The P.I. Poll

Dashiell Hammett
What Do You Think?

Fall 1999 - If you don't know who Dashiell Hammett was, you're probably in the wrong place. He's arguably "the most important hardboiled writer in the history of the genre," and "ranks with Edgar Allan Poe and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle in terms of his influence on the mystery story," according to William DeAndrea in his Encyclopedia Mysteriosa.

Certainly, anyone who gives a damn about hardboiled or detective fiction or has read any of his work, knows how pivotal he was to the genre. Hammett was the real-life private eye turned pulp writer and novelist who went on to give the world some of its greatest, and best-loved fictional private eyes. The Continental Op, Sam Spade and Nick and Nora Charles were all created by the soft-spoken thin man from Baltimore.And now, at long last, many of the stories on which his reputation rests, are being reprinted, some for the first time since their original publication, in this season's Nightmare Town (Alfred K. Knopf). Sure, some of these stories have appeared in other collections, but this book marks their first publication in almost four decades. Any fan of the private eye or hardboiled novel could do far worse than to invest in a copy of this book. Buy it now, wait until it's in paperback, borrow it from a library or a friend, bring a lunch to a bookstore and read it cover to cover, or just steal the damn thing, but read this book. If only for historical significance, it's worth it. The fact it rocks is just one more item on that side of the scales.

And here are a few of the Hammett-related pages on this site:

So, pull up a chair, get comfy, and let's talk Hammett. Here's what folks had to say in the Fall of 1999...

From Rick Robinson in Tustin, California
Favourite Character:
The Continental Op, naturally. Oh sure there's Spade and the Thin Man, but let's face it kids, the Op is THE MAN.

Favourite Novel: The Dain Curse and The Glass Key are both great, so call it a tie. But Red Harvest is a retelling of the stranger who cleans up the town, it's Shane with a .45, Palladin without the horse. Damned good read too. Maybe I like them all, and just rank The Thin Man the lowest on the list, though it's also the one I've read longest ago. I'm looking forward to getting my hands on the new Library of America volume with all the novels in it and giving them all a read.

Favourite Short Story: What, you expect us to pick just one? What are you, nuts? Okay, okay. How about "Scorched Face"? It's atmospheric, pretty good characters, has a great ending. But wait, there's "Dead Yellow Women". Great scenes in the warrens of Chinatown, danger lurking in every doorway, the yellow peril mastermind plotting... But then how could there really be any better story than "The Big Knockover" and "$106,000 Blood Money" which continues it? I better quit before I think of all the other great stories.

Snappiest Line of Patter: "They can only hang you once." He smiled pleasantly. "And they will." - ending lines of "They Can Only Hang You Once"
"Looking back, it seems to me I had come a lot nearer being eloquent than ever before in my life. But Pat didn't applaud. He cursed me. He cursed me thoroughly, bitterly and with an amount of feeling that told me I had won another point in my little game. He called me more things than I ever listened to before from a man who was built of meat and bone, and who therefore could be smacked." - from "Scorched Face"

Best Adaptation: I'll be glad to hear it if anyone thinks a good adaptation has been done, but I doubt it has. Sure The Thin Man movies were fun, and Powell and Loy are nice to look at as they joke through the films, but it ain't Hammett, not really.

Worst Adaptation: see above.

Website: I look forward to answers. I read Rara Avis.

Lillian: Hey, no fair. Hellman did a lot for Hammett, probably kept him sane and saved him from death by liquor. He focused on her writing and that was okay at the time. I know a lot of people theorize that if it weren't for Hellman he might have kept writing, but I think it's more likely he would have committed suicide. Hey, just my opinion. I encourage everyone to read the Introduction by Lillian Hellman to the Vintage Crime trade paper edition of The Big Knockover before they drag her through the coals.

Is Hammett Over-Rated? Nope, and he's forever in the shadow of Chandler to boot. My guess is that most people who put Hammett down haven't read much of him, and not recently!

