Diane Johnson: Dashiell Hammett: A Life; Random House; New York.

Spade sat down in the armchair beside the table and without any preliminary, without an introductory remark of any sort, began to tell the girl about a thing that had happened some years before in the Northwest. He talked in a steady matter-of-fact voice that was devoid of emphasis or pauses, though now and then he repeated a sentence slightly rearranged, as if it were important that each detail be related exactly as it happened. – Tbe Maltese Falcon

The story that Spade told the girl had absolutely nothing to do with recover­ing the “dingus,” the “Black Bird”; he explained, “A man named Flitcraft had left his real-estate-office, in Tacoma, to go to luncheon one day and had never returned.” Spade’s job was to find the man and to find out what had happened to him. In effect, his job as a detective is not unlike the task faced by a biographer. While Spade’s story was essentially unmotivated, just a means by which to kill sometime until Joel Cairo arrived, biographer Diane Johnson, whose previous book is a collection of essays entitled Terrorists and Novelists, has a reason to tell the story of Dashiell Hammett. One possible motive could be that Hammett is, modestly, fashionable today thanks to a film made by German director Wim Wenders, based on a novel by Joe Gores, and made available through Coppola’s Zoetrope organiza­tion. Gores, who has written a number of detective books, served a stint as an investigator in order to write his hard­-boiled Hammett, wherein the title character is forced by circumstances to aid the Pinkerton Agency, for which Hammett actually worked. The plot is so-so, the telling is often vulgar, and several punches are thrown (all the way to literally bashing in heads) throughout, so it has all the elements for a modern movie. Still, both the Wenders and Gores versions of Hammett must have had but a tangential effect on Johnson who, the evidence in The New York Review of Books seems to indicate, is a serious critic, not one to address herself to a minor genre like detective fiction­–unless it can be used to support a grander theme. Johnson is shrewd; she knows that she cannot simply bleat out her adulation for Hammett, that she must write “in a steady matter-of-fact voice…devoid of emphasis.” And her biography becomes a report that would make a Continental Op smile.

For most people, Dashiell Hammett is a figure filtered through Hollywood. The Maltese Falcon is always uttered in tones reserved for films like Citizen Kane; the 1941 version with Humphrey Bogart, Sidney Greenstreet, and Peter Lorre, directed by the then-neophyte John Huston, has achieved monument status (the 1931 and 1936 versions are not unlike missing persons). Then there is, of course, The Thin Man (1934) with William Powell and Myrna Loy, or that should be The Thin Men, given After the Thin Man (1937), Another Thin Man (1938), Shadow of the Thin Man (1942), The Thin Man TV show with Peter Lawford and Phyllis Kirk. People know that Bogart and Spade are basi­cally synonymous; even those who always lose at trivia games know that Nick and Nora Charles have a dog named Asta. But what was filmed or broadcast isn’t exactly what Hammett wrote; the filtered image is a false one.

Given the date of his birth, May 27, 1894, Johnson feels no prickling of doubt as she says “Hammett” in the same breath with Fitzgerald, Hemingway, and Faulkner. Perhaps this is so because people like Andre Gide were worked up about the writer who, in Gide’s words, was able to render “the last word in atrocity, cynicism, and horror,” all things, then, that Gide and his ilk saw as being characteristically American. Gender and occupation aside, the only thing that Dashiell Hammett had in common with Fitzgerald, Hemingway, and Faulkner was a drinking problem. Wim Wneders was influnced by film noir which, particularly when the products were American, had its heyday in Europe in the 1940’s; Gide’s comment was written in 1944. Thus, Wender’s Hammett and Gide’s excess can be at least understood with regard to the context. Johnson, however, is another story. Dashiell Hammett wrote five novels; those books and a number of short stories, many of which are about the Continental Op, essentially consti­tute his complete works. The novels, unlike those of Raymond Chandler, have not aged well; they are clearly period pieces. While they once excited people ranging from the readers of The Black Mask to Blanche Knopf, today they are effectively museum pieces or curios for those interested in the history of Amer­ican popular culture. Granted, Hammett was an innovator in the genre, but the new rapidly and inexorably becomes old, so even an innovator must provide something of enduring value in his work, and that something is missing in the novels of Hammett. Chandler gave his Marlowe legs through stylistic means; it wasn’t a great accomplishment in the history of literature, but the style is solid and provides life. Once taken out of their period, Hammett’s novels figuratively stumble, as there is virtually nothing to support them, and seem literally mori­bund. (Even Hollywood seems to have discerned the difference between the works of Chandler and Hammett: it continues to cast actors like Elliot Gould and Robert Mitchum in the Marlowe role with all of the predictable, horrible consequences yet all but ignores–and not out of mercy–Hammett’s heroes.)

