This is a curious beast of a book. Written in parts for serialisation, the story is deliberately broken into episodes that avoid the traditional cliff-hanger of run-of-the-mill pulp mysteries. Indeed, it eschews the expected violent climax as well. It is this, in part, which lifts it above other detective thrillers. Hammett was never afraid to tell the story the way he wanted, rather than as convention expected.
Yet for all the move away from convention, Hammett is clearly an expert at those aspects of the story where so many others fail. The opening, though downbeat, is immediately intriguing. Even before we know what is going on, we are hooked. Delivered in a style that seems to be a weary seen-it-all narration, we are nonetheless treated to sharp descriptions, wonderful dialogue, and a spareness that takes us into the heart of the story.
Starting with a diamond robbery, moving on to a cult, with a bit of drug taking and a number of clearly unbalanced characters, Hammett leads us calmly through the maze, pointing out some routes, leaving us to find the others.
This isn’t a whodunit (although there are aspects of a puzzle about the work, and the solution is clear once pointed out) any more than it is a ‘thriller’. This is another case for the Continental Op. Yet at the heart of it, there are real people and whilst the nameless narrator may be hardened and made cynical by the things he has seen, he is a much more complex character. Indeed, we are never quite sure in the end what his feelings are for Gabrielle. It is not a relationship that could ever work, but they do seem to develop a genuine regard for one another as they book progresses.
The intriguing story aside (and Hammett gets better – his next novel is The Maltese Falcon, after all), Hammett can and should be read for the way in which he uses the language. Nothing is wasted, everything pared down to its essential. Yet he still creates rich sceneries and populates them with wonderful characters. Even the minor characters have a vivid reality that more florid writers never attain. And to top it all, he writes excellent stories.