The Legacy of Dashiell Hammett

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Day was still a little way off. The street was the color of smoke. My feet made a lot of noise on the pavement.

I stopped in front of the door and knocked the glass with a knuckle, not heavily. The green blind down inside the door made a mirror of the glass. In it I saw two men moving up the other side of the street.

No sound came from inside. I knocked harder, then slid my hand down to rattle the knob.

Did any 20th Century writer have more influence in fewer words than Dashiell Hammett?

In a used book store, I recently found his five novels collected in a single volume. Three of them I’d read before, but now that I’ve read them all I realize just how enormous an impact he had. All five together are only 727 pages, about the length of a single Game of Thrones book or the footnotes of Infinite Jest. They were written and serialized over a period of just five years, from 1929 to 1934. And while they’re all great books in their own right, they’re also the source of at least three distinct archetypes that have recurred in literature, movies and television ever since.

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The first comes from Red Harvest: the mercenary in a corrupt, mob-ruled city who manipulates rival factions of criminals, playing them off against each other in a bloody gang war. It’s been filmed directly at least three times — Yojimbo (1961), A Fistful of Dollars (1964, above), and Last Man Standing (1996) — but there are elements of the plot, and the same detached, stylized treatment of violence, in dozens more, including numerous Westerns and gangster movies, and much of the work of the Coen Brothers and Quentin Tarantino.

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The second, of course, is the private eye, who was more or less created by Hammett in his third novel, The Maltese Falcon, and has been reinterpreted in hundreds upon hundreds of books, movies and TV shows. There were a few private eyes before Sam Spade, but he was the clearly the version of the character that stuck, especially after Humphrey Bogart’s iconic portrayal of him in the 1941 film version (above).

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And the third is the wisecracking detective couple of The Thin Man, Nick and Nora Charles, whose influence can be seen in approximately every cop show ever, right up through Mulder and Scully. As with Bogart and Spade, this trope owes a lot to William Powell and Myrna Loy, the stars of the many Thin Man movies, who brought the couple onto more equal footing. Powell was a natural comedian who made Nick less of a tough guy, and Loy’s Nora was a more prominent character than the one in the book. As this article on the first movie puts it:

Almost every single modern crime-solving-duo owes something to this film — everything from Castle to Warehouse 13, from Hart To Hart and Remington Steele to Moonlighting is, in part, a riff on a theme established in The Thin Man.

The other two novels are less seminal, but you can still see their impact. The Dain Curse is a transitional work between Red Harvest and The Maltese Falcon, with the nameless narrator of Red Harvest returning in a more standard private investigator type story. The rich, corrupt Californians involved in a sham religious cult, and their beautiful-but-troubled young daughter caught between her creepy parents and various criminal elements — I don’t think these tropes are original with Hammett, but I can see Hammett’s particular take on them in Ross MacDonald’s The Moving Target (which became Harper with Paul Newman), Anthony Boucher’s Nine Times Nine and numerous other crime novels.

Then there’s The Glass Key, Hammett’s favorite and my least favorite, a sort of lower-key version of Red Harvest where the go-between is a mobster himself rather than an outsider, and the body count is turned way down in favor of brooding conversations about loyalty and family that reminded me at times of the Godfather movies. The most prominent film interpretations of this one were the Alan Ladd / Veronica Lake vehicle in 1942 and the Coens’ Miller’s Crossing in 1990.

So that’s it. Five short novels in five years that changed the way crime stories have been told ever since. It’s almost as impossible to imagine a crime writer who wasn’t influenced by these books and movies as it would be to imagine a fantasy writer who hasn’t read Tolkien.

I realize that comparing Hammett to Tolkien is apples-to-oranges in many ways — but in terms of the sheer scope of his influence across different media, who else is there to compare him to?

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