Creativity comes through individuals but no one successfully creates alone. It is mysterious only to outsiders who can't see how it is done and mystify it further by calling it genius. No one has it all life through; their creativity takes off when they find their distinctive technique and their niche in the world of rivals, audiences, and downstream followers. And one learns it by getting deep inside a network of intellectual and artistic life, recombining and flipping techniques to produce something resoundingly new. Creativity via Sociology shows how they do it.

Tuesday, June 18, 2019


Writing is putting thoughts and arguments that are usually complex and multidimensional into a single-dimensional flow.  Thoughts about anything of intellectual interest usually go in several directions at once; but writing always has to string one word and one sentence after another.  All writing problems boil down to this: choosing which words in which order. You have to make it flow through a single sequence in time.


Structuring is figuring out the sequence in which ideas will emerge. There are two main levels of structure: the micro-structure of word by word within sentences; and the overall macro-structure of the entire argument. The larger structure is determining over what is within it, as structure tends to be set from the outside in. Knowing what the larger structure of your argument is will help you with micro-structuring sentences, but the reverse is not usually true.


The easiest way to work out the structure is to make an outline. This is often the intellectually hardest part of writing, but there are routines you can use to force your way ahead, even when it is very difficult.

Collect your notes in one place. Wherever you jot your ideas—on margins in books, scraps of paper, summaries of things you've read—try to boil these down into major points and get them on one piece of paper. (Or as many pages as necessary; but then you need to re-summarize them, as many times as you need until you can see the whole thing at once.) Then go through it, for instance with a colored pen, and try various sequences (A,B,C; 1,2,3, 3a, 3b, 3c, whatever) until you get one that conveys your argument in a reasonable sequence. You will find yourself collecting similar points together, but also wrestling with contradictions and gaps. This may seem mechanical, but it also is a time that can produce creative ideas.

If you can't find an ideal sequence, or even decide which point to start with, be arbitrary: pick a starting point and go from there. If you can't decide which point comes next, be arbitrary: pick one and string the others after it. All that means is that no one point obviously leads into or dominates the others, and they all have to be treated on the same level. Don't waste time over such quandaries; a crucial factor is getting your argument flowing, and you can't do that by being stalled at choice-points. 


When you are actually writing, you will sometimes get stuck. You can't figure out what to say next; the words won't come; you can't decide on the next sentence or the right term.  If you are seriously stuck, it is because of a problem in the macro-structure of your argument, not in the surface structure of the sentence itself. You don't know where your argument is going.  If I go back and look at the outline—sometimes I'll make a new outline based on what I've written so far—I always find that I got stuck at the point where my outline no longer told me where to go next. Do your revising on the outline.  It saves a lot of trouble in rewriting; it's a lot easier to tear up unsatisfactory outlines and start again than to have to do it with unsatisfactory drafts of your paper or book.


If you really know what you're going to say, a written outline may be unnecessary.  If you feel that potential flow of sentences ready to pour out, go ahead and write it. But you'll have the outline in your head, and essentially will be saying to yourself: first I'll say this, then that, then....  Of course, the process of writing itself can be creative; you can get new ideas on the fly.  But they will be effective ideas only if a structure of argument emerges as you go along. When it happens, consider yourself lucky. When it doesn't (or when it stops), go back to outlining.


An outline may go through several phases: a messy collection of notes and ideas; various ways of getting them in order; and a final outline page reduced to a set of headings in sequence. Some of this will get explicitly transferred into the paper or book itself.  But good writing is that which is not cluttered by a lot of pedantic-looking
 "I.   IA.  IA.1   Ia.2    etc." Some of this is useful to guide the reader through (see TRAFFIC below). But it is far better for the structure to be implicit in the writing, than overlaid with these markers. (If you want to see an example of a clumsy use of such markers, look at Oliver Williamson's Markets and Hierarchies:  an important and intelligent book, but very unpleasant to read.) These order-markers were useful in getting your argument in sequence, but now the sequence will generally carry itself. Get rid of most of the numbers, letters, and hierarchies of sub-headings. To the extent that such markers are still useful, disguise them as vivid and apt titles for sections of your argument. Retain numbers and letters only in places where you genuinely have to list a series of points that are arbitrarily collected, that have no intrinsic order.


Headings and sub-headings are a good place to make sure the reader gets your point. Don’t waste them on conventional labels like “Introduction” “Summary” “Discussion.”  Write like Nietzsche, not like a bureaucrat.


Sections of your argument stand out better when surrounded by some empty space. This is a visual trick to influence the reader's mind. More than that, writing generally improves by adding space within it. Break up your paragraphs when they get too long. Usually this is not hard to do, even if you have to do it arbitrarily.  You may think that the thread of a complex argument is being kept together by having it all in the same paragraph, but the effect on the reader tends to be to bury it. 

The same thing holds for sentences. When they get too long and complicated, it is almost always better to break it into several sentences. This is not hard to do, even if you have to repeat a subject noun to do it. Bertrand Russell (who was a wonderfully lucid writer) gave this as his one piece of advice on writing: whenever you have to convey something complicated in a sentence, put at least part of it in a separate sentence. 

A negative example is Pierre Bourdieu. He has even explicitly defended himself (in the Preface to  Distinction) for his inordinately long sentences and paragraphs; he claimed that the complexity and subtlety of his ideas, and all the qualifications they involved, required this form of writing. Don't believe it. Russell, Wittgenstein, and other philosophers have dealt with matters of equal subtlety in lucid (and well-spaced) prose;* and one could certainly rewrite Bourdieu to good intellectual as well as stylistic advantage. Habermas is just as complex as Bourdieu, and better organized; if his writing seems heavy, it is for other reasons, more on the level of the way he expresses his concepts. Erving Goffman was not only well-organized, but also had a light and elegant touch.

* Russell was obviously very good at structure. When you have that skill, you don't have to rewrite much. Russell once quipped: "I have only rewritten once in my life, and the result was so much worse than the first time that I resolved never to do it again."


Writing sentences is not so difficult if you follow the above advice: get the overall structure so you know where you're going in each part of the argument; break up long involved sentences (which will also give you an easier syntax). Inside particular sentences, these points help:

        > Use the active voice more than the passive.  This is old advice, but still good. But no need to be rigid about it. Do whatever sounds right. Whatever is easiest to write, usually turns out to be easiest to read. (Sartre had a terrible time writing his Critique of Dialectical Reason, and it shows.)

        > Try to keep the parts of a verb phrase together, where possible. Get the main action of the sentence into the reader's attention early on, and move the qualifications to the end. This isn't necessarily the way it will first come out in your head, or on paper. Don't worry about it; just get the sentence out and then engage in "word-processing", moving things around to where they fit best. With more experience, rearranging sentences happens faster and faster, and eventually will occur almost before you have it written down.

        > The most important thing in getting writing done is the flow.  If you notice your sentences need to be broken up, reorganized, etc., but it seems tedious and a side-track to do it now, then don't. You can always do it later, as long as you know what it is you have to do. The hardest part of writing is getting that first draft on paper. Once it's there, you can always fix it.

        > If you can't decide which of two words, or two expressions, you want to use, don't get bogged down over the decision.  There is no such thing as "the perfect word".  When I'm in this situation, I just write both words (both expressions) down, one above (or alongside) the other, and later come back and cross one out. If they're both about the same, then it doesn't make any difference which to choose, so just be arbitrary.  Again, with writing experience, the choices happen faster and more easily.  Do anything to keep up the flow.


