On my list of authors who do not disappoint, Dashiell Hammett is number one. I grab every book of his that I find. If I have them already, I give them to friends.
Hammett only wrote one bad book, “The Dain Curse,” and even that’s worth reading. The brilliant, lifelike characters and situations outweigh the utterly improbably plot in which a child is tricked into committing a murder.
Everyone knows “The Maltese Falcon” because of the movie, which, by the way, stuck to the book verbatim. But even if you know the movie by heart, the book is a great read.
Sam Spade is the original hard-boiled dick who’s sitting in his office taking a nip from the bottle in his desk drawer when a beautiful woman walks in and explains she’s in terrible trouble.
The scene has been repeated so many times it has become a cariacature like Garrison Keillor’s “Guy Noir.” There’s also a great graphic rendering in “Calvin and Hobbes.” But when Hammett did it, it was new, and he could only do it because he had worked as a private detective and knew firsthand what it was like.
I love the part where the young “gunsel” is covering Sam Spade with two guns in his coat pockets and Sam Spade grabs the collar of his coat and yanks it down and then grabs him and takes his guns away. It takes about two seconds and the movie renders it perfectly.
Hammett’s great gift, besides his firsthand knowlege of detective work, is in careful plotting, exact expression and brilliant characterization. You have to love “the Fat Man,” Gutman, and the pansy, Joel Cairo, Sydney Greenstreet and Peter Lorre, who play essentially the same roles in “Casablanca,” possibly the greatest movie ever made.
If you had to rely on the character of “Sam Spade, brave hero” to keep the reader’s interest, you would have a boring book because Spade’s character is concealed by his hard-boiled persona. It is revealed only in his actions, just like — who else? Monsieur Rick in “Casablanca.”
This is the reason Hammett and Bogart were a match made in heaven. Hammett could never have dreamed of a better actor to play Sam Spade, and Bogart could never, ever have dreamed of a role better suited to his talents. Ever see him as the bad guy in “The Oklahoma Kid”? Not the same thing. You could say the same for Greenstreet and Lorre.
As I say, the other characters have to keep the reader’s, and the moviegoer’s interest, and here Hammett really really shines. Consider the scene where Sam Spade meets Gutman in his mahogany-paneled suite in the Alexandria Hotel.
Gutman is described as “flabbily fat with bulbous pink cheeks,” which doesn’t fit with Greenstreet very well — he’s not that fat — but never mind. After seating Spade in a plush chair, he pours him a drink of Johnny Walker.
“We begin well, sir,” Gutman says. “I distrust a man who says when. If he’s got to be careful not to drink too much it’s because he’s not to be trusted when he does.”
Spade “makes the beginning of a bow” and Gutman goes on, “Well, sir, here’s to plain speaking and clear understanding.” Then he asks, “You’re a closed-mouth man?”
Spade shakes his head. “I like to talk.”
“Better and better!” the fat man exclaims. “I distrust a closed-mouthed man. He generally picks the wrong time to talk and says the wrong things. Talking’s something you can’t do judiciously unless you keep in practice. We’ll get along, sir, that we will.”
Then they get settled with cigars, a process Hammet describes very exactly, and the fat man says, “Now, sir, we’ll talk if you like. And I’ll tell you right out that I’m a man who likes talking to a man who likes to talk.”
“Swell,” says Spade. “Will we talk about the black bird?”
“The fat man laughed,” Hammett writes, “and his bulbs rode up and down.” Again, Greenstreet wasn’t that fat, but he was certainly fat enough.
“Will we? We will. You’re the man for me, sir, a man cut along my own lines. No beating about the bush, but right to the point. ‘Will we talk about the black bird?’ I like that, sir. I like that way of doing business.”
I really like the way Hammett weaves the history of the crusades and the Knights of Malta into a murder mystery in San Francisco, and it’s up to Greenstreet to relate this amazing tale, which he does brillinatly. His performance, like Peter Lorre’s, were really what made it such a fantastic movie. You throw in Spade’s heroics at key moments, and Mary Astor’s knockers, and a director like John Huston, and you get a movie that’s second only to — “Casablanca.”
Hammett’s books are great because he actually worked as a private detective. His seedy pornographers and coked-out heiresses were based on his own experience. Because he described and employed these secondary characters so well, he was heir to the greatest author of all time, Alexander Dumas, about whom more later.
“Red Harvest” has an enormous amount of killing between these rival gangs of bootleggers in a southwestern town, but it’s very well done. It was the inspiration for the Bruce Willis movie, “Last Man Standing.”
“The Thin Man” is another brilliant classic, both the movie and the book, too well known even to comment on. See the man is thin because he’s only on … No, I won’t give it away. You’ll have to read it for yourself.
The best Dashiell Hammet book, for my money, is “The Glass Key,” about this guy who works for a politician in Chicago. It’s a corker.
Hammett went to jail, by the way, for refusing to cooperate with Senator Joe McCarthy’s House Unamerican Activities Committee, even though he didn’t have any information that had anything to do with their investigations. They pissed him off and he said, “Fuck you,” so in my book he’s an American hero.