Nostalgia City Mysteries

By Mark S. Bacon

Category Archives: Dashiell Hammett

The Maltese Falcon reexamined

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“And when you’re slapped, you’ll take it and like it.” Sam Spade to Joel Cairo.

With apologies to Robert B. Parker, Agatha Christie, Raymond Chandler and a few others, Dashiell Hammett’s The Maltese Falcon is the quintessential murder story. Although Sam Spade appeared in only one novel, the cynical, hardboiled detective who bends the rules but still lives by a code, set the standard for all the gumshoes who would follow in the 85 years hence. “I don’t mind a reasonable amount of trouble,” he tells the comely and mysterious Brigid O’Shaughnessy.Bogie-&-Elisha-Cook

Although Spade is such a well-defined and described character, it is difficult for me to separate him from Humphrey Bogart, the actor who portrayed Spade in the 1941 noir film of the same name. Bogart’s height and general appearance don’t match Hammett’s description, but by every other measure, Bogart is Sam Spade.

Recently I reread the novel and, for perhaps the 10th time, watched the film. The similarities and the few differences are worth examining. In fact, there are at least two mysteries within the mystery. And at this point, if you haven’t seen the movie or read the book, do so. Then come back and read the rest of this article. Continue Reading →

Glass Key: A lesser known Hammett Classic

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The Glass Key
Dashiell Hammett
Vintage 214 pages
$9.99 Kindle, $11.38 trade paper

Tall, lean Ned Beaumont smokes green-dappled cigars. He’s a gambler and sometimes deep thinker. Absently, he strokes his moustache with a thumbnail. Professionally, he’s a fixer for big-city political boss Paul Madvig. Beaumont is not above violence, a little blackmail and the necessary bribery that goes into keeping a metropolitan political machine running. He has a code, however expedient it might seem, and Dashiell Hammett’s The Glass Key is all about how far Beaumont is willing to go to protect and serve Madvig.

There’s enough seedy, dark atmosphere here for several noir novels, but Hammett is the father of the genre, so you expect nothing less. Reviewing this story, which The-Glass-Key-new-cover blends murder, politics, blind love and friendships pushed to the limit, from a perspective of more than 80 years after it was first printed, poses problems. Because Hammett pioneered scenes with street lights casting deep shadows across people’s faces, furtive looks and street-tough, depression era dialog, you get the feeling you’ve heard this all before. For example, the little we learn of Beaumont’s background is that Madvig picked him up out of the gutter and gave him a job. Heard that before? Perhaps Hammett lifted the line from Dickens or someone else, but in The Glass Key, he owns the tough-talk dialog and everything that came later is just a copy.

The story is relatively simple, again something we’ve seen bits of before in later dramas and novels. Madvig wants to put his political power behind Senator Henry for re-election. Beaumont counsels against it but realizes that his advice will not likely be heeded because Madvig is in love with the senator’s daughter. When the senator’s son is found murdered, there’s enough suspects to go around.

Beaumont is not a detective, but his knowledge of the unidentified eastern city’s underworld—and crooked politicians—gives him several leads to chase. Before he can start sorting out the murder, however, he has to find a bookie, Bernie Despain, who has scrammed with $3,250 of Beaumont’s winnings. That accomplished, Beaumont is beaten up, tortured and lied to, not necessarily in that order, as he deals with a sycophantic DA, a sadistic mob boss and women who are not quite what they seem.

Hammett relies on facial expressions to communicate characters’ personalities and emotions.

His hair was a florid stubble above a florid, pugnacious face.

He moved the corners of his mouth impatiently.

His face was tired and sallow.

Her face was a tinted statue’s.

The-Glass-Key-vintage-coverIn combination with facial expressions, he gives the reader a generous dose of noir dialog.

“How far has this dizzy blond daughter of his got her hooks into you?”  

“What’s the idea,” He demanded. “What’s the idea of talking to the little lady like that?”