My father-in-law, who was a newspaper editor and columnist, gave this as his one piece of writing advice, and it has always worked. When revising, or just plodding along deciding how to say things, it almost never hurts to cut. If you can't decide whether or not to cut a word, phrase, or paragraph, cut it.


There are two kinds of sentences: substantive sentences, and traffic sentences. Because complex arguments do not necessarily flow in a single sequence of ideas, it is sometimes necessary to stop and explain the order in which you are giving them: in other words, directing verbal traffic. One of the major differences between good and bad writing is that the former uses traffic sentences forthrightly, while the latter avoids them. If there is a problem with the complexity of your exposition, be up-front about it. Let the reader in on the problem:  "This topic is complicated because... To unravel it, we have to pull apart these features... I'll take them in the following order..." (An example is Habermas, Theory of Communicative Action. Although Habermas is not a stirring writer, he is clear on the structural level, and he uses traffic sentences well. Student papers, on the other hand, often get balled up for lack of this.)

Summaries are a kind of traffic sentence, but coming at the end of the argument and looking back to where it has gone. This can be useful, but you have to use your judgment as to when the summary is really useful to keep things straight (and especially when it leads into the following part of the argument). Summaries which are too mechanical, or which break up the flow of the argument, really fall under the category of "scaffolding" which should have been taken down.

Questions (including rhetorical questions) can be a graceful way of setting up the flow of what is to come next, or acting as local traffic sentences. Immanuel Wallerstein, who is quite a good writer, organizes a lot of dense material this way. ("The other element involved in banditry was part of the nobility, but again which ones?..." The Modern World System, volume 1, p. 142. "What does our argument add up to so far?..." etc.) Questions tend to give a nice flow to the sentences, and to lighten up heavy indicative exposition.


The use of special technical vocabulary is a matter of taste. Often things can be said more directly without it.   Lord Kelvin, the physicist, said that if a theory really has something to say, it should be possible to explain it in words your bartender can understand. That may be exaggerated, but it is usually true for sociology. Some writers, like Bertrand Russell, got a lot of malicious pleasure out of deflating jargon, by defining its meaning in simple terms. (C. Wright Mills once did this in a famous passage on Talcott Parsons.)

But if you write without jargon, bear in mind you are taking a risk. Technical language shows off one's membership in a particular linguistic community, and people who are committed to a professional specialty tend to automatically put down people who don't use their jargon. Whether or not to use jargon is more of a social decision than a stylistic one; it represents different strategies toward the intellectual field. But let’s at least be honest with ourselves about what we are doing. Contemporary neo-Marxists (which includes most of the post-modernist/ post-structuralist/ post-colonialist/ liberationist movements) tend to be bad offenders here. They are among the most jargon-ridden of today's intellectuals, which reflects the fact that they write esoterically for an elitist group of intellectuals. This is a remarkable example of self-deception for movements which regard themselves as anti-elitist and liberating. Marx himself was one hell of a lot better writer (probably because he hung around with Heinrich Heine, the liveliest of all German poets—and because he genuinely wanted people to get the point).


A lot of otherwise competent writers in sociology are flat, because they give us a steady diet of abstractions: heavy nouns and verbs which are really nouns with verb endings.  If you have any good metaphors, and any good colloquial turns of speech, this is where they are most needed. But it has to come naturally; artificial metaphors (or old clichés) have the opposite effect from what they are intended to do. If you can't write vividly, too bad; don't try to force it.


One tendency of mediocre writers is to try to be extremely impersonal, never using the word "I".  Good style, on the contrary, is quite willing to say "I will come to this later...." Or the word "we:"  "So far we have found...."  First person pronouns are pretty much necessary in traffic sentences.  It is foolish and clumsy to try to avoid personal pronouns when they are the most direct way of making your point. Over-formality is a mark of the semi-literate. (Unfortunately, we find a lot of this among copy-editors and journal reviewers. Dealing with these kind of people is an occupational hazard.)

Exception: starting sentences with “I think…” or “I believe that…” is usually just extra verbiage that will annoy the reader.  Go ahead and say what you have to say. If you need to write that way to get the flow of words on paper, okay, but come back at the end and cut out the unnecessary words.

A related problem, common in abstract social science, is to write so as to avoid any active agent in one's sentences at all.  For example, George Herbert Mead, Philosophy of the Act, p. lxiv: "The undertaking is to work back from the accepted organization of human perspectives in society to the organization of perspectives in the physical world out of which society arose." Mead was a poor stylist for this and other reasons. Max Weber, by comparison, is structurally a much better writer, even when he is being very abstract.


The difference between mediocre writing and good writing is often just taking the time when you are finished to go back over what you have written, and making corrections. This is the difference between a memorable article or book, and a turgid one; or between an A+ paper and a B+ paper.

Personally, I enjoy re-reading what I have written (unless I’ve done a terrible job of it, which means a lot of work hasn’t been done yet).  Even in good writing, there are a lot of things to clean up: typos (leaving them in shows you don’t care what your writing looks like); places where I can say it more sharply with fewer words, or sometimes where something has to be better explained; good ideas I’d like to add, or sometimes where too many things are being said and it’s better to save some of them for another piece. Get rid of anything that sounds like a cliché, unless you’re being sarcastic.

A harder task is places that repeat what I’ve said somewhere else in the same paper. The question then is: do I need to make this point in different contexts? If so, OK. If not, it’s annoying to the reader to read the repetitions. So I flag them all and make a list of where I said this; then figure out where is the best place to introduce it, and cut the others. Some very good writers I know are sloppy in this respect; but this kind of sloppiness can make it hard to get your stuff published. – So why do I enjoy this? As your text gets sharper, it acquires more rhythm. It feels right.


"Writer's block" is a common complaint: you just can't get yourself to start writing. It's basically a matter of getting into the rhythm. If you write every day, it's easier the next day. A lot of writers start off by going over what they wrote the previous day, or their outline, or reading something you want to argue with. But still, you may feel you are starting cold. Just get it going, no matter how.  The first words on paper aren't important; you can always come back and cross them out later. Good flow by the writer is the key to good reception by the reader.  So keep plugging until you get into a good rhythm, and then throw out the stuff that isn't good.

When I can’t get myself going at the keyboard, I take a pad of paper and scribble out the easiest parts of the argument I can think of, as fast as I can. This is a trick to tell myself, it doesn’t really matter, this is just a preliminary draft. After a while it starts to flow (assuming I don’t have a macro-structure problem where I don’t know what I want to say). Then you’re home free—sort of. After it’s on paper I tell myself, now the rest is just typing it up. That’s not really true, but whenever you get momentum, better expressions and new ideas come easily.  Sometimes this will get me into a prolonged writing binge: I feel like I ought to take a break, get a drink of water or something—but, when you’re riding that horse you want to go as far as you can with it.


"Lucidity, force, and ease:"  Edmund Wilson, a wonderfully competent writer and critic, singled these out as the great virtues of classic prose. Lucidity is what all the advice about structure is supposed to produce; if you can get the hang of it, and develop a sense of verbal rhythm, the ease will be there too.  Where does force come from? The energy of one's writing comes mainly from having something to say. The argument drives itself along, because it is going somewhere.