Comments: Here we have The Man. The writing is so good it can make you kinda ache. The stories are long enough for real plot development and so well crafted they make you wish he had written ten times as many as he did.

We sometime wonder how a writer from the past would fare in the current mystery market. I think it's pretty interesting that Nightmare Town hit the NY and LA bestseller lists within a couple weeks of publication.

The esteemed editor of this website says in his introduction to buy a copy, go to the library, etc. I saw buy THREE copies. Read one, a couple of times. Give one as a gift to a mystery reader, and give the third one to the next person you hear put mystery fiction down, or who only reads mysteries with cats in them, or who sighs and says there just isn't anything good to read. Give them the book and tell them to read it. Be convincing.

From Victoria Esposito-Shea in Canton, NY

Favourite Character: The Continental Op, hands down

Supporting Character: Dinah Brand, the mercenary yet oddly charming hustler who's unfortunately offed with an ice pick in Red Harvest.

Favourite Villian: Just about any of the villains from The Maltese Falcon: Joel Cairo, Caspar Gutman, Brigid O'Shaughnessy, and of course Wilfred.

Favourite Novel: Red Harvest, no question.

Favourite Short Story: Why choose?

Most Under-rated Creation: These days? Just about anything. (Back when the top 100 novels of the century list came out, I actually read complaints that the inclusion of The Maltese Falcon proved that there were--gasp!--too many pulp and genre novels allowed on the list.)

Snappiest Line of Patter: "When you're slapped, you'll take it and like it!" Sam Spade, in The Maltese Falcon.

Best Adaptation: The Maltese Falcon ('41 version, of course).

Worst Adaptation: The Maltese Falcon, '31 (I think) version. The ending scene is particularly putrid.

Lillian: Actually, I like Hellman's plays. A lot. (For the record, I have been known to listen to Yoko Ono on occasion. On purpose.) And most of what I know about Hellman as a person comes from Hammett biographers, so I don't think I know enough about her to be objective. But I'm perfectly willing to listen to everyone else piss and moan about Hellman.

Is Hammett Over-Rated? No, no, and no!

Other Questions?: Hammett vs. Chandler: who comes out on top and why?

From Don McGregor in New York

I just saw you have a new cover up on the site. It's a great tribute to Dashiell Hammett, but why is Shell Scott in the picture?

From Jim Doherty in Chicago

Favourite Character: The Continental Op

Favourite Supporting Character: Bob Teal, who is the Op's partner in some of the early stories and who becomes possibly the first ever recurring, sympathetic character in a mystery series to be killed off (see "Who Killed Bob Teal?"). This is the first time we see a Hammett detective acting out the code, "When a man's partner is killed he's supposed to do something about it. Significantly, the clue by which the Op solves Teal's murder is essentially the same as the clue by which Spade solves Archer's murder.

Favourite Villian Caspar Gutman in *The Maltese Falcon*, with Chang Li Ching from "Dead Yellow Women" being a close second.

Favourite Novel: The Maltese Falcon, nothing except the best single PI novel ever written.

Favourite Short Story: "The Gutting of Couffignal," nothing except the best PI short story ever written.

Most Under-rated Creation: The syndicated comic strip Secret Agent X-9.

Snappiest Line of Patter: "I first heard Personville called Poisonville by a red-haired mucker named Hickey Dewey in the Big Ship in Butte. He also called his shirt a shoit. Later I heard it given the same pronunciation by men who could manage their r's." The opening of Red Harvest is tough, literate, dispassionate, tinged with both humor and sinister foreboding. One of the best opening lines in all of mystery fiction.

Best Adaptation: The 1941 film version of The Maltese Falcon.

Worst Adaptation: The once-a-week Sam Spade strips that Wildroot Cream
Oil ran as ads in Sunday comics sections across the US.

Favorite Hammett Web Site: That's easy. The Hammett-related entries in Kevin Smith's "Thrilling Detective" site.

