September 26th, 2004

Books

Dashiell Hammett: Five Complete Novels

This contains his five novels. Most of his writing was short stories. Spent something like a month reading this. Even though the individual novels are somewhat short, getting through 700+ pages ain't easy for me.

Red Harvest
The first novel is a story-arc. I think that's the term for it. There's several storiesstrung together; one leads into the next. The protagonist is the same throughout. He's the Continental Op or Continental Detective Agency operative. He's hired to help find a killer in the town of Personville, Montana and subsequently to clean up the corrupted company town.
The Dain Curse
The second details the story of a girl Gabrielle Leggett, who believes she carries the curse of her mother. Everyone around her dies. The Continental Op is hired by various people to track down what's going on. Throw in a small cult and a small town outside San Francisco with its own feuds, and he has to unravel quite a bit.
The Maltese Falcon
You've likely seen the movie starring Humphrey Bogart, Peter Lorre, and Sydney Greenstreet. I own it, though I haven't watched it in over a year. I recall the movie being more about the falcon. The book is more about Sam Spade falling in love with a girl he doesn't trust.
The Glass Key
Strictly speaking, this isn't a detective story. It's the story of Ned Beaumont who is a political operative for Paul Madvig, the head of the party machine in San Francisco. Madvig supports Senator Henry for re-election, and has designs on the Senator's daughter. But late one night the Senator's son is killed. Beaumont goes after a bookie who was owed by the younger Henry, and who coincidentally owes Beaumont some money. This mistake and rumors begins to implicate Madvig in the murder. Beaumont must unravel the clues to save his political boss as well as get the girl.
The Thin Man
A retired detective, Nick Charles, is drawn into the investigation of a murder that occurs at the residence of a former client Clyde Wynant. Steadfastly refusing to be hired by anyone, and mostly wishing to not be involved at all, he nevertheless solves the riddles with a casual wit and reparteé. Seems very much like a lot of movies these days. Notable in the story is the use of the word erection. Kind of risqué for a book written in 1934.

Yeah, the above descriptions don't really give you much of a sense of the stories. It's mostly to jog my memory when re-reading this.

The characters in the stories are hard-boiled. The men are at least. The women, with the exception of Charles' wife Nora in The Thin Man, get upset at the least mention of anything untoward, even when they are scheming leeches. Also notable is Hammett's view of the police and criminals. The police think nothing of a severe beating, and neither does the victim usually. It's all business. Very few take anything personally, and it's a very bleak view indeed. Also unlike a lot of other old-time novels, Hammett works very hard on his characters. A lot about them are cookie cutter, but he makes an effort to have something change the protagonist in each case (except Red Harvest). It's not just a case of solve the case and move on. Hammett writes about love and friendship. A narrow view of it, but for the most part these stories are about these topics. Not the solving of crimes.