How do you have something forceful to say? Mainly, by being involved in the intellectual discourse of your field, knowing where the arguments are, and trying to move it forward. Set some high standards for yourself, so that you know in what direction to move.


The way you acquire intellectual and stylistic standards is by being exposed to the best in the people you read. One reason sociologists are often bad writers is because they read so many other sociologists (or philosophers, or economists or statisticians) who are bad writers. For style, don't confine yourself to reading social science. Personally, I think the secret is to read poets—Yeats, Dylan Thomas, whoever you like—in order to pick up your own sense of rhythm. Of course you can't always just read good stylists; often you need to read for content. But whoever you are reading, ask yourself if they are writing well or not. Either way, notice how they are doing it.

A book that breathes the sheer energy of writing is D.H. Lawrence, Studies in Classic American Literature.   Lawrence was always an impassioned writer and this book, though really a work of literary criticism, is even more impassioned about writing than he was about sex.  Which is saying a lot.  You can get a contact high just from reading Lawrence—his energy is contagious.

That’s what you want to aim for: make your energy contagious.

Saturday, February 16, 2019


When Vladimir Nabokov finished Lolita in 1953, he couldn’t get a publisher to take it. One called it “pure pornography,” and all feared prosecution. His agent finally placed it with a press in Paris that specialized in pornographic books for visitors to smuggle into English-speaking countries. When it came out in 1955, the sardonic English novelist Graham Greene praised it in a year-end article in the London Sunday Times as one of the best books of the year. Pushback came next year from a rival paper’s reviewer who attacked Greene and called it “sheer unrestrained pornography,” launching the kind of literary disputes that enliven the world of British intellectuals and the sales of English journalists. News of the scandal was picked up by the New York Times Book Review, and other writers chimed in. Suddenly American publishers were competing for publishing rights, followed by foreign publishers seeking translations. When Lolita came out in 1958, it sold 100,000 copies in three weeks-- the fastest-selling novel in twenty years. Stanley Kubrick (just off from making Spartacus) bought the film rights for $150,000 (worth about 10 times that amount in 2018 dollars), and gave Nabokov $40,000 to write the screenplay.

Succès de scandale, for sure. What else? Literary acclaim grew. Modern Library (which published affordable “quality” editions of world classics) ranked Lolita number 4 in a poll for the hundred greatest English-language books of the 20th century, after Ulysses (the unquestioned number 1), The Great Gatsby at number 2, and another Joyce, Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, at number 3. A French poll in 1999 by Le Monde had Lolita at number 27. Contemporary reviewers were even more enthusiastic. 

From England, Kingsley Amis: “the variety, force, and richness of Nabokov’s perceptions have not even the palest rival in modern fiction. To read him is... the nearest thing to pure sensual pleasure that prose can offer.”  Daily Mail (London): “He has moulded and manipulated the language with greater dexterity, wit and invention that any author since Shakespeare.”

And America, Time Magazine: “Lolita is a major work of fiction: it is also a shocking book... He has evolved a vivid English style which combines Joycean word play with a Proustian evocation of mood.” The Reporter: “In many ways the most remarkable-- and certainly the most original-- novel written in English during recent years.” Women writers were impressed too. Anita Loos (author of Gentlemen Prefer Blondes): “The only sure-fire classic written in my lifetime.” Dorothy Parker called it “a great book.”

What would be the judgment today? Less style points, more focus on the Lolita plot. A bare outline:

A cosmopolitan European gentlemen in his late thirties, haunted by a pubescent love affair long-ago on the Riviera, falls for a twelve-year-old American girl. To get access to her, he marries her widowed mother, who he tries to murder but fails. When she dies in a chance accident, Humbert Humbert takes off with his step-daughter Lolita on a long road trip across America, copulating with her as frequently as possible. Lolita turns out not to be a virgin (having been initiated at summer camp), but a precocious sexpot, and at first she finds Humbert handsome and exotic as the movie stars she is stuck on. Naturally this doesn’t last long, as Lolita becomes bored and Humbert tyrannical trying to keep her away from boys, growing increasingly suspicious as Lolita becomes increasingly evasive. Finally she manages to run off with another older man-- a famous playwright who has been toying with Humbert’s paranoia. Bereaved Humbert settles down in a college town for three years, until he gets a letter asking for money from now 17-year-old Lolita--  married, pregnant, living in poverty, and no longer a romantic nymphet. Humbert learns the identity of his tormentor, stalks him in his mansion, and kills him with a pistol. The novel is framed by a psychiatrist’s report and written in prison as Humbert awaits trial, not for child abuse but for murder.

For what it’s worth, Amazon shows considerable falling off from the book’s once-exalted ranking. The most popular edition of Lolita ranks no. 12,487 among electronic books as of October 2018; relegated to best showings in categories of Literary Satire Fiction (no. 17); Classic British [sic!] Fiction (no. 19); and Classic Coming of Age Fiction [Nabokov would be insulted] (no. 27). There are still a lot of customer reviews (1440), 62% giving it 5 stars; some of the recent reviews are very negative. Are we back in 1953? or where, exactly, in the historic moving arc of literary standards and tastes?

What we need to consider:

[1] Sexual standards change. Sex came out of the closet (in literature and real life) from the 1920s, peaking in the 1960s. A counter-movement set in from the late 1970s onwards, shining spotlights on rape, child abuse and sexual harassment, and coining new terms for the dark side of sex.

[2] Why it was Nabokov who rode the literary sex wave with the most shocking and best written of the closet breakouts.

[3] Nabokov’s 1939 try-out of the Lolita plot, in his Russian novel The Enchanter.

[4] How Nabokov’s much-admired style made Humbert Humbert the only sympathetic character in Lolita.

[5] And finally, not a decision on how great a novel Lolita really is, but what forces determine that historically located phenomenon, a “Great Classic”.

Sexual/literary standards change

Sex was often a topic behind the scenes in respectable novels, but only alluded to, never actually depicted. The Scarlet Letter is about Adultery, but if you don’t know what that means, Hawthorne was not about to show you. There is little or no overt sex in English-language novels after the time of Tom Jones in the 1740s. France had more sex novels -- Liaisons Dangereuses (1782) is all about seduction, but without explicit scenes. Zola wrote Nana (1880) about courtesans (and even did research interviewing them) but stays out of the bedroom and maintains a moralistic tone throughout. Some Russian novels featured prostitutes (usually low-class); in Notes from Underground (1864) Dostoyevski’s narrator humiliates a prostitute, and in Crime and Punishment (1866) a prostitute with a heart-of-gold guides the young killer to redemption. There are no sex scenes in Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1886) nor in Portrait of Dorian Gray (1891); just what they go off to do in darkest East London is only hinted at in horrified tones.

In the 1920s, the literary sex race was on. Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises (1926) centers on an aristocratic English playgirl with a string of lovers, but sex scenes are limited to abortive embraces in a taxi because the hero has been wounded in the war (had his penis shot off or something). D.H. Lawrence features another war-wounded soldier, whose place is taken by the game-keeper in Lady Chatterley’s Lover (1928). These are the first blow-by-blow sex scenes in serious literature, the first literary micro-sociology of sex. Hemingway was better at getting sex published than Lawrence, with “the earth moved” scenes in For Whom the Bell Tolls (1940); meanwhile Lady Chatterley, Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer, and other explicit celebrations of sex were banned in England and the United States until the early 1960s. Joyce’s Ulysses (1922) was admitted by court decision in 1934, but its sexual content was mostly rather oblique (a few snippets in Molly Bloom’s interior monologue).

