- Dashiell Hammett, and: The American Private Eye: The Image in Fiction, and: Into Eternity: The Life of James Jones, American Writer
Naturalism, Frank Norris argued, is just another version of Romanticism. Naturalism is grubby where Romanticism is ethereal, but both schools, at bottom, are rebellious and sensation-seeking. Both are devoted to the different, willing to go low or high so long as they avoid the mean. A writer who grinds out a novel about the slums disdains bourgeois culture as much as one who pens a sonnet about chateaux. One might update Norris by suggesting that both schools seem to have gone out of vogue. Instead of Romance, we have costume romances, science fiction, and sword-and-sorcery fantasy. Instead of Naturalism, we have crime stories.
Dashiell Hammett, by Julian Symons, is the latest biography of the writer who found the murder mystery in a drawing room and dropped it in an alley. The fifth volume in the HBJ Album Biography series, it is well-written and succinct. It is also remarkably neutral, which is no small achievement. Many aspects of Hammett's career demand attention: his work as a Pinkerton, his association with Lillian Hellman, his political entanglements, and the poverty, illness, and silence in which his life ended. Symons has resisted the temptation to linger too long on any of these. His account of Hammett's life is short, but it has none of the foreshortened distortions that a distinct perspective might produce.
During the last twenty-six years of his life, Hammett wrote nothing. Explaining this silence is his biographers' hardest task. One disruption could have been the three wartime years he spent in the Aleutians, running an Army newspaper. Another could have been the five months he spent in prison, jailed for contempt of court. (He had persistently taken the Fifth Amendment when asked about his ties to a Communist-front bail fund.) The real reason, Symons suggests, was a "failure of will." Hammond spent his career living from day to day, expecting death to arrive at any moment. As producer Nunnally Johnson put it, "by the time he [realized] that he would . . . be here not only next Thursday but for many Thursdays to come[,] it was too late to sit down at the typewriter again. . . ." He worked for Marxist organizations for the same reason he drank and hired prostitutes—to avoid writing. Enlisting served the same purpose, and so did going to prison.
Distance from his subject by background and training—he is English, and a literary critic as well as a detective novelist—Symons frequently draws unusual connections. Hammett's first publications, for example, were not in Black Mask; [End Page 631] they appeared in The Smart Set, edited by H. L. Mencken and George Jean Nathan. And in the 1930s, when The Thin Man hinted at sexual depravity among the leisure classes, its author could have been taken for an American cousin of Evelyn Waugh. We remember Hammett as the father of the private-eye story, Symonds stresses, but he functioned within a larger literary context.
The Image of the Private Eye in Fiction, by David Geherin, places Hammett second in its chronological discussion of detective fiction. By Geherin's reckoning, the first private-eye writer was Carroll John Daly. Or, rather, Hammett's Continental Op was the second private eye, behind Daly's Race Williams—because Geherin surveys detective fiction by summarizing the careers of twenty-seven private-eyes, from Williams (who first appeared in 1923) to Matt Scudder in the early 1980s.
"The private eye is an archetypal hero," Geherin concludes enthusiastically. The genre flourishes because "the private eye is a protean hero. . . . One might well borrow the title of Joseph Campbell's classic study . . . The Hero with a Thousand Faces." It has...