Nazi attack on Soviet Russia. In otherrnwords, Hammett, who gave lis the SamrnSpade who wouldn’t “pla’ the sap” forrnBrigid O’Shaugnessx, himself pUned thernsap for Comrade Stalin and even, for arntime, for fierr fiitler, best-selling authorrnoiMein Kampf. Perhaps Hammctt’s servicernin his late 40’s during Wodd War IIrnwas, deep down, both an admission ofrnguilt and a gesture of solidarih- with therncountry that he had betrayed. But itselfrnin bed with the Soviet Union, that countr’rnwasn’t pickv about details until later,rnand again I lamnictt paid the price w idioutrncomplaint. Hammett is not the ouKcommunistrnwho is enshrined in the Librar’rnof America—W.E.B. Du Bois andrnRichard Wright are two others. Thernwhole subject of political radicalism isrndifficult and retpiires a balanced view,rnwhatever that is. One thing we ha’e tornremember is that it was their experiencernin this country not ideology alone, thatrnmade Hammett, Wright, and Du Bois gorndown some strange paths. In the meanwhile,rnwe ma’ reflect that “subersion” isrnan aspect of litcrar distinction in Poe,rnMeUille, and Hawthorne, not just thernlock.step left. That’s the librar)- of America.rnAs for politics, there is a particularrnsentence of Layman’s that is rather devastatingrnin its ambiguitv: “Manv of thernviews Hammett held on domestic issuesrnwoidd seem middle-of-the-road today.”rnDid Layman actualh’ mean to imph’ (orrnadmit, as it strikes this layman) that therncommunist agenda has been accomplished?rnOops — another cat out of thernbag, but never mind.rnSo wc can go around and aroundrnabout polihcs, and we come out brnthe same swinging doors through whichrnwe entered. And we can also look at a lifernand tr’ to judge it: an aehon which is notrnonlv problematical but leads to judgingrnbooks bv the life of their author, a mug’srngame. And so we come back to tire booksrnafter all, and we can see wh- the havernsurvived their dme and context for threerngeneradons. The most explicitly political.rnRed Han’efit, is a vision of “Poisonxille,”rna corrupt Western mining townrnbased on Butte and Anaconda. The politicalrnbosses are indistinguisliablc fromrnthe gangsters they fight, and the operativernfrom the Conhnental detectie agenc}-,rnbased on Ilammett’s own days with thernPinkertons, makes sure that the gangsrnslaughter each other. ‘I’he noers Marxistrnangle is that no authorit)^ is legitimaternand all propert}’ is Hieft, but the feel of thernbook is related le,ss to ideolog’ than to thernhard-bitten tone of modernism, and to arnsurreal black humor as well. Hammctt’srnsensibility in Red Hanest is aligned tornthat of Hemingwa, of the Faulkner ofrnSanctuary, and of Nathanael West. Hernwas indebted to none of them, though hernknew all three. The knowledge of crimernand of violence that Hammett had comernby through grim experience, and Hie bitternessrnhe felt as a rcsidt of strikebreakingrnb’ the Pinkertons, came together in thisrnvision, the exaggeration of which onlyrnmasks die uncomfortable truths diat dierncountn’ has sw ept under the rug.rnA lesser work, The Dam Cune is, but an interesting one. Its Gothicrnelements seem retrograde until we realizernthat Hammett is going after “the opiumrnof die people” in die fonn of a phonvrnreligions cult. But ha’ing written twornnovels narrated bv the Condnental Op,rnHammett never did so again, turning to arnseverelv limited third person and direernnew protagonists.rnThough famous as a melodrama. ThernMaltese Falcon has not vet completelv reccivcdrnits due as a eomposition, as a poemrnmade out of words. Sam Spade callsrnthe falcon a “dingus,” and in a famous examplernof misdirection, he calls the punk,rnVVilmer, a “gunsel.” In bodi cases, hernwas more right than his readers knew.rnSuch cunning wordplay ma’ suggest thatrnthere is more to be found in that remarkablernnovel, the greatest single example ofrnits kind. The clash of dictions, as betweenrnGudiian and Spade, generates arnShakespearean tension and even eloquence,rnwhich is then exploded bvrnSpade’s nihilism and laid-back violence.rnHammett told James Tlinrbcr that thernbook was pure Henr- James, with namesrnfrom The Turn of the Screw and The Portraitrnof a Lady and some plot from ThernWmgs of the Dove. George Grella hasrnanalyzed that proposition, which is anotherrnreason whv Hammett should bernclassified with James, as, in diis publication,rnhe is. A complete analvsis of diernlanguage of that novel, and of die uncannvrnambiguitv about die dismissal of thernCrusaders in the context of Spade’s satanism,rnhas vet to be seen. In a story thatrncites die Hospitallers and the Templars,rn”San P’rancisco” nominates a saint asrnwell as a setting, and “Saint Louis” mav’rnhave as much to do vv ith Joinville as itrndoes vvidi die Mississippi.rnHammett said diat The Glass Key wasrnhis favorite of his own books, but there isrna serious problem with it. Hammettrnpushed the limited diird person so hardrnin that novel that he wound up constructingrna bafflement, wherebv we neverrnknow about Ned Beaumont’s motives,rneven diough his unstated code seems tornbe the burden of die book. Disregardingrndie urban violence and polideal corrupdoiirn(diis dme set in the East, probablvrnBaltimore), we can see here that Hammettrnwas beginning to run up against insolublern(if self-defined) difficuldes. Thernstylized descriptions of clenched teethrnand hard eves and other such melodraniadcrngestures do not wear well. But thernpicture of a corrupt and treacherousrnworld which must be seen through forrnwhat it is remains one of the most strikingrnrepresentations of urban America everrndrawn. If it is “melodramatic” or “exaggerated,”rnthen a cross-check with the dai-rnIv newspaper may be in order.rnNed Beaumont was in part a self-portraitrnof Hammett himself. Nick Charlesrnof’i’/ie ‘ihhi Man was based on Hammettrnas well, but by now the mode had shiftedrntoward die comic, and Hollywood hadrnno trouble in exploiting that. So Hammctt’srnlast vv ork has alvvavs seemed to be arnletdown, but it is not without its seriousrnside. We diink we “know” it, rememberingrnall those late shows, but many do notrnremember who “the thin man” actuallvrnwas. And onlv’ those widi a clear picturernof the text in mind can recall a remarkablerndigression about cannibalism. Thatrnset piece concerning a taboo may suggestrnsomething about die viciousness of humanrnnature as we have known it in Haniniett’srnworld, and therefore a reason whyrnHammctt’s Marxism and not his fictionrnbecame his commitment. Books couldrnnot redeem humanitv’ —only Uncle JoernStalin could do diat.rnToday, we have to look at the volumernthat wraps these five novels with an acknowledgmentrnthat Hammett deservesrnhis place in die national pantheon, butrnbevond the words on the page lie memoriesrnas troubled as his vision of America.rnMouldering in his grave at Arlingtonrn(where he was buried at his own request),rnDashiell Hammett is still a discomfitingrnpresence —a self-destructive personalitvrnwhose life is painful to consider, a reproachfulrnghost at the eapitalist/consumeristrnfeast who reminds us of what isrnso convenient to forget, and a troublingrnexample as well of the ambiguiU- of polities,rnthe whidigig of wisdom and folly.rn2(i/CHRONICLESrnrnrn