Lillian: Hammett stopped writing soon after getting involved with Hellman; maybe Hellman wasn't responsible for that, but it's hard not to draw a correlation. Hellman got Hammett involved with all that left-wing foolishness in the '40s and '50s. Arguably, after his Pinkerton experiences, Hammett was already leaning in that direction, but Hellman undoubtedly gave him the push. Her unquestioning support of one of the most evil and bloodthirsty philosophies in human history (in terms of innocent dead, Nazism isn't even a pimple on Communism's ass) is reason enough for this hard-shelled, Republican conservative to dislike her. Hellman tied up the rights to Hammett's work so completely that, years after her death, there was difficulty getting access to the stuff she didn't like. Unless you were willing to spend a fortune on the old Ellery ueen-edited collections, stuff like the Alec Rush story, the Robin Thin stories, a lot of Op stories that weren't either in The Big Knockover or The Continental Op, were unavailable, and she was the root cause of its unavailability.

Is Hammett Over-Rated? Over-rated?!? If anything he's underrated! Chandler, undeniably great though he is, is not as good as Hammett; yet just last week at Bouchercon I time and again heard Hammett slighted in favor of Chandler. Chandler was certainly more influential than Hammett, but that's not necessarily the same thing. Moreover, the Chandler PI paradigm, slavishly followed though it has been by scores of PI writers, doesn't hold up as well as Hammett's model. Check out Joe Gores's Interface, particularly after reading The Maltese Falcon, then tell me which model more easily adapts to the present day. For that matter, check out the whole DKA series, or Jon Jackson's latest, Go by Go. Compared to most of the other hard-boiled writers of the '30s and '40s, Hammett seems, even now, positively innovative.

Further Comments: Hammett was the best. That's all I can say, and all that needs to be said.

Additional Questions:

  • Should Hammett's unfinished novel, The Secret Emperor, be completed by other hands, and, if so, whose? (Joe Gores would be my first choice. After that I'd go for Al Collins or Jon Jackson.)
  • Should there be an anthology of new Op or Spade stories by current PI writers similar to Raymond Chandler's Philip Marlowe as edited by Byron Preiss?: (Yes, and I'd love the chance to contribute.)
  • Should the first version of The Thin Man be completed by other hands along the lines Hammett began it, and, if so, by whose? (Yes, and I would again suggest Joe Gores for the job.)
  • Best performance by an actor portraying a Hammett character: (That's tough. Humphrey Bogart as Spade seems the obvious choice. Sidney Greenstreet as Caspar Gutman seemed born for that part. James Coburn as the Op (dubbed "Hamilton Nash" for film purposes) was also excellent. Given that The Thin Man was going in a different direction from Hammett's other work, William Powell and Myrna Loy did a fine job as Nick and Nora; they were different from other Hammett characters, but close to the characters as written in that novel, particularly in the first film.
  • Best fictional portrayal of Hammett (prose, drama or otherwise): (Joe Gores's novel Hammett, followed by William F. Nolan's The Black Mask Boys.)

From Barbara Skoglund in Maplewood, MN

Favourite Character: The Continental Op and Ned Beaumount

Favourite Villian: Casper Gutman in The Maltese Falcon.

Favourite Novel: The Glass Key

Most Under-rated Creation: Nick and Nora.

Best Adaptation: John Huston's film version of The Maltese Falcon -- isn't the script near verbatim from the book?

Worst Adaptation: A horrid version of The Glass Key that I heard on tape.

Lillian: While I don't think it's anyone's place to second guess the choices others make with regards to their life partners, it appears to be human nature to do it. Tortured co-dependents or a perfect match -- only Hammett and Hellman know for sure. Then again they may have been too trashed to know. Regarding Jim Doherty's comments about Hellmann's politics. You vastly underestimate Hammett if you think Hellman shaped his political views. What are your partner's political views? Are they far afield of your own? I doubt it. True life partners tend to share the same world view before they every choose to share their life together.

