Notes on Dashiell Hammett Fiction
Thu Apr 13 16:44:45 PDT 2000
- Does desert travel really whiten a Ford or does Hammett have
something metaphorical in mind as in "He rode in on a white horse"?
Was Hammett ever actually in the desert?
- Great bit on waking up drunk in jail, perhaps something that
Hammett had done before?
- The main character's name is Threefall. Is the name meant to be
reminiscent of wrestling? Note that he offers to wrestle
the monstrous sheriff.
- Nice turn of phrase: "a man who perpetually grins at a loss".
Interesting also, Bogart seemed to pick up this grin in the
various hardboiled films that he did.
- Nice transition: character is thinking about all the things he will do
when out of the air comes a voice saying "You will not!"
- What is the view of drunkenness in this story? Everyone seems to
congratulate Threefall on it.
- Is "Vallance" a reference to The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance?
- A Monticelli canvas is mentioned. Who in the art world was Monticelli?
Did Hammett mean Botticelli? A lacuna in his knowledge?
- Mood: A dark and scary feeling is created in the story as the protagonist
is constantly ambushed by unknown and faceless assailants.
- As the reader is going along, one has to wonder if so many coincidences of crime
can really be coincidences. This contributes to the mood.
- The device of the dropped gold watch is a clever way to link the two crimes
so that we have a feeling that they are committed by the same
- Sherwood Forest is mentioned. It seems an apt reference as our hero does
seem to be as supernatural as Robin Hood, Natty Bumppo or D'artagnan.
He drives through the desert drunk out of his mind, defeats several
thugs at once, shakes off serious wounds as if they were nothing and
naturally has the girl who starts off afraid of him practically swooning.
- As in most Hammett stories, women are not to be trusted. They have sex as a
weapon to use on unwary males, so in some sense, they don't "play fair"
in Hammett's world.
- The doctor shows surprisingly little emotion over the burglary of his home.
Is this a weakness in characterization or a deliberate ploy, either
by doctor or author, to throw us off?
- The name MacPhail is famous in baseball circles. Any significance here?
- Does Hammett have a thing about names that end in "-by"? Here "Ormsby" is
rather villainous and I think there was a villainous "Thursby" in
The Maltese Falcon.
- Exposition: The Kamp character is important to the exposition; after that,
it is just as important that he be able to communicate no more as he
might give away too much. Friends of the detective thus tend to end
up like red shirts on Star Trek: dead. Note how economical
Hammett is. He has already put the Kamp character to good use, then
he uses him once more after he is dead by revealing a secret identity.
- Is Ormsby's big speech realistic? And does he really clear up all of our questions
or are there some problems still left unsolved?
- Parallels: This story seems to be an early form of Red Harvest, but here
a tad less virulent. Here there is a purpose behind the mayhem at least;
in the latter even that is dispensed with. Both were probably inspired
by Hammett's revulsion at the strikebreaking techniques he encountered
- By the end, Larry has lost all interest in the girl. It seems to be a collision
between the romantic notion of a Lady Fair and the reality of Hammett's
female characters being helpless weaklings or worse.
- The story beings and ends with the girl, but fundamentally has nothing to do
with her. In some sense she is the MacGuffin, in Alfred Hitchcock's parlance,
the story element that the characters care a lot about but which the reader cares
- Form: Threefall here is not really a detective at all, but a tough character
thrown into desperate circumstances so it ends up working out to be about
"The Man Who Killed Dan Odams"
- Margaret seems surprisingly unresentful that her lock has been broken.
- In the previous story there was a casual mention of a character who is
something of a ruffian who has been separated from, but is still friendly
with his wife. This story seems to want to show us what that
relationship could be like.
- Doucas seems a lot like a precursor to The Maltese Falcon's Gutman.
Mention of the Crusades is another link to that novel.
- Doucas' slow way of talking seems to only add to the tension of what
will happen in the showdown.
- Woody Allen mercilessly parodied this idea of a gun made from soap
in his film Take the Money and Run
- Wonder that Hammett means by a "plain deal table". How many modern
readers have seen what cigarette foil paper looks like?
Are Hammett's wonderful stories slowly becoming unintelligible
with the march of time?
"Zigzags of Treachery"
- The Mokelumne River is real, in California's Central Valley.
Wonder if Hammett ever visited there. I
never heard of a Knownburg though. Maybe it stands
for Lodi? (Maybe some know the Creedence Clearwater
- There are some elements of the British mystery here I thought.
