The Crime of the Sign: Dashiell Hammett's Detective Fiction

By Malmgren, Carl D. | Twentieth Century Literature, Fall 1999 | Go to article overview

The Crime of the Sign: Dashiell Hammett's Detective Fiction


Malmgren, Carl D., Twentieth Century Literature


Hammett took murder out of the Venetian vase and dropped it into the alley.

Raymond Chandler 234

In 1941 Howard Haycraft wrote a literary history called Murder for Pleasure: The Life and Times of the Detective Story. In it he celebrated what he termed the Golden Age of Detective Fiction, and he singled out certain people as masters of the "classic detective story"--Christie, Sayers, and Bentley, among others. In December 1944, in an essay in the Atlantic Monthly called. "The Simple Art of Murder," Raymond Chandler issued a broadside against Haycraft's primarily British tradition. This narrative form, Chandler claimed, fails to provide, among other things, "lively characters, sharp dialogue, a sense of pace and an acute use of observed detail" (225). The murders in these stories are implausibly motivated, the plots completely artificial, and the characters pathetically two-dimensional, "puppets and cardboard lovers and papier mache villains and detectives of exquisite and impossible gentility" (232). The authors of this fiction are ignorant of the "facts of life" (228), "too little aware of what goes on i n the world" (231).

As the last quotes suggest, Chandler is accusing the writers of Haycraft's Golden Age of failing to be true to the real world: "if the writers of this fiction wrote about the kind of murders that happen," he says, "they would also have to write about the authentic flavor of life as it is lived" (231). Chandler goes on to single out Dashiell Hammett as the person who rescued the genre by bringing it back to the real world. Hammett, he says, "tried to write realistic mystery fiction" (233).

John Cawelti, a leading critic of detective fiction, qualifies Chandler's claims, insisting that Hammett's novels are not necessarily more realistic. Rather, they "embody a powerful vision of life in the hard-boiled detective formula" (163). Another critic remarks that Hammett "adapted to the genre a new and more exciting set of literary conventions better suited to the time and place" (Porter 130). While I grant that Chandler's arguments are partisan and naive, and that Hammett's "realism" is every bit as conventional as Christie's, [1] I would like to take Chandler at his word and to investigate the "real world" of Hammett's fiction and, by extension, the world of American detective fiction. By looking closely at Hammett's fiction, especially Red Harvest, his first novel (1929), I propose to demonstrate that his "powerful vision of life" derives in large part from his subversion of basic frames of intelligibility, including the frame that allows the art of fiction, language itself.

Chandler uses the synecdoche "mean streets" to define Hammett's world, and various critics have characterized those streets in some detail. [2] The world "implied in Hammett's works, and fully articulated in Chandler and MacDonald," says George Grella, "is an urban chaos, devoid of spiritual and moral values, pervaded by viciousness and random savagely" (110). The world of Red Harvest is representative. The novel takes place in a western mining town named Personville, which has been owned for 40 years by an industrial capitalist: "Elihu Willson was Personville, and he was almost the whole state" (9). Willson controls congressmen, city officials, and the police, but at the opening of the novel, his control of the town is in jeopardy. In order to break a strike by the mineworkers, he called in thugs connected with the mob. After brutally suppressing the strike, the gangsters refused to leave and took over the town, occupying its offices and businesses. At the time of the Continental Op's arrival, an uneasy pea ce prevails in a thoroughly corrupt town, as rival gangster factions run different operations. The police are bought off casually; they even supply getaway cars for criminals. At one point in the narrative, criminals are let out of jail in order to commit a midday bank robbery; they later use their incarceration as an unimpeachable alibi.

The rest of this article is only available to active members of Questia

Sign up now for a free, 1-day trial and receive full access to:

  • Questia's entire collection
  • Automatic bibliography creation
  • More helpful research tools like notes, citations, and highlights
  • Ad-free environment

Already a member? Log in now.

Notes for this article

Add a new note
If you are trying to select text to create highlights or citations, remember that you must now click or tap on the first word, and then click or tap on the last word.
One moment ...
Project items

Items saved from this article

This article has been saved
Highlights (0)
Some of your highlights are legacy items.

Highlights saved before July 30, 2012 will not be displayed on their respective source pages.

You can easily re-create the highlights by opening the book page or article, selecting the text, and clicking “Highlight.”

Citations (0)
Some of your citations are legacy items.

Any citation created before July 30, 2012 will labeled as a “Cited page.” New citations will be saved as cited passages, pages or articles.

We also added the ability to view new citations from your projects or the book or article where you created them.

Notes (0)
Bookmarks (0)

You have no saved items from this article

Project items include:
  • Saved book/article
  • Highlights
  • Quotes/citations
  • Notes
  • Bookmarks
Notes
Cite this article

Cited article

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

(Einhorn, 1992, p. 25)

(Einhorn 25)

1

1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

Cited article

The Crime of the Sign: Dashiell Hammett's Detective Fiction
Settings

Settings

Typeface
Text size Smaller Larger
Search within

Search within this article

Look up

Look up a word

  • Dictionary
  • Thesaurus
Please submit a word or phrase above.
Print this page

Print this page

Why can't I print more than one page at a time?

Full screen

matching results for page

Cited passage

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

"Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn, 1992, p. 25).

"Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn 25)

"Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences."1

1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

Cited passage

Welcome to the new Questia Reader

The Questia Reader has been updated to provide you with an even better online reading experience.  It is now 100% Responsive, which means you can read our books and articles on any sized device you wish.  All of your favorite tools like notes, highlights, and citations are still here, but the way you select text has been updated to be easier to use, especially on touchscreen devices.  Here's how:

1. Click or tap the first word you want to select.
2. Click or tap the last word you want to select.

OK, got it!

Thanks for trying Questia!

Please continue trying out our research tools, but please note, full functionality is available only to our active members.

Your work will be lost once you leave this Web page.

For full access in an ad-free environment, sign up now for a FREE, 1-day trial.

Already a member? Log in now.