The novels of Hammett probably wouldn’t have caused too great a stir even when they appeared had the Great Depression not made people anxious to find diversions and had Hammett’s stint as a detective not been touted. About the latter, Hammett himself was to note in 1956: “I found I could sell…stories easily when it became known I had been a Pinkerton man. People thought my stuff was authentic.” Hammett’s novels were published in the period from 1929 to 1934. 1929 saw the publication of both The Sound and the Fury and Farewell to Arms; Tender Is the Night appeared in 1934. The paltriness of Hammett’s works becomes enormous by comparison.

His first novel is Red Harvest. The working title was Poisonville, which Blanche Knopf nixed, calling it “a hope­less title.”Although there is a member of the I.W.W. in the novel, the red in the title actually refers to blood; as the operative who narrates the story puts it at one point, “There’s been what? A dozen and a half murders since I’ve been here….That’s sixteen of them in less than a week,and more coming up.” Less blood gushes in a Brian de Paima movie. After making that tabulation, the protagonist guzzles a few gin-and-laudanum cocktails. Hammett takes that opportu­nity to try his hand at a bit of post-Ulysses dream rendering, an attempt that would be laughable if it wasn’t so wooden. (Some years later, when PM newspaper was being planned, Hammett proposed to write a review of Finnegans Wake; Johnson says, “He was among the few who thought it better than Ulysses.” Given his efforts, I wonder how he could tell, Johnson’s claim, “Hammett liked writing that was hard work, he liked it to taste of Art,” not withstanding.)

The Dain Curse followed. It is cer­tainly more complex than Red Harvest, but that is a function of the fact that it is separated into three parts: chop, chop. The blood lust is quelled when the predecessor is considered, but even Dracula takes a break. Whereas Red Harvest is set in a Montana mining town that might just as well have been one anywhere, given the fact that it has little significance ( i.e., any place with a jail, warehouses, a couple of speakeasys, and a rundown neighborhood would do), in The Dain Curse Hammett moved to San Francisco, which became his fictional base. When Faulkner’s South, Heming­way’s Europe, Fitzgerald’s East, and even Chandler’s L.A. are considered, Ham­mett’s set is merely plywood and fog produced with dry ice. The Dain Curse appeared in 1929, the same year that The Roman Hat Mystery by Messrs. Dannay and Lee–better known as Ellery Queen–did. Ellery Queen employed what is referred to as the “fair play” rules for mystery writers, which means that it’s possible for the reader to figure out the solution. Hammett, author of the nonfic­tion “From the Memoirs of a Private Detective” (Smart Set, March 1923), probably figured that only bona fide cops could unravel cases, so in his books it is virtually impossible to tell the villain from the confidant (especially since they turn out to be one in the same in The Dain Curse), which is probably less realistic than pinning it on the butler.

Chronologically, The Maltese Fal­con (1930) follows, but The Glass Key (1931) more closely resembles the first two novels and so provides a curious map of progression of the writer. Red Harvest has a town that’s marbled with corruption; The Glass Key concentrates on politicians and their minions, all of whom are as pure as a cesspool. Red Harvest includes a good guy, albeit one who announces,”It’s this damned town. Poisonville is right. It’s poisoned me”; The Glass Key has only tainted charac­ters, perhaps to be in line with the “social realism” rampant in the 1930’s. The plot is as complicated (read: “mixed-up”) as that of The Dain Curse. While all fiction is “made up” as the author goes along, some authors–especially post-Poe mystery writers–provide hints that indicate that the denouement isn’t as much a surprise to them as it is to the reader. That’s not so in the novels of Hammett; his unraveling is not of the school of Theseus; it resembles floundering. The Glass Key has the distinction of including one of the most ridiculous scenes in all hard-boiled fiction; indeed, it seems nothing more than half-baked. Putative hero Ned Beaumont is beaten to the point of unconsciousness. When he comes to he discovers that his “face was swollen and bruised and blood­ smeared. Dried blood glued his shirt­ sleeve to the wrist the dog had bitten and that hand was caked with drying blood….His right arm hung useless.” Ten short paragraphs after consciousness “Ned Beaumont was driven back against the wall. The back of his head struck the wall first, then his body crashed against the wall, and he slid down the wall to the floor.” He’s brought to by a dousing in a cold shower, beaten till he’s out, awak­ens, is beaten, and so on. Hammett, the stickler for verisimilitude (he provided the readers of the June 7 and July 3, 1930, Saturday Review of Literature with a 24-item list including details on things ranging from “The Colt’s .45 automatic pistol has no chambers” to “‘Youse’ is the plural of’ you'”), provides a character in Beaumont who presages the 1938 emergence of Superman. The man takes a licking and keeps on ticking, ultimately cracking the case.