The Glass Key was written in 1931, just after The Maltese Falcon and before The Thin Man, two of his more famous novels. It was turned into two films, a 1935 version with George Raft and a 1942 movie with Alan Ladd and Veronica Lake. Neither film is available on Netflix and only the 1942 film can be found on Amazon.

Hammett takes Beaumont on a circuitous journey–almost Kafkaesque at times–to find murderers, to find the truth and to find himself. It’s a journey most readers will enjoy and for students of noir it offers similarities and stark differences with the Falcon which preceded it.

Award-winning 1930s private eye is ready for anything

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Picture a PI’s office in the late 1930s. It’s a third-floor walk-up. There’s a bottle in the gumshoe’s bottom drawer and a .38 just out of sight. If you’re picturing a Sam Spade type character behind the desk, you’d be right—except for her gender.

Maggie Sullivan is a savvy, resourceful private detective who walks the mean streets and privileged neighborhoods of Dayton, Ohio. She’s the creation of author M. Ruth Myers and her latest caper, Don’t Dare a Dame, recently earned a Shamus award from the Private Eye Writers of America. It’s a dandy PI tale with enough surprises to keep you guessing and Myers’s steady hand to tell the engrossing story in rich, nuanced tones.

The story starts with two “old maids” hiring Sullivan to find out what happened to their father 25 years ago when he disappeared during a great Don't-Dare-a-Dameflood. Records were lost during the flood, many of the buildings in the area where the father disappeared are long gone and memories of the events are fading.

Sullivan tells her clients that chances of finding the truth are slim. But in the course of her investigation, Sullivan stirs up old animosities, turns up at the site of a suspicious death that might be related to the father’s disappearance and runs afoul of enough menacing figures to make you wonder what will happen to her in the next chapter.

Authentic depression-era descriptions and language put the reader firmly in the past. For example, her years-gone-by vocabulary includes snazzy and moxie. She describes a man as having “a leading-man moustache.” And Sullivan sometimes gets information by calling people and pretending to be someone she isn’t, a technique that an investigator could use easily in a time long before cell phones and caller ID.

Another feature of pre-war America (still around if you look under the glass ceiling) that Myers uses to good effect, is prejudice. Sullivan is a woman doing a man’s job. The quick detective usually handles slights and snide remarks with aplomb, sometimes letting the reader in on what she really thinks: He shot me a smile that was probably meant to suggest we gals were bright as buttons.

Humor also plays a part in the entertainment value of the book and to get Sullivan’s (Myers’s) gender equity points across.

As Sullivan questions a witness who is walking her dog, the person reveals startling information.

“That wrenched my attention away from her little dog, who was sniffing my ankle and some nearby bushes with equal enthusiasm.”

When someone tries to pick her up on the street, Sullivan has an answer:

“That’s some hat, sweetheart. Want to show it off over a beer and a sandwich?”

“Hey, thanks for the nice offer, but I’m looking for someone.”

“What’s he got that I haven’t?”

“V.D.,” I said.

He took off fast.

Myers handles little details that give a story depth and realism. For example, Sullivan wants to talk to a store clerk when the clerk’s boss is gone. Sullivan waits outside until the boss leaves, but rather than rush in, Sullivan tells us she waited ten minutes more in case he forgot something.

Sullivan enters the variety store and approaches the clerk who was interested in disclosing important facts, however, “[The clerk’s] eyes made a businesslike sweep of the store first, making sure everything was under control.”

I think these are little details make a story come alive. And Myer’s prose is alive with gritty dialog, unusual characters and the first-person emotions and thoughts that have us following Sullivan into every dark alley.  This gritty PI novel is part of the Maggie Sullivan series.  You’ll want to hunt for more.

As a parting shot, here are a few of my favorite noir lines:

“The pub in the bottom drawer of my desk was always open.”

“Because of my work I’d seen more than my share of ugliness that hid in life’s corners. Nonetheless, the Warren’s marital arrangement made my skin crawl.”

“The St. George Hotel fell somewhere between the Ritz and a roach farm. It inclined toward the latter.”

 

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