Nabokov rides the literary sex wave

Lolita was published and got its literary fame by the same route as Ulysses, Lady Chatterley, Henry Miller et al.-- underground publication in Paris and the buzz of reputation in the avant-garde network. Nabokov took pains to distance himself from his predecessors. In an early apologia (“On a Book Called Lolita,” 1956), he summarizes the rules of the genre he is not emulating:

“ modern times the term ‘pornography’ connotes mediocrity, commercialism, and certain strict rules of narration. Obscenity must be mated with banality because every kind of aesthetic enjoyment has to be entirely replaced by simple sexual stimulation... In pornographic novels, action has to be limited to the copulation of clichés. Style, structure, imagery should never distract the reader from his tepid lust. The novel must consist of an alternation of sexual scenes. The passages in between must be reduced to brief expositions and explanations that the reader will probably skip... Moreover, the sexual scenes must follow a crescendo line, with new variations, new combinations, new sexes, and a steady increase in the number of participants (in a Sade play they call the gardener in), and therefore the end of the book must be more replete with lewd lore than the first chapters.”  [294-95]

Nabokov goes on to say that the publishers who rejected his manuscript apparently read only the first chapters (which are most focused on Humbert Humbert’s sexual thoughts) and assumed the rest would follow the formula. Nabokov, however, insists that “the nerves of the novel” are personally meaningful bits of writing about imaginary scenes or his own observations of the American landscape while driving around hunting butterflies and “trying to be an American writer.”  [296-97]

Vis-à-vis the high-literary world and its race to go farther into sex than anyone before, Nabokov wants to stay away from the rough-and-tumble of Hemingway and Henry Miller, and his aristocratic taste could not condescend to the lower-middle class milieu of Joyce. Lady Chatterley is more his class level, but (a) Nabokov is against novels with a message; (b) disillusioned war veterans has already been done; (c) if anyone is going to be disillusioned, it is a high-toned Russian exile having to teach literature at an insufferably middle-class American college (the story of Nabokov’s life as well as Humbert Humbert’s).

Every breakthrough writer has to find something new, something that combines shock with redeeming higher purpose (in this case literary style). What we would now call sexual child abuse provides the shock. It was mitigated in the 1950s context: marriages between adults and girls of 12 or 13 were still legal in many American states (rock n’ roller Jerry Lee Lewis married his 13-year-old cousin in 1957).  During the course of the novel, Humbert has Lolita sexually when she is age 13-14. As Humbert frequently points out to Lolita when they are on the lam together, if the authorities find out she will be sent to an institution for delinquent girls-- the concept of pure victimhood not yet having been developed. Humbert would expect to go to prison too, for a year or so (aging tennis star Bill Tilden received such a prison term around 1950 for his affairs with teen-age protégés). Sentencing would become much more severe in recent decades.

Altogether, the late 1950s was an ideal moment for Nabokov to enter the race. The literary world was primed to acclaim the next big step in literary sex. In Lolita the writing is brilliant but accessible, a golden mean between Joyce’s stylistic labyrinths and Hemingway’s minimalist show-don’t-tell (stylistically Nabokov is the anti-Hemingway, with his narrator constantly commenting on himself). And Lolita is much more filmable than D.H. Lawrence or Henry Miller. The 1962 film starring suave James Mason, clutzy mother Shelly Winters, precocious Sue Lyon, and funny-man Peter Sellers did nothing to arouse the censors.

Lolita also is Nabokov’s great career success. In exile from Russia since 1919, he lived in Russian émigré circles in Berlin, the French Riviera, and Paris, while he wrote nine novels in Russian. In the US since 1940, he kept on trying to publish in Russian. If he eventually made it into histories of Russian literature in the Wikipedia era, it was on the strength of his Lolita reputation. It also brought reflected fame to his other main English novel, Pale Fire (1962), which continued the theme of an exiled professor in America, here obsessed with his childhood affairs before becoming king of an idyllic land resembling pre-revolutionary Russia. Above all, the financial success of Lolita and its film enabled him to move back to Europe, where he spent the rest of his life at resorts in France and Switzerland (like the childhood of his fictional Humbert Humbert). It may well be that Nabokov was never in love with pubescent girls; his nostalgia was centered on living on perpetual vacation among the pre-war rich.

Nabokov’s 1939 try-out of the Lolita plot .

Nabokov wrote an early version in Paris, but never published it. The protagonist is a man in his late 30s who sees a 12-year-old girl playing in the park. He marries the girl’s mother to get access to her, expecting the mother to die since she is an invalid. When she doesn’t, he considers poisoning her but fails. Eventually she dies and he takes the girl south to the Riviera. On the way they stop at a provincial hotel; when he touches the sleeping girl, she wakes up screaming, the hotel guests mob him; he runs into the street and is killed by a truck. The main plot tension is his scheming-- getting the sick woman to consider him a suitor; trying to be alone with the girl; planning how to approach her once he has her. His schemes are interrupted by Hitchcock-like hitches, which serve to keep the story in suspense. In the hotel, just as he is getting the girl in bed, there is a knock on the door-- a gendarme wants to question him. It turns out to be a mistaken identity. But he doesn’t know his room number, bumbles around through the dim-lit stairs and corridors, trying the wrong doors. Finally as he starts his caresses, he sees someone else in the room!-- no, it’s the reflection of his striped pajamas in the mirror. And so throughout.

Aside from the truncated plot (a 50 page story versus a 300 page book), there are numerous differences from Lolita. The 12-year-old girl is the same age as Lolita when Humbert Humbert first sees her, but much more childish and sexually innocent. In the park, she is roller-skating and playing hopscotch. Lolita is sun-bathing in her back yard, wearing a bikini and sunglasses. The Enchanter’s girl (she is never given a name) says little, except she would like to go to the beach and learn to swim. Lolita devours movie-fan magazines, chats cynically about boys, and flirts with Humbert, her mother’s summer lodger. Nabokov observed a real difference between European adolescents, who in the 1930s and later were still treated like children under the eyes of nursemaids, and American kids who by the 1950s had acquired the label “teenagers” with their own culture, pop music, and closed-off-from-parents social life. The reception of Lolita in 1958 was of a piece with the furor over juvenile delinquency, street gangs, and West Side Story (also 1958).

The “nymphet” theme is there in The Enchanter, if not the term. The anonymous middle-aged bachelor is smitten by girls on the cusp on puberty, a look that he knows is ephemeral, due to pass away by age 17 or 20, or even on-rushing 14. Young women become less delicate and more banal; full-grown women are just widening bodies. This is reiterated at length by Humbert Humbert, who finds Lolita’s mother cow-like.

