So far in my sputtering start to my MA, I’ve been thinking about Hammett primarily in the context of the detective story. That is to say, with Conan Doyle, Christie, Chandler, and those other jokers. But there is a second possibly equally substantial context in which he belongs – the Pulps. Pulps are something which have mostly interested me from the point of view of roleplaying games, but I have once or twice discussed the literary genre.
The problem with approaching pulps as a literary genre is that the main unifying trait of the pulps is not stylistic – it’s one of production. Pulps were written by the cheapest authors and printed on the cheapest paper, and the intent was simply to mass produce literary output for such a nominal price that it could be consumed in vast quantities. It’s arguably the early 20th century equivalent of “fic”.
Over time, I think that Pulps have come to more and more be seen in the context of the genre whose origin has few other deep roots – the super hero. Conceived largely as adventurers in adventure stories, the likes of The Shadow and Doc Savage nevertheless established character templates which would define the heroes who followed; it’s hard not to see Batman as the Shadow writ large.
I reference the Shadow and Batman because they are, in addition to being masked vigilantes, both detectives of the first order, in fact, they were constructed originally and primarily as detectives. The Shadow came after The Continental Op & Race Williams, the original hardboiled detectives, and he clearly imitates and amplifies their positive crime-fighting traits, while even further isolating the detective from ordinary civil society.
What this gives us is another prism to look at Hammett’s detectives – instead of whether they are as logical as Poirot or observant as Holmes, are they as driven as The Shadow? What are the common story elements between the proto-supers, and their patently mortal kin, like the Continental Op? There is, no doubt, a certain strand of extreme violence which is common to both, and which has its mirror in early Hollywood gangster flicks. There is a certain contained neatness to the stories, and a certain flair for dramatic situations far beyond the simple poisoning of a rich old lady.
Where they diverge the most is, I think, in their representational techniques. Hammett’s Op is hard-headed and pragmatic, constantly espousing the virtues of legwork and dogged investigation, declaiming flashy leaps of logic or dramatics at all points: he is the Occam’s razor of detectives. The Shadow however revels in the convolutions thrown his way, and never discounts an adventure as too fantastic. The content may not be worlds apart when you look closely and structurally, but the attitude is.