From the archive: Writers reviewed | Dashiell Hammett

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Samuel Dashiell Hammett, 1937, by Edward Biberman. Pic: Flickr/nostri-imago

“The bourgeoisie has subjected the country to the rule of the towns. It has created enormous cities, has greatly increased urban population as compared with the rural and has thus rescued a considerable part of the population from the idiocy of rural life.” (The Communist Manifesto)

To Marx in the 1840s, the growth of cities which followed the development of capitalism, seemed to be a move towards a higher form of civilisation. The “enormous cities” he welcomed then, gradually took on an increasingly sinister aspect. Writers began to perceive the city as a new source of oppression. In the 1920s this view was convincingly expressed in the fiction of Dashiell Hammett.

All his five novels, written between 1929 and 1932, are situated in American towns or cities. Hammett depicts these industrial and commercial centres not as liberating, cosmopolitan havens, but as repressive ant-heaps. In Red Harvest Personville (appropriately nick-named “Poisonville”) is described thus – “The city wasn’t pretty. Most of its builders had gone in for gaudiness. Maybe they had been successful at first. Since then the smelters…had yellow smoked everything into uniform dinginess.”

This town was built for the convenience of industry, disregarding its inhabitants. Hammett goes further; life in them is brutal and dangerous. Personville is owned by one man, Elihu Willson. He controls the mining company, the city bank, the two newspapers, the police department, the district attorney, plus all the politicians from the senator to the local council.

The only opposition to his dominance, the anonymous detective-narrator discovers, came in 1921, when the Wobblies struck. The outcome was depressingly familiar; “Both sides bled plenty. The Wobblies had to do their own bleeding. Old Elihu hired gunmen, strike-breakers, national guardsmen and even parts of the regular army to do his.”

The union is finished, but Willson discovers that the mobsters decide to stay. The city becomes the prize and the battlefields for warring gangs. They fight it out on the streets, making and breaking alliances with one another and the police, killing hoods and citizens in increasing numbers; the novel’s final body count resembles the aftermath of a B17 bombing-raid.

The politicians in Red Harvest are the stooges of the mobs. In The Glass key, the two are indistinguishable. Shad O’Rory and Paul Madvig, both gang leaders, are fighting an election. Madvig’s chances are slim, since he is implicated in a murder. O’Rory is able to pose as a reformer and the DA and the police chief, once Madvig’s men, are on the verge of shifting loyalties. The issue becomes simple – “If he loses the election, loses his hold on the city and state government, they’ll electrocute him.”

Survival is tied to success and power. The legal system is as much a weapon as a cosh or a tommy-gun. Control it and you are right; weakness is the only immorality. There is no moral order, death comes suddenly and at random. The risk of unexpected death applies to the hood and even the respectable business man.

In The Maltese Falcon Sam Spade describes an incident in which a stolid citizen called Flitcraft vanishes. Spade eventually caught up with him and discovered the cause of Flitcraft’s disappearance: “Going to lunch he passed an office building that was being put up. A beam or something fell eight or ten storeys down and smacked the sidewalk alongside him… The life he knew was a clean, orderly, sane, responsible affair. Now a falling beam had suddenly shown him that life was fundamentally none of these things.”

When death can come so accidentally, the established routine of bourgeois life becomes meaningless. The reality behind the appearance of an orderly, urban life becomes clear and Flitcraft can’t face that style of living any longer.

This gulf between appearance and reality is central to Hammett’s fiction; criminals change names and appearances, sweet old couples turn out to be murderers, a simple gems-heist unearths long-hidden family secrets (as in The Drain Curse) and no one is ever who they seem: “‘The hell of it, Miss – is your name Wonderly or Leblanc?’ She blushed and murmured, ‘It’s really O’Shaughnessy, Brigid O’Shaughnessy.’”

Institutions and people are part of a confusing jungle. The individual is disorientated, helpless and turns to the private detective for guidance. He is the main character in all these novels.

We learn very little about their private lives. “The continental op” remains unnamed and Sam Spade hardly exists apart from his work; they are all deeply committed to their “sleuthing”, to the exclusion of all else. All are familiar with their city; they know it both geographically and socially, and move around it unhindered by personal ties. Amid the bewildering city they are the only stable forces, because they remain aloof, unimplicated in society.

Because they see through conventional (and to them irrelevant) legal methods, Hammett’s detectives use highly dubious procedures. They work to a more basic idea of justice. In The Golden Horseshoe, the continental op convicts someone for a crime they did not commit: “I can’t put you up for the murders you engineered in San Francisco, but I can sock you for the one you didn’t do in Seattle – so justice won’t be cheated.”

They work outside the corrupt law; modern avenging angels, striking down criminals with 38s instead of thunderbolts. To allow a criminal to escape, regardless of the legal niceties, offends their professional integrity. This professional code replaces morality.

In other hands, the idea of the avenging detective working outside the law became a right wing myth. But Hammett avoids this, because the roots of crime are identified as social in his work. Hammett’s writing is a response to the city. Morality is dead and survival is all that remains.

It is a bleak view, omitting the possibility of social change introducing humanity to the city. But the novels remain worthwhile, for the lean, clear quality of Hammett’s writing as he captures the feel of urban life. Hammett’s cities are a miniature of capitalism itself, the gaudy surface hiding misery, oppression and violence. Against this background, his “gumshoe” heroes are just survivors in a chaos of cocktail bars and Cadillacs.

This article was first published in Socialist Review, May 1979