Introduces the Hard-Boiled Detective Novel Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Dashiell Hammett’s masterpiece of detective fiction, The Maltese Falcon, established a distinctively American alternative to the classic British mystery and raised the genre to the level of literature.

Summary of Event

Dashiell Hammett brought a new realism to detective fiction and introduced the tough, cynical private eye into American popular mythology. His best-known work, The Maltese Falcon, was first published in five serial installments from September, 1929, to January, 1930, with publication in book form in February, 1930. The book was an immediate popular success and was reprinted seven times in its first year. Critics were equally impressed, acclaiming it as an important novel and not simply another mystery story. Three film versions were made in the next decade; in the third, the John Huston film of 1941, Humphrey Bogart crystallized the image of Sam Spade for American audiences. [kw]Maltese Falcon Introduces the Hard-Boiled Detective Novel, The (Sept., 1929-Jan., 1930) [kw]Hard-Boiled Detective Novel, The Maltese Falcon Introduces the (Sept., 1929-Jan., 1930)[Hard Boiled Detective Novel, The Maltese Falcon Introduces the (Sept., 1929 Jan., 1930)] [kw]Detective Novel, The Maltese Falcon Introduces the Hard-Boiled (Sept., 1929-Jan., 1930) [kw]Novel, The Maltese Falcon Introduces the Hard-Boiled Detective (Sept., 1929-Jan., 1930) Maltese Falcon, The (Hammett) Literature;mystery genre Mystery genre fiction [g]United States;Sept., 1929-Jan., 1930: The Maltese Falcon Introduces the Hard-Boiled Detective Novel[07310] [c]Literature;Sept., 1929-Jan., 1930: The Maltese Falcon Introduces the Hard-Boiled Detective Novel[07310] Hammett, Dashiell Hellman, Lillian

Dashiell Hammett.

(Library of Congress)

Hammett left school at the age of fourteen, and he held several different jobs for short periods of time until 1915, when he became an operative for the Pinkerton National Detective Agency. His experience with Pinkerton provided him with the background for the writing of his realistic detective fiction. When pulmonary tuberculosis ended his career as a detective in 1921, Hammett began publishing short fiction in Black Mask, the pulp magazine that would publish his first four novels in serial form. The appearance of his first two novels, Red Harvest Red Harvest (Hammett) and The Dain Curse, Dain Curse, The (Hammett) in book form in 1929 made him a successful writer, and the next two, The Maltese Falcon and The Glass Key (1931), Glass Key, The (Hammett) made him internationally famous. It was then, at the height of his fame, that he met Lillian Hellman, with whom he had a close relationship until his death.

Hellman was near the beginning of her distinguished career as a writer, which would be aided considerably by Hammett’s expertise as an editor and critic; Hammett, however, would publish only one more novel, The Thin Man, Thin Man, The (Hammett) in 1934. Although he stopped writing, he still received royalties from his books and from a series of sixteen popular films, three weekly radio shows, and a daily comic strip based on his characters and stories. In 1954, his income from these various sources was more than eighty thousand dollars, an enormous sum for the time and an indication of how popular his work had become. The reasons that Hammett suddenly stopped writing are unknown, but speculation has centered on his involvement in left-wing politics, a dangerous commitment given the national temper of that time. In 1951, Hammett received a six-month sentence in federal prison for refusing to answer questions about a civil rights group. As a result, he was branded a Communist, his books went out of print, his radio shows were taken off the air, and his income was attached by the Internal Revenue Service. In a word, he was blacklisted, and the year before his death his reported income was thirty dollars. Ironically, Hammett, as a veteran of two wars, was buried as a hero in Arlington National Cemetery.

Red Harvest, Hammett’s first novel, is now generally regarded as one of his best, although also one of his darkest and most violent. The corruption that permeates the book eventually contaminates even the nameless protagonist, the Continental Op (an operative for the Continental Detective Agency). Hammett creates suspense by developing a technique of severely restricted first-person narration to tell the story; the reader sees and hears only as much as the Op does, and knows far less, as the protagonist seldom reveals his thoughts. At the book’s close, most of the major characters have been murdered, and the ending suggests that things will continue relatively unchanged; corruption is the norm, not the aberration. Many critics have found early evidence of Hammett’s Marxist views in this implicit critique of capitalist society. After a second Op novel, The Dain Curse, Hammett turned to a rigorously objective third-person narration for The Maltese Falcon and The Glass Key, describing details of gesture and expression from the outside, as from a camera-eye point of view, but never revealing characters’ thoughts or motives. This shift removes even the few traces of interpretation that had been provided by the taciturn Op and makes the analysis of the character of the detective himself a central concern. The question that readers of The Maltese Falcon must resolve is not Who committed the crime? but What sort of man is Sam Spade?

