Thursday, May 7, 2009

Hard-Boiled storytelling

The Big Knockover & $106,000 Blood Money (1926), by Dashiell Hammett

Dash Hammett was the driving force behind the development of the hard-boiled school of detective fiction, combining his awesome skill as a writer with his experience as a Pinkerton to add a sense of realism and healthy cynicism to the genre.

But writing for the pulps didn’t always pay that well and Hammett briefly retired from writing in the mid-1920s. Fortunately, the promise of better pay and more creative freedom lured him back to the typewriter.

He soon produced a pair of novellas (published in Black Mask magazine in 1926) that pretty much tell a single story—a very, very hard-boiled tale involving murder, thievery, double-crosses, triple-crosses and (if you counted it out) probably a quadruple-cross or two.

Hammett’s protagonist is the same unnamed, overweight operative for the Continental Detective Agency who had headlined most of the writer’s previous short stories. When a large and very organized band of outlaws knock over two banks at once, he gets involved in the investigation. Soon, though, the field of suspects shrinks considerably as the bad guys begin to whack each other (often in large batches all at once) to avoid having to divide up the loot.

When said loot is recovered, the top crook manages to slip away. The second novella involves efforts to track him down.

There’s so much to enjoy in these two stories. Hammett’s precise, straightforward prose is always fun to read. The names of the various crooks involved in the big robbery are wonderful (The Dis-and-Dat Kid; L.A. Slim; Old Pete Best; Shorty McCoy; etc.) I have no idea if these names come from his own experience as a detective or from his imagination as a writer. I do know that if crooks didn’t have such names in the 1920s, they sure as heck should have. It just sounds right.

There’s a few nifty action scenes and some really good twists at the end of both stories.

The protagonist (referred to by fans—though never in the stories—as the Continental Op) is smart and capable, following up leads in a logical manner and playing intelligent hunches. But there’s another aspect to him that Hammett continued to follow up on in future stories—the idea that a career chasing criminals can drain a person of his humanity. The Op’s boss, for instance, is described thus: “Fifty years of crook-hunting for the Continental had emptied him of everything except brains and a soft-spoken, gently smiling shell of politeness that was the same whether things went good or bad—and meant as little at one time or another.”

The Op is going down the same road. He’s been a detective so long that he really doesn’t have anything else in his life other than detective work. This shows several times in the stories when we see just how ruthless he can be in order to get the job done. It’s an element to the character that adds extra bite to an already sharp story.

Next month, we'll visit the L.A. criminal court room along with Perry Mason in "The Case of the Beautiful Begger."

No comments:

Post a Comment

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...