Lolita almost immediately gives us the backstory. Humbert remembers himself at 13, summering on the Riviera and falling in love with the daughter of family friends, a girl named Annabel (echoes of Edgar Allen Poe) who is a few months younger and the archetype of the nymphet. Their sexual liaisons out of sight of their elders are abortive, and before the next season she dies of typhus in Corfu. So the grown-up Humbert never marries, finds prostitutes gross, undergoes more exile until his life lights up when he sees Lolita: “But that mimosa grove-- the haze of stars, the tingle, the flame, the honeydew, and the ache remained with me, and that little girl with her seaside limbs and ardent tongue haunted me ever since-- until at last, twenty-four years later, I broke her spell by incarnating her in another.” [12-13]

He goes on to explain about nymphets: “When I was a child and she was a child, my little Annabel was no nymphet to me; I was her equal, a faunlet in my own right, on that same enchanted island of time; but today, in September 1952, after twenty-nine years have elapsed, I think I can distinguish in her the initial fateful elf in my life... Soon I found myself maturing amid a civilization which allows a man of twenty-five to court a girl of sixteen but not a girl of twelve.” [15]

In The Enchanter there is no backstory, Riviera luxury hotels or anything else. The bare-bones plot-- a man who loves nymphets, marries one’s mother to get to her; but it comes out badly in the end-- is artfully crafted into  Lolita.

The mothers are different too. “...a tall, pale, broad-hipped lady with a hairless wart near a nostril of her bulbous nose” (Enchanter, 15).   The pursuer has to scheme and play-act to pretend he finds in her some vestige of attractiveness; and the prospect of consummating their marriage sexually fills him with disgust: “it was perfectly clear that he (little Gulliver) would be unable to tackle those broad bones, those multiple caverns, the bulky velvet, the formless anklebones, the repulsively listing conformation of her ponderous pelvis, not to mention the rancid emanations of her wilted skin and the as yet undisclosed miracles of surgery... here his imagination was left hanging on barbed wire.” (30)

Lolita’s mother, on the other hand: “I think I had better describe her right away, to get it over with. The poor lady was in her middle thirties, she had a shiny forehead, plucked eyebrows and quite simple but not unattractive features of the type that may be defined as a weak solution of Marlene Dietrich.” (Lolita, 33) Humbert finds her gauche and pretentious, stuck in the utterly middle-class world (before such women had careers) of book club and bridge club “or any other deadly conventionality.” Charlotte Haze, unlike her 1939 Paris counterpart, actively pursues her daughter’s would-be lover, and the plot tension in this part of the book is chiefly about Humbert fending her off while keeping her sufficiently happy not to be suspicious. Here he has an ally in Lolita, who likes defying her mother and finds Humbert refreshingly different from her callow age-mates. This develops into mother-daughter rivalry, with Charlotte planning to get Lolita out of the way at summer camp, and then off permanently to boarding school. In The Enchanter, the widow is a self-centered invalid, claiming the privilege of not being bothered by her daughter, who she finds too noisy to have around her apartment, and keeps her boarded with a couple in a provincial town. In Lolita, all this is more pleasant to read about, more comic, and more dramatic than in The Enchanter. Charlotte gets hold of her husband’s secret diary, reads about his designs on Lolita and his real opinion of herself. Humbert reads Charlotte’s shocked/angry note, tries to compose an explanation (just a novel I’m writing) when the neighbour knocks on the door-- his wife has been killed by a car as she was crossing the street to post the tell-all letters in the mailbox.

The Enchanter has no memorable personalities. No one in the story even has a name. The protagonist is simply “he,” the widow is “the old woman” (age 42) and then, since he cannot bring himself to think of her as his wife, simply “that person.” The object of his obsession is merely “the girl.” The narrator sticks entirely to the protagonist’s point of view, with passages of inner dialogue or its paraphrase. The writing has its passages of eloquence and clever word-play (judging from the translation by Nabokov’s son from Russian into English), but this doesn’t rub off on the protagonist, unlike in Lolita, where Humbert Humbert’s first-person account makes Nabokov’s light-touch wordplay into a feature of the character himself. The “enchanter” is polite and respectable on the surface, but his inner thoughts are largely dour, with none of the jokes and self-ironicizing that makes Humbert the most attractive person in the book.

The “enchanter” doesn’t seem very enchanting. Only in the last chapter do we learn what the title is meant to convey. This is his self-image, engaged in schemes to bring the girl under his spell, getting her accustomed to step-fatherly affection, until:

“We shall live far away, now in the hills, now by the sea, in a hothouse warmth where savage-like nudity will automatically become habitual, perfectly alone (no servants!), seeing no one, just the two of us in an eternal nursery and thus any remaining sense of shame will be dealt its final blow. There will be constant merriment, pranks, morning kisses, tussles on the shared bed, a single, huge sponge shedding its tears on four shoulders, squirting with laughter amid four legs... During the first two years or so the captive would be ignorant... of the puppet-master’s panting... He would have to be particularly cautious, not to let her go anywhere alone, make frequent changes of domicile, keep a sharp eye out lest she make friends with other children or have occasion to start chatting with the woman from the greengrocer’s or the char, for there was no telling what impudent elf might fly from the lips of enchanted innocence... And yet, for what could one possibly reproach the enchanter!

“He knew he would find sufficient delights in her so as not to disenchant her prematurely... He knew he would make no attempt on her virginity in the tightest and pinkest sense of the term until the evolution of their caresses had ascended a certain invisible step.”  (42-44)

So he thinks on his train ride to pick her up and take her south. Finally, after a series of petty interruptions, he is in the hotel room, lying down beside her:

“So. The hour he had deliriously desired for a full quarter century had finally come, yet it was shackled, even cooled by the cloud of his bliss. The flow and ebb of her light-colored robe, mingling with revelations of her beauty, still quivered before his eyes, intricately rippled as if seen through cut glass. He simply could not find the focal point of business, did not know where to begin, what one could touch, and how, within the realm of her repose, in order to savor this hour to the fullest. So.” (54)

Descending even more into micro-detail:

“The stuffy air and his excitement were growing unbearable. He slightly loosened his pajama drawstring, which had been cutting into his belly... Then, starting little by little to cast his spell, he began passing his magic wand above her body, almost touching the skin, torturing himself with her attraction, her visible proximity, the fantastic confrontation permitted by the slumber of this naked girl, whom he was measuring, as it were, with an enchanted yardstick...

“...slowly, with bated breath, he was inching closer and then, coordinating all his movements, he began molding himself to her, testing the fit... A spring apprehensively yielded under his side; his right elbow, cautiously cracking, sought a support; his sight was clouded by a secret concentration... He felt the flame of her shapely thigh, felt that he could restrain himself no longer, that nothing mattered now, and, as the sweetness came to a boil between his wooly tufts and her hip, how joyously his life was emancipated and reduced to the simplicity of paradise-- and having barely time to think, ‘No, I beg you, don’t take it away!” he saw that she was fully awake and looking wild-eyed at his rearing nudity.

“For an instant, in the hiatus of a syncope, he also saw how it appeared to her: some monstrosity, some ghastly disease... She was looking and screaming, but the enchanter did not hear her screams; he was deafened by his own horror, kneeling, catching at the folds, snatching at the drawstring, trying to stop it, hide it, snapping with his oblique spasm, as senseless as pounding in place of music, senselessly discharging molten wax, to stop it or conceal it...

