Dashiell Hammett is considered the first of the hard-boiled fiction masters. He wrote over 80 short stories and 5 novels. He wasn’t a prolific writer but he is considered one of the greats because he defined a new genre. Are his books great reads? Well… they are worth reading. The problem with being first is that others will follow in your path and write differently. I’ve read 4 of Hammett’s 5 books and would class them as pulp fiction.
There’s nothing wrong with pulp fiction. It’s the basis of all action driven novels. In pure pulp fiction, the characters are all stereotypes. Writers of action novels that want to write beyond pulp go deeper into character to create better quality stories. Dashiell Hammett created realistic characters too.
Hammett was a Pinkerton detective before he became a hard-boiled crime story writer. He said that all of his characters were based on real people he’d known. We might guess that the scenes in his writing also came from real life. Raymond Chandler said that one of the things that made Hammett stand out was that he wrote scenes that seemed never to have been written before. If I admit Hammett took characterization beyond pulp fiction, why do I class his work as pulp fiction?
It’s complicated. Not the answer; his writing. His books are around 200 pages long and have more characters than an 800 page Doestoevsky novel. There are plots inside of plots and twists around every corner. Piling on complications and dangers is another trait of pulp fiction and Hammett’s books are about as complicated as they can get without losing the reader. Actually, I had to read The Dain Curse twice before I understood the whole story.
You might think I don’t like Hammett’s writing, but I’m looking forward to reading The Glass Key if I ever find a copy.
What Made Dashiell Hammett a Great Author?
One of the reasons Hammett’s fiction gets a lot of attention is because of how he moved his crime stories away from the high society types (think of any Agatha Christie novel) down to the working and criminal classes. His mysteries moved away from a neat analysis of interviews with willing witnesses including one or more liars to unwilling witnesses with their own agendas. Those private agendas could pull more complications into the mystery or be separate problems and unrelated crimes.
Hammett still has an influence on writing today. Before Hammett, a story could have a protagonist living a normal boring life who has one exciting change happen. When all novels are mediocre, people read mediocre novels. Today, we want to have complications for the protagonist just like when we’re trying to achieve something. Problems keep the story moving.
It is now a common plotting device that authors write few words about scenes where not much is happening and many words where there’s lots of action. We can thank Hammett for that, at least in part.
Is there a take-away here? I think so. Throwing complications into your story makes it more exciting, but don’t make it so complex that readers can’t keep up.
Article by Ivan Izo.