Is Hammett Over-Rated? NO - I think Hammett and his work are vastly under appreciated. Even skimming the comments from his "fans" it appears that several cannot appreciate the pure charm of Nick and Nora and The Thin Man. Yes, it is different from his other work -- so what? Appreciate it and judge it compared to other similar work. Appreciate Hammett for being more versatile than he's given credit for.

I first read Hammett years ago and while I've re-read much of his work this poll has made it clear to me that the time has come to go to the H's on my bookshelves. I sure can't remember a favorite line or secondary character. I picked up Nightmare Town and will jump into that first. I'm so excited it includes some previously un-re-released stories.

Other Questions? What contemporary authors dip their toes into Hammett's shoes? My two all time favorites are Hammett and Chester Himes. I sure can't find any contemporary authors that touched me the way they did when I read them 10-15 years ago.

From Mario Taboada in New York

Favourite Character: The Continental Op

Favourite Supporting Character: Token Ware (can't recall the Op story) - a classic bimbo.

Favourite Novel: Red Harvest

Favourite Short Story: "The Gutting of Couffignal"

Most Under-rated Creation: Red Harvest

Lillian: I have nothing to say about the author of The Little Bitches except that she underestimated herself.

Is Hammett Over-Rated? Not at all. His work holds up admirably, in content and style. It's essentially modern writing, for modern sensibilities. This may explain why postmodern and feminist types hate his guts (as they do Hemingway's, not by coincidence).

Further Comments: I sometimes wonder what would have become of Hammett the writer (and the man) if a) he had been less inhibited about expressing his feelings; b) he had not run into the author of The Little Bitches.

From Ophelia in New Zealand

Favourite Character: Sam Spade

Supporting Character: Effie Perine (The Maltese Falcon)

Favourite Villian: Casper Gutman (The Maltese Falcon)

Favourite Novel: The Glass Key

Favourite Short Story: "The Farewell Murder"

Most Under-rated Creation: The Continental Op

Snappiest Line of Patter: "Childish, huh? I know, but, by God, I do hate being hit without hitting back." (The Maltese Falcon).

Best Adaptation: The 1941 film version of The Maltese Falcon.

Lillian: I have no view about Yoko Ono. Lillian Hellman was lucky to have Dash H. around to give her a chance to grab a little fame. Without Dash who would remember her now?

Is Hammett Over-Rated? Under-rated.

Comments: Hammett's name seems regularly to be linked with that of Chandler - to his (Hammett's) disadvantage. I think Hammett stylistically leaves Chandler for dead and I'm sad he is not getting the acknowledgement in this year of Top 100s, etc. that are coming Chandler's way.

Other Questions? Have you got information about Hammett sites which could be of interest to other Hammett readers?

(I'm working on just such a list.-ed.)

From Shuchin Lin from Taiwan

Favourite Character: The Continental Op, hands down

Supporting Character: Dinah Brand, from Red Harvest

Favourite Villian: Caspar Gutman from The Maltese Falcon.

Snappiest Line of Patter: " I hope to Christ they don't hang you, precious, by that sweet neck." Sam Spade, in The Maltese Falcon.

Best Adaptation: The Maltese Falcon film by John Huston.

Best Hammett Website:

From Paul Bergin in Sarasota, FL

Favourite Character: The Op, with Ned Beaumont a very close second.

Supporting Character: Casper Gutman in The Maltese Falcon.

Favourite Villian: The writer in The Dain Curse. For some reason, I'm blanking on his name right now and don't have a copy of the book handy.

Favourite Novel: The Glass Key

Favourite Short Story: "Dead Yellow Women"

Most Under-rated Creation: I've always felt that The Dain Curse is a far better novel than it's generally considered to be.