As previously mentioned, Holly­wood made a number of features related to Hammett’s works during the 1930’s,and 40’s, The Maltese Falcon being, of course, the most well-known. While the Sam Spade played by Bogart is a tough but essentially likable character, the Sam Spade in the pages of the novel is a hard, vicious, self-centered thug. Consider the first paragraph of the novel:

Samuel Spade’s jaw was long and bony, his chin a jutting v under the more flexible v of his mouth. His nostrils curved back to make another, smaller v. His yellow-grey eyes were horizontal. The v motif was picked up again by thickish brows rising outward from twin creases above a hooked nose, and his pale brown hair grew down–from high flat temples–in a point on his forehead. He looked rather pleasantly like a blond satan.

He acts rather unpleasantly like the standard satan. At his most sympathetic he says to a woman who he thinks he loves, but who he must turn in to the police because they’ll need someone to take a fall, “I hope to Christ they don’t hang you, precious, by that sweet neck.” He adds, “If they hang you I’ll always remember you.” (Part of the tough-guy patter, of course, is simply characteristic of the genre, but Spade’s formulation is one that would be limned with hate even if it was uttered in the Queen’s English.) In the final sentence of the book the widow of his partner, who was killed at the start of the novel, is ushered into his office; the two were in the midst of an affair. Bogart’s Spade is almost as appealing as his Rick in Casablanca (which he made the following year). Hammett’s Spade deserves the pummeling that Ned Beaumont received. While it is popularly thought that The Thin Man is William Powell, Nick Charles, that’s not true to the novel, either. In the book the man is initially described as being “Tall–over six feet–and one of the thinnest men I’ve ever seen…. [H]is hair was almost white when I knew him. Usually needs a haircut, ragged brindle mus­tache, bites his fingernails.” That descrip­tion is a ringer for the author. The decomposed body of the slim character is discovered under a slab of concrete at the end of the book. Another biographi­cal touch, beyond the petty gallows humor, is the way that Nick Charles is always asking for or having a drink. Malcolm Lowry’s Geoffrey Firmin is less concerned with the bottle than Charles is, and so what Hammett may have fuzzily perceived as being droll is actuaily quite inane.

Dashiell Hammett died in 1961. The Thin Man was published in 1934. It was his last novel. For people like Diane Johnson, Hammett’s most important writing began in 1935, when he began affixing his name to leftist and com­munist manifestos. He became an early leader in the League of American Writ­ers, which was an offspring of the John Reed clubs. He chaired a committee of the Screen Writers Guild that, in 1938, raised funds for the communists in Spain and China. About this point in time Johnson writes, “Hammett’s Marxism was sincere, if not his allegiance to the Communist Party,” then, two sentences later, hastens to add, “for a time at least, he did what the Party told him.” Ham­mett, of course, had shacked up with Lillian Hellman (who is always “Lillian” in Johnson’s text); he left his wife and kids in 1929 and didn’t bother to secure a divorce until 1938. “Free Love” was never one of his stated causes, but he lived as though it was one. In 1942 Hammett joined the U.S.Army. Perhaps he hoped it would cause Roosevelt to open a second front. He was separated from the service in 1945 because his drinking made him basically useless. However, Johnson notes, “Drunk or sober, he did his political tasks.”

In 1948, 11 communist leaders were indicted under the Smith Act of 1940, which mandates registering and finger­ printing of aliens and makes possible the deportation of aliens convicted of un­American or subversive activities. The men were tried, convicted, sentenced to five years, and lined $10,000. They were released on bail. In June 1951 the Supreme Court heard an appeal and upheld the convictions. Four of the men jumped bail. The bail had been put up by the Civil Rights Congress, of which Hammett was one of the five trustees. Johnson says that the organization was “dedicated to the civil rights…mostly of Communist Party members.” Hammett was subpoenaed in order to find out whether he had assisted any of the bail­ jumpers, a sensible query, given the fact that the Civil Rights Congress had put up $20,000 for each of the men. Hammett took the Fifth and ended up being found in contempt of court. He was sentenced to six months in the federal prison in Ashland, Kentucky. If there had been even the slightest doubt before the trial, there was none afterwards: Hammett was officially canonized a saint of the American left.

Hellman has been keeping the flame stoked for some years now; Diane John­son seems to be positioning herself to takeover. Both women and those who venerate the man should reflect on a passage in The Dain Curse, as it says something about why they cling like barnacles to the corroded hull of a sinking ideology:

Thinking’s a dizzy business, a matter of catching as many of those foggy glimpses as you can and fitting them together the best you can. That’s why people hang on tight to their beliefs and opinions; because, compared to the haphazard way in which they’re arrived at, even the goofiest opinion seems wonderfully clear, sane, and self-evident.

Reason and belief act as moorings for many, but clearly not for those who sanctify a third-rate hack.