The story begins when a woman hires Spade and his partner, Miles Archer, to follow a man named Floyd Thursby. Archer and Thursby are both murdered that night, and the woman, Brigid O’Shaughnessy, turns out to be involved in a plot to steal a priceless jeweled statue of a falcon; Thursby is revealed to have been her accomplice. Other parties pursuing the falcon include Joel Cairo, one of the first homosexual characters portrayed in an American novel, and Caspar Gutman, the “Fat Man” who is the mastermind behind the quest. Unlike Hammett’s first two novels, The Maltese Falcon contains little violence; the emphasis is on Spade’s gradual uncovering of the complex relations among the various criminals and on the efforts of the criminals and police to determine Spade’s own motives and intentions. Hammett’s objective narration limits the reader’s own knowledge to the same set of lies and half-truths that the characters must sift through.

In the novel’s dramatic conclusion, Spade turns Brigid O’Shaughnessy, who has become his lover, over to the police as Archer’s murderer. The reasoning that leads Spade to solve the crime is based on clues available from the start, suggesting that he may have known of her guilt all along. The question remains open as to whether he has really fallen in love but is forced by his rigid personal code of ethics to turn her in or whether he has been cold-bloodedly manipulating her throughout in order to solve the case. Both hypotheses may be partially true, and ultimately the mystery of the novel resides more in understanding the character of the protagonist than in resolving the plot. As Ross Macdonald put it, “Hammett was the first American writer to use the detective-story for the purposes of a major novelist.” This interest in exploring character is extended in Hammett’s fourth novel, The Glass Key, which is as much a psychological novel as a mystery. Hammett’s fifth and final novel, The Thin Man, is unique in its light comic tone, which fitted it for popular adaptation in a series of films. The centerpiece of the book is the relationship between the worldly and jaded detective Nick Charles and his young and enthusiastic wife, Nora. The Charles’s happy marriage, one of the few depicted in modern fiction, is clearly based on the relationship between Hammett and Lillian Hellman, to whom the book is dedicated.


Before Hammett laid the foundation of the modern realistic detective novel, virtually all detective fiction had been designed on the pattern established by Edgar Allan Poe Poe, Edgar Allan in three short stories written between 1841 and 1844: “The Murders in the Rue Morgue,” “The Mystery of Marie Roget,” and “The Purloined Letter.” The basic ingredients of the formula were simple: a brilliant but eccentric amateur detective, his loyal but somewhat pedestrian companion and chronicler, an even more pedestrian police force, and a bizarre crime. The solution of the mystery called for a complex series of logical deductions drawn by the scientific detective on the basis of an equally complex series of subtle clues. These clues were generally available to the detective’s companion, who was also the narrator, and through him to the reader, who would derive interest and pleasure from the attempt to beat the detective to the solution. The canonical popular version of this classical tradition of the mystery as a puzzle to be solved is of course the British writer Arthur Conan Doyle’s Doyle, Arthur Conan Sherlock Holmes Holmes, Sherlock series, the success of which paved the way for similar work by other British writers such as Agatha Christie. Christie, Agatha Although this classical model was invented by the American Poe and practiced by several American mystery writers, its popularity with British writers has led to its being labeled the English school, in opposition to a more realistic type of mystery being written in the 1920’s by a small group of American writers.

Hammett proved to be the master of the new kind of detective story written in reaction against the English model. Raymond Chandler Chandler, Raymond made the point that “Hammett gave murder back to the kind of people that commit it for reasons, not just to provide a corpse; and with the means at hand, not hand-wrought dueling pistols, curare and tropical fish.” Rather than serving as the vehicle for a bewildering set of clues and an often implausible solution, the realistic story of detection emphasized characterization, action, and rapid-fire and colloquial dialogue—as opposed to the often flat characters, slow pace, and stilted set speeches of the classical school. The essentials of the realistic model are found complete in Hammett’s earliest work, almost from the first of his thirty-five stories featuring the Continental Op, just as the entire classical formula was complete in Poe’s earliest stories.

Hammett’s familiarity with the classical paradigm is established in the seventy-three reviews of detective novels he wrote for the Saturday Review of Literature and the New York Evening Post between 1927 and 1930, and his rejection of it is thorough. He specifically contrasted his theory of the detective with that of Doyle in describing Sam Spade: “For your private detective does not . . . want to be an erudite solver of riddles in the Sherlock Holmes manner; he wants to be a hard and shifty fellow, able to take care of himself in any situation, able to get the best of anybody he comes in contact with, whether criminal, innocent by-stander, or client.” Hammett underscored the difference in methods in a 1924 short story, “The Tenth Clew,” "Tenth Clew, The" (Hammett)[Tenth Clew] which parodies the classical detective plot with a set of nine bewildering clues, including a victim missing his left shoe and collar buttons, a mysterious list of names, a bizarre murder weapon (the victim was beaten to death with a typewriter), and so on. The solution, of course, the “tenth clue,” is to ignore all nine of the earlier clues and to use standard methods such as the surveillance of suspects to find the killer.

