “Glad to see you; sit down,” nodding vigorously, showing me all his teeth.
The writing uses a highly stylized, ‘objective’, sometimes passive voice. “I put some food in my stomach,” [Note: I just heard a worker in a hardhat use that expression on the sidewalk at lunch time! 5/17/11] and “We sat talking, burning cigarettes.” Blank, non-conscious description. Simple actions, no deep psychology. Is it phenomenology in literature? No doubt the French think, or thought so. Cerebral French critics invented the genre of noir, after all. Here’s how he describes a bomb blast that nearly kills him:
The door to my room split open. Floors, walls, and ceiling wriggled under, around, and over us. There was too much noise to be heard-a roar that was felt bodily. Tom Fink was carried away from, backward…I got up and made for my room. Fitzstephan was a mangled pile of flesh and clothing in the center of the floor.
Sometimes, the style is downright odd, but it’s so matter of fact, that you just accept it, and it creates an overall tone:
She didn’t say anything while we took another dozen steps. A path came under our feet. I said:
“This is the path that runs up the cliff, the one Eric Collinson was pushed from.”
A path came under our feet? Does it have a life of its own? It gives the sense of a mind cruising over the earth, and viewing it as if from an airplane – observant, but detached.
Oh, and love that hat!