Hammett’s Contribution to Detective Fiction

I remember once reading an erudite article written on the use of the term “Adam Wits” in, I think, Absolom and Achitophel by Dryden. The fascinating article was well-researched and referenced, and offered a number of interpretive strategies for the term and evaluated them logically and scientifically. It did everything you could hope for except shed any light at all on the work in any way. That was because it was such an esoteric and minor topic, appearing only a handful of times in all of English Literature, that in truth, no matter how you scrutinise it, it just doesn’t have any real meaning.

This approach to study derives from the Cartesian project of breaking down all observable phenomena into their smallest moving parts, as if you could figure out how cars worked by exhaustively measuring an individual piston. The best summary of the problem that I’ve read is in Fritjof Capra’s amazing book The Web of Life. In terms of “Adam Wits”, we’re not missing the woods for the trees, we’re missing the woods for a patch of bark.

With that introduction, you might think that instead we should look only holistically at a work, and I think that too has been a critical habit in some quarters. When reading most detective fiction, for example, critics and academics show almost no interest in the intimate details of the crimes or their investigation. Agatha Christie is the most prominent example of an author persistently and critically underrated by this holistic habit. For most critics, it’s enough to be disdainful about her use of stock characters and straightforward prose to finish up with a dismissal of her as “formula fiction”. However, when you really pull many of her novels apart and look at the intricacy of the plot construction, you can’t help but admit that she was the best at what she did, perhaps the best possible. Chandler too, has often been maligned in this paradigm, but in the opposite direction: because he could write memorable prose, the construction of his plots is often assumed to be weak, which is not generally the case.

In truth, you need to balance a view of the details with some kind of understanding of the system they form. The essay on “Adam Wits” could have been useful if it integrated itself into a larger and more useful analytic paradigm, which is that in order to understand Restoration poetry you need to have a decent copy of the Bible nearby.

Hammett, unfortunately, tends to get hammered on both ends of the spectrum. His plotting, aside from The Maltese Falcon, tends not to be as tightly controlled as Christie. If we’re brutal about it, most are resolved either by a Holmesian piece of insight or by a bloodbath which sorts the guilty from the innocent. His best prose is a ironically understated, frugal and efficient; all virtues requiring extreme skill but difficult to quote in isolation as so many of the great stylists are. The way I have framed this explanation would make it tempting to try and position him as some kind of middle position: more stylish than Christie, less than Chandler; more plot-capable than Chandler, but less than Christie.

This would be a mistake, and not just because Hammett was likely unaware of Christie’s and Chandler’s virtues, since their great works were published in the USA after Hammett had stopped writing. Hammett’s powers derive, I believe, from something orthogonal to both formulae and detail – in the creation of a realistic feel that nevertheless includes characters that are “cool.” Hammett’s protagonists appear to go beyond the simplistic wish-fulfilment of his contemporaries, while retaining their essential virtues. They are, with one exception, cool.

Hammett didn’t invent “cool”, just as Christie didn’t invent the Fair Play method and Chandler didn’t invent similes, but I think there is a very strong argument to be made that, like them, he perfected what he did. Hammett summed up his contribution quite well himself:

Spade had no original. He is a dream man in the sense that he s what most of the private detectives I worked with would like to have been and what quite a few of them in their cockier moments thought they approached. For your private detective does not – or did not tend years ago when he was my colleague – want to be an erudite solver of riddles in the Sherlock Holmes manner; he wants to be a hard and shifty fellow, able to take care of himself in any situation, able to get the best of anybody he comes into contact with, whether criminal, innocent by-stander or client.

Critics like Christopher Breu perceive this as a statement of masculinity, and no doubt it was men who aspired to this, but it is coolness which is the real aim here. Many of Hammett’s female characters exhibit these qualities too, and some without having to wear the dread mantel of femme fatale. The qualities ascribed here to Spade are just exactly those missing from Poirot, Marple or Marlowe.

Therefore, when we do start to look either holistically or in detail at Hammett, we should perhaps be less interested in whether there is a slot A for tab A in the meticulous Christie style, or whether either tab A or slot B is accompanied by a memorable simile in the Chandler style, and ask whether anything is cool. Grinding through the details of a plot, or picking out associations for similes is as dull as it sounds, but who wouldn’t want to know more about being cool?

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