Wealthy surroundings, a cast of upstairs/downstairs
characters, some of whom have snooty-sounding surnames
like Gallaway, Caywood and Rigg, plus some exotics.
The sheriff looking for footprints seems to be echoing
- There also seem to be echoes of The Glass Key as the detective must
suspect the person to whom he is closest.
- Funny that there are 2 shootings via the window yet no one suggests
that Exon, the apparent target, move rooms.
- Exon's silence certainly is convenient to the ratiocination.
- Strangely, I felt that I had read this one before, though I don't
think I've ever seen any of the editions in which it was
"The Assistant Murderer"
"His Brother's Keeper"
- Hammett really gets into the shadowing business in this one, even
sharing with us when to start shadowing and its 4 basic rules.
- Bob Teal (of course) and O'Gar and Dick Foley appear in other stories.
- Great atmospheric pictures of San Francisco life and we don't usually
think of Hammett as a very descriptive writer.
- We may not be able to understand it, but world of cops and
criminals seems to have rules all its own.
- Hammett sets the Op (and thus himself) on a tough task here. Neither
one of the primary witnesses will talk, nor are financial and
vital statistics records available, so the Op does it all the
hard way. Definitely one of the better entries in the series.
"Two Sharp Knives"
- A boxing match is also featured in Red Harvest.
- The expression "long coat but no hat" is another one that may be lost
on modern readers.
- Hammett showing that he doesn't have to write in the mystery genre to write well.
- Perhaps this story influenced Requiem for a Heavyweight?
"Death on Pine Street"
- One of the few stories told from the point of view of the cops.
- Even though well-realized, seems a bit rambling and disjointed,
at least in comparison to other Hammett tales.
"The Second-Story Angel"
- All of the streets are based on San Francisco reality. California
Street was where one of the major cable car lines ran.
Appreciating the story is probably limited to those who know
the city well, unless one first consults
online map of the neighborhood.
- Hammett is very specific about locations here. Makes one wonder if
he had even particular buildings in mind. Interesting to note that
he was living on Eddy Street at the time, just a few blocks south
of the action.
- Note that the term "dope" was already being used in this period,
both in the sense of illegal drugs and that of information.
Etymology: Dutch doop sauce, from dopen to dip; akin to Old English dyppan to dip
1 a : a thick liquid or pasty preparation b : a preparation
for giving a desired quality to a substance or surface
2 : absorbent or adsorbent material used in various
manufacturing processes (as the making of dynamite)
3 a (1) : an illicit, habit-forming, or narcotic drug (2)
: a preparation given to a racehorse to help or hinder its
performance b chiefly Southern : a cola drink c : a stupid
4 : information especially from a reliable source
- The term "Central" to mean the telephone company is another one that may be lost
on modern readers.
1 : a telephone exchange or operator
Another one is "Morris chair".
Etymology: William Morris
: an easy chair with adjustable back and removable cushions
- Wonder if there are any other Op stories where, as the Op says, someone
tries to frame him?
- By the end, the Op has once again demonstrated his independent soul.
- The Hall of Justice, now razed, really did exist at Portsmouth Square,
which is now the center of Chinatown.
"Afraid of a Gun"
- The writer lives on the second story. Did Hammett live on the second story
or is it just to provide the title and harken back to the expression
To what extent does Carter Brigham represent Hammett? Or does he
represent a detective
writer that he would like to make fun of for not being a real detective?
- The gripping beginning of the tale is unusual.
- Reference to Great Falls, Montana.
- The story seems to be a bit of a writer's fantasy.
"Tom, Dick or Harry"
- Starts out as if Hammett wanted to illustrate the famous quote attributed
to Julius Caesar: "Cowards die many times before their deaths."
- Hammett was fascinated by Australia, but never made it there. Once as a
detective he was almost forced there by a case, but luckily, or
unluckily, solved the case before the ship sailed.
"Who Killed Bob Teal?"
- This story probably had considerably more power to shock and surprise
in its own time than it does today.
- The set-up is similar to that of Miles Archer in The Maltese Falcon.
Both victims were shot close-up and the suspect they were shadowing is suspected.
Both also prove the detective rule, "The shadower cannot be killed close-up
by the shadowed, unless ..."
- The Old Man gets more worked up than usual, but still remains relatively
cold and unemotional. In this story we seem to see the three stages
in the life of the detective, young Bob Teal who is just starting out,
the veteran Op and his possible future, the Old Man.