Snappiest Line of Patter: In "Dead Yellow Women," alerted by a sudden breeze that someone has opened a door in the house he's staking out, The Op opines, "That wasn't so good." Wonderful understatement.

Best Adaptation: The Maltese Falcon (Bogart version).

Worst Adaptation: The Thin Man and all the sequels.

Lillian: Never met the gal. And I always thought that Linda Eastman had more to do with the Beatles' breakup than Yoko did.

Is Hammett Over-Rated? Not at all, though I think it's perfectly natural that younger fans of crime fiction might feel that way. Language and society have changed tremendously in the seventy-odd years since Hammett appeared. It's simply easier to relate to the familiar. As the years pass, Hammett will be viewed by more and more readers as mostly an historical curio. Not by serious students of the genre, of course, but by the average crime fiction reader/fan. It's regrettable, but what're you gonna do?

Other Questions?: Is the success of John Grisham proof positive of the dumbing-down of America?

More from Jim Doherty in Chicago

Carroll John Daly was undoubtedly first to publish a short story featuring a hard-boiled sleuth who defines his profession as a private detective ("Three-Gun Terry" in the May 15, 1923 issue of Black Mask), beating the first Op story, "Arson Plus" (October 1, 1923) into print by a few months... but there's no reason to suppose that Hammett would never have created the Op had not Daly created Mack. In fact, it's possible the two stories were being written simultaneously. Daly, being a less careful writer, may have simply beat Hammett to the mailbox.

On the other hand, there's plenty of reason to suppose that Chandler wouldn't have created Marlowe, Macdonald wouldn't have created Archer, Nebel wouldn't have created Donahue, etc., etc., etc., had Hammett not first created the Op.

In other words, while Daly was undeniably first, Hammett was far more influential.

From Darwin in Fishers, Indiana

Favourite Character: The Continental Op

Supporting Character: Nora Charles in The Thin Man.

Favourite Villian: Caspar Gutman & his pet weasel Wilmer from The Maltese Falcon.

Favourite Novel: Red Harvest.

Favourite Short Story: "The Scorched Face"

Most Under-rated Creation: The Continental Op

Snappiest Line of Patter: This from memory because I don't have my copy of The Maltese Falcon at hand (hope I'm not embarrassing myself): When Spade delivers a subdued Wilmer and his guns to Gutman; "Here. A crippled newsie took these away from him, but I made him give them back." (I believe the lines were lifted almost verbatim for the '41 film version.)

Best Adaptation: My vote's for Huston's version of The Maltese Falcon.

Worst Adaptation: I can't work up much enthusiasm for The Glass Key with Alan Ladd.

Lillian: Lennon was sober when he singled out Yoko (or so I've read).

Is Hammett Over-Rated? No!

Comments: Some folks seem to think, like the Elvis versus Beatles thing, you either love Hammett or Chandler. Not both. Guess what? I like both Elvis and the Beatles.

From E. Collins in Nanaimo, British Columbia

Favourite Character: The Op

Supporting Character: The "Old Man" - various Op stories

Favourite Villian: Caspar Gutman from The Maltese Falcon.

Favourite Novel: The Maltese Falcon

Favourite Short Story: "Zig-zags of Treachery"

Most Under-rated Creation: The Op

Is Hammett Over-Rated? NO!!!

From Anonymous from Pennsylvania

Favourite Character: Ned Beaumont

Favourite Novel: The Glass Key

Favourite Short Story: "The Gutting of Couffignal"

Snappiest Line of Patter: "You ought to have known I'd do it!...Didn't I steal a crutch from a cripple?" ("The Gutting of Couffignal")

Best Adaptation: John Huston's production of The Maltese Falcon

Is Hammett Over-Rated? Not one iota.

Further Comments: His prose style was somewhat "dryer" and more purely workmanlike than many of his contemporaries and successors--e.g., Chandler and Ross Macdonald--but engaging and compelling (and ultimately very powerful and effective) nevertheless.

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