Just as the detective is different in Hammett’s work, so are the crimes and criminals. The world of the traditional mystery is one of regularity disrupted temporarily by the aberrant event of the crime. Once the detective solves the crime through the application of reason, normalcy is restored. The worldview implicit in this plot was comforting for a largely middle-class English readership at the beginning of the twentieth century, but it was remote from the experience of the generation of American readers who had just survived World War I. The world of the hard-boiled detective, as conceived by an author who had been through the horrors of that war, is one in which criminal behavior is the norm rather than the exception. There are usually several crimes and several criminals, and the society is not an orderly one temporarily disrupted but a deeply corrupt one that will not be redeemed after the particular set of crimes being investigated is solved.

Raymond Chandler observed that Dashiell Hammett “took murder out of the Venetian vase and dropped it into the alley.” The two main ingredients of his breakthrough are the creation of the hard-boiled detective, a ruthless and often violent man who is bound only by his own rigid and private code of ethics, and the perfection of an almost entirely objective narrative style, restricted to terse descriptions and crisp, idiomatic dialogue, revealing the characters’ thoughts and emotions only between the lines. Hammett’s objective technique laid the foundations for similar stylistic experiments by Ernest Hemingway and, later, the French New Novelists of the 1950’s. Moreover, his creation of the hard-boiled detective provided the inspiration for his most noteworthy successors in the mystery field, Raymond Chandler and Ross Macdonald, and introduced the tough, cynical private eye into American popular mythology. Maltese Falcon, The (Hammett) Literature;mystery genre Mystery genre fiction

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Chandler, Raymond. “The Simple Art of Murder.” The Atlantic Monthly, December, 1944, 53-59. Important essay by one of Hammett’s most distinguished successors analyzes Hammett’s decisive role in the development of detective fiction.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Dooley, Dennis. Dashiell Hammett. New York: Frederick Ungar, 1984. A survey of Hammett’s work for the general reader. Considers some of the better-known short fiction in more detail than do many such surveys. Includes bibliography and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Gregory, Sinda. Private Investigations: The Novels of Dashiell Hammett. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1985. Full-length study of Hammett’s major novels provides insightful close readings of individual passages but breaks little new interpretive ground. Includes bibliography and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Hammett, Jo. Dashiell Hammett: A Daughter Remembers. Edited by Richard Layman with Julie M. Rivett. New York: Carroll & Graf, 2001. Memoir by Hammett’s daughter focuses on the personal side of Hammett’s life. Includes many photographs.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Layman, Richard. Shadow Man: The Life of Dashiell Hammett. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1981. One of the most scholarly and reliable Hammett biographies available; objective, readable, and carefully researched and documented. An indispensable source. Contains the full text of the testimony that sent Hammett to prison. Includes photographs, bibliography, and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Marling, William. Dashiell Hammett. Boston: Twayne, 1983. Concise and well-informed survey combines a biographical framework with a unified overview of Hammett’s short fiction and novels. Includes lightly annotated bibliography and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Nolan, William F. Dashiell Hammett: A Casebook. Santa Barbara, Calif.: McNally & Loftin, 1969. First book-length study of Hammett’s life and work, now somewhat dated, features an extensive listing of Hammett’s work in various fields, including newspapers and radio. Includes bibliography and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">_______. Hammett: A Life at the Edge. New York: Congdon & Weed, 1983. Thoroughly researched work, but often subjective and personal, offering detailed interpretations of the information covered rather than letting the data speak for themselves. Includes photographs, select bibliography, and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Panek, Leroy Lad. Reading Early Hammett: A Critical Study of the Fiction Prior to “The Maltese Falcon.” Jefferson, N.C.: McFarland, 2004. Examines Hammett’s early works and the development of his technique leading up to The Maltese Falcon. Includes chronology of works, bibliography, and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Symons, Julian. Dashiell Hammett. San Diego: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1985. General survey of Hammett’s life and work aimed at a popular audience. Includes excellent photographs, bibliography, and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Wolfe, Peter. Beams Falling: The Art of Dashiell Hammett. Bowling Green, Ohio: Bowling Green University Popular Press, 1980. Presents close critical analyses of Hammett’s novels and short fiction. Provides some valuable information, although the readings are not always convincing.

The Mysterious Affair at Styles Introduces Hercule Poirot

Penguin Develops a Line of Paperback Books

Categories: History