The Crime of the Sign: Dashiell Hammett's Detective Fiction

Carl D. Malmgren
1999 Twentieth Century Literature  
Hammett took murder out of the Venetian vase and dropped it into the alley. -Raymond Chandler 234 In 1941 Howard Haycraft wrote a literary history called Murder for Pleasure: The Life and Times of the Detective Story. In it he celebrated what he termed the Golden Age of Detective Fiction, and he singled out certain people as masters of the "classic detective story"-Christie, Sayers, and Bentley, among others. In December 1944, in an essay in the Atlantic Monthly called "The Simple Art of
more » ... " Raymond Chandler issued a broadside against Haycraft's primarily British tradition. This narrative form, Chandler claimed, fails to provide, among other things, "lively characters, sharp dialogue, a sense of pace and an acute use of observed detail" (225). The murders in these stories are implausibly motivated, the plots completely artificial, and the characters pathetically two-dimensional, "puppets and cardboard lovers and papier mache villains and detectives of exquisite and impossible gentility" (232). The authors of this fiction are ignorant of the "facts of life" (228), "too little aware of what goes on in the world" (231). As the last quotes suggest, Chandler is accusing the writers of Haycraft's Golden Age of failing to be true to the real world: "if the writers of this fiction wrote about the kind of murders that happen," he says, "they would also have to write about the authentic flavor of life as it is lived" (231). Chandler goes on to single out Dashiell Hammett as the person who rescued the genre by bringing it back to the real world. Hammett, he says, "tried to write realistic mystery fiction" (233). John Cawelti, a leading critic of detective fiction, qualifies Chandler's 371 TWENTIETH CENTURY LITERATURE claims, insisting that Hammett's novels are not necessarily more realistic. Rather, they "embody a powerful vision of life in the hard-boiled detective formula" (163). Another critic remarks that Hammett "adapted to the genre a new and more exciting set of literary conventions better suited to the time and place" (Porter 130). While I grant that Chandler's arguments are partisan and naive, and that Hammett's "realism" is every bit as conventional as Christie's,' I would like to take Chandler at his word and to investigate the "real world" of Hammett's fiction and, by extension, the world of American detective fiction. By looking closely at Hammett's fiction, especially Red Harvest, his first novel (1929), I propose to demonstrate that his "powerful vision of life" derives in large part from his subversion of basic frames of intelligibility, including the frame that allows the art of fiction, language itself. Chandler uses the synecdoche "mean streets" to define Hammett's world, and various critics have characterized those streets in some detail.2 The world "implied in Hammett's works, and fully articulated in Chandler and MacDonald," says George Grella, "is an urban chaos, devoid of spiritual and moral values, pervaded by viciousness and random savagery" (110). The world of Red Harvest is representative. The novel takes place in a western mining town named Personville, which has been owned for 40 years by an industrial capitalist: "Elihu Willson was Personville, and he was almost the whole state" (9). Willson controls congressmen, city officials, and the police, but at the opening of the novel, his control of the town is in jeopardy. In order to break a strike by the mineworkers, he called in thugs connected with the mob. After brutally suppressing the strike, the gangsters refused to leave and took over the town, occupying its offices and businesses. At the time of the Continental Op's arrival, an uneasy peace prevails in a thoroughly corrupt town, as rival gangster factions run different operations. The police are bought off casually; they even supply getaway cars for criminals. At one point in the narrative, criminals are let out ofjail in order to commit a midday bank robbery; they later use their incarceration as an unimpeachable alibi. In short, the world of the novel is thoroughly dishonest. As one critic notes, "In Red Harvest we never meet an honest businessman or an honest policeman, and the only lawyer is a blackmailer" (Bentley 67). When the Op first strolls about the city, he says "most of its builders had gone in for gaudiness" (3-4). The Op chooses an appropriate noun to describe the world of detective fiction, a world where a cheap and thin veneer of glamour conceals a shabby or seedy reality, where "a gleaming and deceptive facade" hides "empty modernity, corruption, and death" (Cawelti 141). In order to strip away this facade, we need to look back at Chandler's description of realism in detective fiction:
doi:10.2307/441925 fatcat:oa2ejhxemvcmnb2hy4brujtaze