“How she rolled from the bed, how she was shrieking now, how the lamp scampered off in its red cowl, what a thundering came from outside the window, shattering, destroying the night, demolishing everything, everything... ‘Be quiet, it’s nothing bad, it’s just a kind of game, it happens sometimes, just be quiet,’ he implored, middle-aged and sweaty...” (56-57)

Then the pounding on the door, the mob in the hall, escape down the stairs, out into the street where the trucks rolled down hill, finding one opportunely to throw himself under. “...and the film of life had burst.” [59]

In every respect, Nabokov made Lolita a more attractive book than The Enchanter. No wonder he tried to trash the early manuscript and even his first attempts at a reworking. Each time it was rescued by his wife. Did she sense it was the key to their future?

The oddest thing about The Enchanter was that Nabokov wrote it in autumn 1939, just after Stalin and Hitler joined to invade Poland. Falling back on sheer escapism? Nabokov as an adult was apolitical (even though, or perhaps because, his father was a reformist party leader, journalist and sometime official in various Russian governments, who was killed in Germany in a fight among exile factions in 1922). (If I can intrude a telling irrelevancy, Nabokov’s next literary project after his father was shot was a Russian translation of Alice in Wonderland.) In Lolita, the one mention of external events is when summarizing his prior life, Humbert says: “the gloom of yet another World War had settled upon the globe when, after a winter of ennui and pneumonia in Portugal, I at last reached the States.” (28-9)  Nabokov’s protagonists are too self-absorbed to be interested in anything else.  

Style creates sympathy

“They kissed, undressed, and smoked a cigarette. I got ready to climb down. At that moment I felt the ladder sliding away under me. I tried to grab hold of the window, but it gave way. The ladder fell with a crash and there I was, dangling in the air. Suddenly the whole apartment exploded with alarm. Everyone came running...”  [114]

“Pink veins glimmered in the white stone of the portal, and above it columns as thin as candles. The organ fell silent and then burst into a laughter of bass notes. The church was filled with light, filled with dancing rays, columns of air, and a cool exaltation...” [287]

“His hatred followed me through forests and over rivers. I felt it on my hide and shuddered. He nailed his bloodshot eyes on my path...” [346]

“Someone’s horse neighs softly like a pining woman, and the cannonade, falling silent, lies down to sleep on the black, wet earth.  Only one window is ablaze in a faraway street. It cuts through the gloom of the autumn night like an exhilarated searchlight, flashing, drenched with rain... I can still hear the sound of water. The rain is continuing to stutter, bubble, and moan on the roofs. The wind grabs the rain and shoves it to the side. The light of the room has dimmed by half. A man rises from the bench, splicing the dim glimmer of the moon...” [339-40]

“I took the manuscript home with me and cut swaths through the translation. When a phrase is born, it is both good and bad at the same time. The secret of its success rests in a crux that is barely discernable. One’s fingertips must grasp the key, gently warming it. And then the key must be turned once, not twice.” [445]

Nabokov?  No. It’s another Russian, Nabokov’s contemporary, five years older Isaac Babel. One might have guessed from the mention of “cannonade” in the fourth excerpt that these are Babel’s Red Army stories from the 1920s, while Nabokov was traversing southern Russia on the Whites’ side of the front and on into exile. But the first excerpt, from “The Bathroom Window” is set in a brothel in Petersburg (Nabokov’s home town), a story that got Babel prosecuted for obscenity in 1917. The last excerpt is again Petersburg in 1916, about translating literature from French into Russian, and both its message and its tone are closely aligned with Nabokov’s thought processes. I am not claiming that Nabokov was influenced by Babel. But that he read some of these stories is quite likely; Babel himself went back and forth between Russia and Paris in the late 20s and early 30s, and it would not be hard to find intermediate network links between them-- except for a big difference in social class between the writers. And in politics, of course; 19-year-old Nabokov considered enlisting in the White Army, then thought better of it-- otherwise the two writers could have shot each other. 

What is more to the point is that startling metaphors and figures of speech were in vogue in avant-garde Russian writing in the early 20th century, and sophisticated analysis of literary effects was being done by Russian theorists such as Viktor Shlavsky and Roman Jakobson. This sophistication reached the West via France, where it transmuted in the 1950s into structuralism. Nabokov took the Russian stream, not of theory but of practice, to America.

In Lolita, Nabokov’s writing hits a new peak and never lets down. Every line is a bon mot, every sentence beautiful, alive, compelling. Even banalities are rendered gracefully.

“...the little diary which I now propose to reel off (much as a spy delivers by heart the contents of the note he has swallowed) covers most of June.” [37]

“At first, I planned to take a degree in psychiatry as so many manqué talents do; but I was even more manqué than that; a peculiar exhaustion, I am so oppressed, doctor, set in; and I switched to English literature, where so many frustrated poets end as pipe-smoking teachers in tweeds.” [13] 

There is hardly a pedestrian sentence in the book, but you never feel it’s overdone, nor do the verbal acrobatics distract from the movement of the story. Hold on-- what movement? -- since not a lot happens in the ordinary sense of the word. More the other way around-- Nabokov’s sentences are the movement of the story.

“In the course of the sun-shot moment when my glance slithered over the kneeling child (her eyes blinking over those stern dark spectacles-- the little Herr Doktor who was to cure me of all my aches) while I passed by her in my adult disguise (a great big handsome hunk of movieland manhood), the vacuum of my soul managed to suck in every detail of her bright beauty, and these I checked against the features of my dead bride. A little later, of course, she, this nouvelle, this Lolita, my Lolita, was to eclipse completely her prototype. All I want to stress is that my discovery of her was a fatal consequence of that ‘princedom by the sea’ in my tortured past. Everything between the two events was but a series of gropings and blunders and false rudiments of joy.” [36]

How does he do it? A salad of word-play, alliteration, American colloquialisms (Nabokov showing off his mastery of yet another tongue), shifts in rhythm and cadence-- now mellifluous, now abrupt. Acres and acres of long run-on sentences, constructed out of parenthetical interpolations; but the piling-on of clever phrases never feels confusing or overwrought. You the reader never lose track of where you are (unlike, for instance, reading Joyce);* the bouncing tropes are in the service of vivid word-painting, the pyrotechnics keep you in the picture. A combination indeed of word-magic and realism.

* Nabokov was not given to footnotes in Lolita,  but here we can mention that he wrote to Joyce in 1933 offering to translate Ulysses into Russian. In 1937, Joyce attended a Nabokov reading; and the two met in 1938 in Paris.

It holds together because the long sentences full of self-interruptions perfectly match the narrator’s character. And that is what drives the plot: not so much what Humbert Humbert does but his ironic self-reflections on what he has done and plans to do.

By keeping his own voice in the foreground, Humbert manages to be the only sympathetic character in the novel. He travels around a country full of people who are crass, ugly, dismal, uncool, unsophisticated and tasteless. The only person in Lolita who is cool, upbeat, fun, a good guy to be around, is Humbert Humbert (the pseudo-Nabokov). Both author and protagonist are Euro-snobs, disdainful of Americans. Probably this is why there is relatively little dialogue in considerable stretches of the book, since only Humbert can talk in an interesting manner. When other characters speak, the effect is almost entirely satirical, such as when Nabokov parodies the headmistress of the girl’s school Lolita attends.