- As far as I know, this is the only time that Hammett employed the "true story,
names have been changed" routine. Perhaps because it was originally published
in True Detective Stories Perhaps the magazine editor added the line?
- Ogburn's distress is a device for
adding even more urgency to what is already there. When the revelation
comes, it is accompanied with dramatic violence. It's as if Hammett
is feeling his way into writing and when in doubt, throws in everything
he can think of. Or maybe like the character in the story, in four days
the rent would be due and he wanted to make absolutely sure of publication.
- The Op is not altogether pleased with his police counterpart for a change.
Detective Dean serves as more of a Lestrade to the Op's Holmes here, voicing
the stupid conclusions that we the readers might reach, leaving the
brilliant leaps to the Op.
- The term "settle" may be unfamiliar here:
Etymology: Middle English, place for sitting, seat, chair, from Old
English setl; akin to Old High German sezzal seat, Latin sella
seat, chair, Old English sittan to sit
: a wooden bench with arms, a high solid back, and an enclosed
foundation which can be used as a chest
"A Man Called Spade"
- The I.W.W. or Industrial Workers of the World, called Wobblies, were an important
trade union in San Francisco. Led by Harry Bridges, at one time they virtually
shut down business in San Francisco with a strike.
"Too Many Have Lived"
- Not sure about Point Loma, but there are still Rosicrucians in San Jose.
- Here the more experienced Hammett gives us a more balanced portrait of
the police and a more nuanced (and perhaps more cynical?)
relationship between them and the detective.
- O'Gar appears, albeit "offstage", giving us a link between Spade and the Op.
- Julius' Castle restaurant (the story incorrectly gets it as "Julius's")
is still there on Telegraph Hill and even has a website with a photo:
- The multiple suspects device doesn't seem to work here as brilliantly as it
might otherwise. For one thing, the times and alibis are rather muddled up
and difficult to follow. This device would seem better suited to a "Thin Man"
type of case.
"They Can Only Hang You Once"
- The San Francisco Chronicle still exists.
- "to put in a ruble" is an expression that probably doesn't have much
"A Man Named Thin"
- Notice the different kind of story that is told when the shady Spade
rather than the Op is the detective.
- We learn Spade's age: 38.
- The veteran writer puts in many more nuances in this and the previous
Spade tale than in his earlier work. Notice the little touches
like the tough accidentally jabbing himself with the nail file,
the nail file itself, and the fascinating byplay with his secretary
"The First Thin Man"
- I suspect Hammett might have made a good actor had he tried. He
noticed everything about human behavior. The cabbie arrives
on the murder scene and "his manner suddenly became important.
He put importance in the nod he gave the three men."
I think it is this kind of observational power, especially
of what is otherwise regarded as "normal human behavior", that
is part of Hammett's greatness. Little mentioned as well.
- Cute playfulness with the reader as the severity of the murders is
- Employs tension between detective John Guild and the authorities to
advance what might otherwise be a slow and too-boring exposition.
- "Blue sport suit" is a term which may not be as clear as it once was.
- An unusually non-nosy apartment manager!
- Cute in joke to name a character "Erle Gardner", which is the name of
the creator of the Perry Mason stories. (Unless the name was put
in by the editor?) Presumably a friend of Hammett's, certainly that
is the conceit of editor William F. Nolan's
The Black Mask Murders novel.
- Hammett makes the police and attorney characters interesting, each having
distinctive worked-out needs and emotions.
- The title character, Wynant, is described as tubercular, thin, a
genius and 45 years of age. Sounds like Hammett himself!
(Although in 1930 Hammett was only 36.)
- The young, boyish district attorney is named Boyer.
- Many characters and much background information is presented here.
Even philosophy which would pass well in the New Age speak of
the 1990's. Hammett was presumably well-read in the area.
- Hammett who seems to have loved words here describes one character's
eyes with a somewhat obscure term:
Etymology: Late Latin lanceolatus, from Latin lanceola, diminutive of lancea
Date: circa 1760
: shaped like a lance head; specifically : tapering to a point at the apex and sometimes at the base
- This story seems to be a rare team approach. It must have occurred to
Hammett that the two detectives were so unequal in abilities that it would
make more sense to make them a man-woman couple instead. Even here it seems
a bit strange that the experienced detective Guild is even willing to give
Boyer the time of day. That problem goes away if the assistant detective
becomes a woman.
See also my
Dashiell Hammett Checklist
and this very interesting
of Dashiell Hammett pieces.
Copyright (C) 1999-2000 by Richard M Heli.