Yes, Dashiell Hammett was a crime writer, but what else was he? After more than 50 years, a new collection appears to show us that he experimented with different subjects and forms – including the character-driven "literary fiction" that is the stereotypical antithesis of plot-driven crime writing.
It turns out that these extremes aren't so far apart in Hammett's hands. To explain why not, let's look first at his substantial legacy. Dashiell Hammett wasn't just any crime writer. As the leading member of the first wave of hard-boiled crime writers, he sparked a revolution that changed the style and attitude of detective storytelling. The laconic, emotionally detached hard-boiled style became the leading standard for the genre in Hammett's time, and its popularity exploded in succeeding generations. Today, the hard-boiled compels writers and readers from Los Angeles to Bangkok, making Hammett one of the great avatars of genre fiction of any sort.
Hammett harbored literary ambition from early on. He honed his craft in short stories that he published during the 1920s, mostly in pulp magazines like Black Mask. These he saw as his apprenticeship. When he turned to novels at the end of the decade, he did so because he believed himself ready, as he put it in a letter, to "make literature" of a genre that had ridden to popularity in the ephemeral dime novels of previous generations.
Beginning in the late 1920s, Hammett's extraordinary fecundity peaked with a handful of great crime novels that appeared one after another. In "Red Harvest" (1929), Hammett's recurring detective character, the otherwise unnamed Continental Op, cleans up a corrupt western city by catalyzing a bloodbath in which the main actors mostly all do each other in. "The Dain Curse" followed the same year. Then came "The Maltese Falcon" (1930), immortalized onscreen by John Huston in 1941, featuring Humphrey Bogart's brilliant performance as detective Sam Spade. Huston directed from his own screenplay, faithfully adapted from the novel. Hammett followed "Falcon" with the less-noticed but terrific "The Glass Key" (1931), a story that searches for the meaning of friendship and loyalty.
Hammett's novels brought him fortune, fame, and respect, and hard-boiled writing ascended with him. But Hammett didn't long remain on that train. "The Thin Man" (1934), a detective story more aristocratically urbane than grittily urban, showcased different effects in his storytelling. Then Hammett stopped writing books.
That didn't mean he stopped writing. He produced some stories for more high-toned magazines, and he worked as a screenwriter in Hollywood. He also wrote stories that were never published. Nevertheless, it would be fair to say that after his gloriously productive decade beginning in the early 1920s, Hammett lost the thread. Eventually impoverished by careless spending and disabled by alcoholism, he declined into a long silence before his death in 1961.
When great writers pass away, it falls to their executors to curate their reputations. Lillian Hellman, a well-known writer in her own right and Hammett's on-and-off lover and companion during the last three decades of his life, was his first such posthumous guardian. Hellman wanted the world to remember Hammett as a great crime writer, so she mined his archive for crime stories that Hammett had never collected in his lifetime. In today's parlance, we would say that she enhanced Hammett's brand.
Today Hammett is finally benefiting from what marketers call "brand extension." His granddaughter, Julie M. Rivett, and Hammett biographer Richard Layman have now collaborated to bring the lesser-known aspects of Hammett into view. Their new Hammett collection, The Hunter and Other Stories, serves up a few crime stories as an hors d'oeuvre (and a false start to a new Sam Spade story as lagniappe), but the bulk of this interesting new volume is devoted to Hammett's experiments with other kinds of plots and effects. Here are city and drawing room fictions, impressionistic character sketches, and also screen stories that Hammett wrote during his Hollywood stint.
Hammett distinguished himself from his hard-boiled contemporaries through his handling of feeling. His early peers (pulp legends like Raoul Whitfield and Paul Cain) essentially exiled emotion from their work. Their characters show little evidence that they feel anything. Hammett, on the other hand, portrayed the act of emotional suppression, and thereby hinted at the existence of emotion beneath the hard-boiled exterior. Hammett's characters maintain their reserve, but the author allows the reader to see the effort that they expend to do so: Think of Sam Spade explaining to his lover, Brigid O'Shaughnessy, why he has to turn her in at the end of "The Maltese Falcon." The strain shows, and with it the humanity.
This sensitivity readily extends beyond crime stories. Even when Hammett was publishing the detective fiction that built his reputation, he was writing others about sexual politics, male rivalry, and the Walter Mitty-like fantasies of ordinary office workers. Hammett writes in one story of a man whose moment of courage during a fire inflates his view of himself ever after (and not for the better), and in another story of a man whose cowardice during a different fire reveals an oddly thoughtful egotism. He enters the conflicted mind of a young woman preparing to defy her mother and meet a young man for a weekend tryst. "Magic," a story of the supernatural, reads as a loose allegory of Hammett's mordant view of writing and fame soon before he fell silent: "To the extent one becomes a magician," Hammett writes, "one ceases to be a man."
Layman and Rivett have expertly introduced and edited these stories, divided them into categories, and dated them, sometimes through clues provided by setting or the home address Hammett typed atop unpublished manuscripts. This editorial apparatus is edifying, and never intrusive.
So are these stories as good as the crime classics we remember Hammett by? Sometimes – but that's an unfairly high standard. "The Hunter and Other Stories" is a very good book by a great writer. Perhaps more important, it opens a wide window upon the creativity of one of the most important American storytellers of the 20th century.
Leonard Cassuto is a professor of English at Fordham University and the author of "Hard-Boiled Sentimentality: The Secret History of American Crime Stories," now available from Columbia University Press.