Perhaps we should add Lolita as a dominant character. She gets a certain amount of clipped dialogue, allowing Nabakov to show off his perfect ear for the teenage idiom. She is very unlike “the girl” in The Enchanter, flirting with Humbert and even initiating sex with him in their initial hotel-room scene. The rest of the book is a struggle of wills between them, which Lolita wins. 

Humbert/Nabokov is attractive because of his word-magic. (Was the author conscious of vindicating at least that residue of The Magician ?) The endlessly dancing sentences convey us inside the mind of a light-footed, all-angles-considering, gracefully quick-witted consciousness. He is endlessly self-ironicizing but not self-alienated. Being in Humbert’s presence is never a downer although what happens in his life is.

Here it is worth peeling away Nabokov’s style to get at a bare-bones account of what happens as Lolita winds down.

Lolita as tragedy

Lolita is tragedy, not in the vulgar newsmedia use of the word to mean whenever anyone gets killed, but in the high literary sense. It is even classic tragedy: a hero with great qualities (in this case, a magical style) and a fatal flaw, treading towards downfall with inevitable destiny-laden steps.

As soon as Humbert has Lolita, things start going downhill. Taste mismatches: European high culture vs. coca cola, hamburgers, and movie magazines. Humbert is getting plenty of sex, but he has to pay for it with a continuous stream of bribes, candy, clothes; even money (3 cents a day, which she wheedles up to 15 cents) for her allowance, “under condition she fulfill her basic obligations... [while she] managed to raise the bonus price of a fancy embrace to three, and even four bucks.” [172]  Lolita chafing at the bit is a constant source of anxiety, as Humbert becomes increasingly paranoid about any contact she has with boys. This leads to a certain amount of comedy, as school officials complain to Humbert about being too strict and old-fashioned with her. Paranoia takes on a dimension of reality as neighbours grow suspicious and her girlfriends cast knowing looks. Their intermittent quarrels grow worse as Lolita protests about being denied her teenage freedom and resorts to ruses and lying about everyday trivialities. Humbert finds himself resorting to force, from twisting her wrists to slapping her face. [192, 212] Everyone has mutated into their opposite; Lolita recapitulating Humbert’s furtiveness in his clandestine courtship days; Humbert repeating the harshness of Lolita’s mother during their siege of rivalry:

“ ‘Just slap her hard if she interferes with your scholarly meditations.’ ” Charlotte Haze says, finding Lolita putting her hands over Humbert’s eyes from behind as he sits reading a book. [51] 

Finally Humbert escapes with Lolita into an endless, year-long auto trip, where paranoia approaches hallucination as he thinks they are being followed by another car. When Lolita is hospitalized, she manages to escape, allegedly picked up by her uncle. Humbert hires detectives but can never find her. We skip three years to the denouement: he gets a letter from her, telling him she is married and asking for money. This Humbert willingly provides, and in return gets the satisfaction of finding out who took her from him: the famous playwright/screenwriter Quilty, whom Lolita had a crush on for years-- Humbert not being the only mature man she preferred to adolescent boys. Quilty took her to a dude ranch in New Mexico, surrounded by hipsters, drug-using carousers, the Hollywood scene.  Another irony: Humbert’s old-world culture is out-bid by the trendy edge of American life.* Quilty takes none of this as seriously as Humbert, tries out Lolita for the casting couch, offering to get her a movie part. She willingly slept with Quilty but resisted being in a pornographic movie, leaving the dude ranch to enter a downward spiral of dish-washing in restaurants and marrying a workingclass guy. Humbert goes off to avenge himself on Quilty (“before I drove to wherever the beast’s lair was-- and then pulled the pistol’s foreskin back, and then enjoyed the orgasm of the crushed trigger.”) [258] Lolita dies in childbirth. Humbert Humbert dies in prison of heart failure.

* Quilty is the only character besides Humbert who gets to talk at length, in the 10 page section near the end where Humbert tries to torment him before shooting him. Quilty displays a range of rhetoric rivaling Nabokov’s-- perhaps a parodied American counterpart.

Tragedy elevates, purging pity and fear, Aristotle said. Shakespeare’s tragedies are elevating in just that sense; Faulkner’s too.  Can we say this about Lolita ?

What makes a Great Classic?

Simple answer: surviving the test of time. In the history of philosophy, one does not become canonical in the generation after one’s death. There is often a dip in reputation; the real test is 100 or more years later, as the names remembered from the past are winnowed out. Similar processes operate in the history of art. As yet there is no systematic study of these reputational time-patterns for literary writers. Nabokov died in 1977, and now (the late 2010s) is about the time when past fame no longer counts; there has to be something in it people still want to read. Moralistic attacks on literature (which is to say, external to literary criteria) are fairly common in the history of literature. By the same token, books famous for moving-the-boundaries-of-what-can-be-said may not outlive their shock value.

Do standards of what constitutes literature-- internal to the world of serious readers-- change historically to such a degree that one-time classics become outmoded? It happens, although not very often. Literature of the Renaissance period, with its allegories and symbolism, stopped being appealing by the 1700s. We can’t rule out a similar repudiation in the future of the whole realist and psychological (AKA “romantic”) literature of the past three centuries. But our theorizing about literary reception and production has not advanced enough to speculate about what kinds of social changes would make this happen. Come back in a hundred years or so, and we’ll see.


Vladimir Nabokov. Novels 1955-62.  Library of America. Includes detailed chronology of Nabokov’s life.

Vladimir Nabokov. The Enchanter.  1986. translated by Dmitri Nabokov.

Isaac Babel. Collected Stories. 2002.  Originally published 1913-1938.

Peter Steiner. Russian Formalism. 1984. Cornell Univ. Press

Eric Schneider. Vampires, Dragons, and Egyptian Kings: Youth Gangs in Postwar New York. 1999. Princeton Univ. Press.

Randall Collins. The Sociology of Philosophies. A Global Theory of Intellectual Change. 1998.

Thursday, July 12, 2018


Sam Spade is the most famous movie detective, and The Maltese Falcon  is the greatest writing by Dashiell Hammett, who created the modern detective story. But there was a long road leading to Sam Spade from Hammett’s stories of the 1920s, when he leveraged his experience as an operative for Pinkerton’s National Detective Agency into a series of pulp-magazine stories telling what it’s really like on the ground.

The Pinkerton Agency was a big, bureaucratic, nation-wide organization. Its agents were cogs in the machine, drawing on each other for information and assistance to track down criminals. They were more FBI than Private Eye. They worked closely with the local police. Their operatives were the opposite of the lone-wolf detective in the mold of Sam Spade or Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe, who were constantly in trouble with the cops. The road to The Maltese Falcon  had to turn allies into antagonists; eventually the PI genre would generate half its plot tension from heavy-handed intrusions by the police.

From the outset, Hammett’s detective is a hard-boiled tough guy, at home with underworld slang, who knows how to give it out and take a beating in a fight. He is laconic and lacking in personality in other respects. This had to change, to arrive at the cynical/romantic detective sparring verbally with glamorous women and sometimes falling for them. Hammett’s Continental Op is essentially sexless as well as emotionless, like Sherlock Holmes, Hercule Poirot, Miss Marple and the like. Spade and Marlowe become a different breed of cat.

