Thursday, 19 November 2009

Crime Stories & Other Writings - Dashiell Hammett

This Library of America edition is a collection of twenty-four of Hammett’s short(ish) stories, the transcript of an uncompleted novel which bore the title The Thin Man, but very little else that resembled the finished novel of that name, and a couple of ‘essays’ (which amount to little more than writer’s notes). In all, Hammett wrote little more than ninety shorter works (some very short), so it seems a shame they could not have been presented in a two volume edition, because those that were excluded seem to me to be of no less merit than those included. That said, this is a wonderful collection for anyone who wants a good selection but isn’t, like me, a Hammett completist.

Most of the tales are the first person narratives of Hammett’s unnamed Continental Op. On the surface, these are hard-boiled thrillers. A private detective working for the Continental Agency goes down those mean streets, etc. And even at that superficial level, these are well written, tightly plotted works full of exquisite characterisation. But look deeper and you find a lot more at work. The narrator gives the impression of telling his story in a straightforward fashion, but he is a less than reliable narrator. Despite his hard front, it is clear that he is still engaged with the world, building his own moral network to cope with the terrible things he has to deal with. And he does not tell us everything. Many of the stories have an untold background with can be open to interpretation. It is this, in particular, that elevates Hammett’s work above many of the other crime writers of that ilk.

The quality of the stories is uneven (although if my best was anywhere close to Hammett’s worst, I’d be a happy man). His Ruritanian adventure doesn’t quite convince, perhaps because he is working outside a familiar setting. Along with several other pieces it has the feel of being written with an eye to the film industry, reading like a story outline for a movie.

As examples of quality writing, you can do little better than a collection like this. Irrespective of subject matter, Hammett can teach all aspiring writers a thing or three. The first is plot. With a crime thriller, you need one. And it has to be watertight otherwise people will pick it apart and lose interest in the rest of what you have to offer. Characterisation. Hammett tells us a certain amount about his characters, but he lets them tell us the rest through their actions and reactions. And language. Hammett works hard to keep his use of language fresh.

Entertainment; quality writing; originality; a view onto a world previously considered not quite suitable for serious literature… what more could you ask? A well-produced hardback book at a reasonable price? This is the book for you.