The Pinkerton/Continental Detective Agency: a bureaucratic team

When the Continental Op is on a case, he has plenty of backup. When he wants somebody shadowed, he calls on an office-full of agents to watch a home for a week, even renting nearby apartments with good vantage point. (Even today, this would by an expensive stakeout by the FBI, usually reserved for Mafia investigations.) The Continental Op checks out suspects’ alibis and tracks their movements by telegraphing his company’s offices around the country. When he wants to identify someone, he can wire for photographs from the company’s archive. He can even get fingerprints, and have them analyzed for whether they have been altered. (One of Hammett’s early stories hinges on a suspect who created fake fingerprint by coating his fingers with gelatin and pressing them onto an engraving of someone else’s prints.)  The Continental Op runs down information by using organizational bureaucracy whoever runs it; when he knows a suspect has taken a taxi, he sends a team of operatives to the taxi company’s office to go through the records and find where the suspect was driven. All the implausible sleuthing done by Sherlock Holmes as an individual working alone-- tracing a cigarette stub through his own private collection of every kind of tobacco, and finding these cigarettes are specially made, by a tobacconist in Holmes’ file, for only three people-- is carried out by the Continental Op’s  team. Eventually, these methods of tracing suspects would become standard procedure in police bureaucracies.

Cops as allies 

Far from being rivals of the cops, the Pinkerton/Continental Agency works closely with them. The police routinely call them with information and invite them to accompany them to the scene of a  crime or a body discovered. The Continental Op drops in on the police to discuss the progress of a case they are both working on. In later films, the viewer assumes that Spade or Marlowe just have personal friends among the police who occasionally tip them off; but  the Pinkertons always coordinated with the police. On the whole, their work was less dramatic than the detective-story murders: bank fraud, jewel robberies, embezzlement and blackmail were their chief line of work; and these could involve far-ranging movements of persons or loot around the country, so that the nation-wide range of the Pinkertons provided a larger resource than any local police department. The Pinkertons had the first national fingerprint file, and archives of criminals’ photos and descriptions.* The police looked up to the Pinkertons and welcomed their cooperation.  The Continental Op can count on them to lay a police dragnet around all traffic out of Los Angeles, when he is testing the alibi of a suspect. They also accept his request to release a suspect from jail so that shadowing her might lead to other suspects.

*The FBI scientific crime detection laboratory, established in 1932, began to coordinate fingerprint and photo files from police departments around the country.

Cops liked the Pinkertons to do their dirty work for them, roughing up suspects or killing them. Oversight of police methods was weak, but even so what the Pinkertons did was completely off the books. This was especially so in the area of labor struggles, where the Pinkertons had been employed as strike breakers and labor spies, dating back to bloody confrontations in the 1880s. Their action went beyond fighting with union picket lines and escorting strike-breaking workers into a plant. They shadowed labor organizers (especially from radical organizations like the International Workers of the World), beat them up and sometimes crippled or killed them. They posed as union men to stir up disputes, act as agents provocateurs, and finger the militants. In Red Harvest, the Continental Op follows this pattern, drawing on Hammett’s own experience as a strike-breaker, plus reports of a murderous struggle at a copper mining town in Montana in 1917.  In a town where everybody is on the take one way or the other, the Op succeeds in making the leaders of different factions suspicious of each other, in effect accomplishing his assignment by instigating (and taking part in) a long series of murders.

The police welcomed the Pinkertons/Continentals for operating outside the law more effectively than they could within the law. Of course, most of their cases were routine-- bank fraud and the like-- where the private agency simply provided more resources. It would be writers like Hammett who spiced up their stories with a dramatic back-and-forth of violence.

The essence of detective work: shadowing, reporting, record-checking

In an early story (1924), the Continental Op says:  “Ninety-nine percent of detective work is a patient collecting of details-- and your details must be got as nearly first-hand as possible, regardless of who else has worked the territory before you.” [Op.110]  (He means here that he can see things the cops overlook.)

“A good motto for the detective business is, ‘When in doubt, shadow ‘em.’”  He goes on to give four rules for shadowing: “Keep behind your suspect as much as possible; never try to hide from him; act in a natural manner no matter what happens; and never meet his eye.” [Op.89-90]

The Continental Op can call on a whole team of accomplished shadowers. One of them has the information down to a laconic formula:  “Made him,” he reported. “Thirty or thirty-two. Five, six. Hundred, thirty. Sandy hair, complexion. Blue eye. thin face, some skin off. Rat. Lives dump in Seventh Street.”  [Op.405]

The Op does plenty of shadowing of his own; and Dashiell Hammett himself, during his years with the Pinkertons was regarded as an excellent shadower, even though he was over six feet tall (unusual for the time). The shadower also has to report what he sees; a concise description, addresses, times when people were present or went somewhere else. The Op writes up his reports for the local office, and calls on reports by other agents as he builds his investigation.

This is the essence of bureaucracy. In Max Weber’s famous summary of the characteristic of bureaucracy in world history, these elements stand out: a bureaucracy makes written reports, keeps them in files, and uses them as the basis for its actions. Bureaucrats’ reputation as paper-pushers is justified, but Weber underlined its effectiveness: keeping records is the only way to coordinate a large number of people, and to bring rational calculation to bear on figuring out what is a pattern and how to deal with it. The Continental Op glamorizes bureaucracy, when records are created by stealthy surveillance and their subjects are possible murderers.

The Dashiell Hammett brand

Hammett’s years with the Pinkertons were the origins of his writing style. This would become the hallmark of the Hammett brand.

Concise, vivid descriptions and wise-guy comments

At or near the opening of a story, Hammett describes an important character who sets in motion the plot. His descriptions are the kind of things he did in his shadowing reports: giving height, shape of face, coloring, distinctive body carriage-- all the things that enable a shadower to keep tabs on his target, as well as clueing in another agent who would take over surveillance.

“He was a big balloon of a man, in a green plaid suit that didn’t make him look any smaller than he was. His tie was a gaudy thing, mostly of yellow, with a big diamond set in the center of it, and there were more stones on his pudgy hands. Spongy fat blurred his features, making it impossible for his round purplish face to ever hold any other expression than the discontented hoggishness that was habitual to it.”  [Op.108]

“I sized up the amateur while he strained his neck peeping at Ledwick. He was small, this sleuth, and scrawny and frail. His most noticeable feature was his nose-- a limp organ that twitched nervously all the time. His clothes were old and shabby, and he himself was somewhere in his fifties.” [Op.92]

Surroundings are significant introductions to their owners:

“While I waited for him I looked around the room, deciding that the dull orange rug under my feet was probably genuinely Oriental and truly ancient, that the carved walnut furniture hadn’t been ground out by machinery, and that the Japanese prints on the walls hadn’t been selected by a puritan.” [Op.631]

Other than when he describing people, Hammett is a minimalist writer, clear and clean, having shaved away all excess verbiage. This is a main reason why his stories move along so rapidly-- and why critics recognized him as a distinctly modern writer, even comparing him to Hemingway. But in his descriptions Hammett is very un-Hemingway. This emphasis comes from his training in writing shadowing reports-- a writing apprenticeship of five years. Hammett no doubt enhanced his descriptions beyond his early practice-- in effect, his first step towards creating his own brand. One gets an initial idea of what kind of person is hiring the detective (quite possibly for hidden motives); the description is the first clue.

They also give a sense of the Continental Op’s character. On the whole, the detective is laconic in his speech; and since he is also the first-person narrator, the same style pervades the entire story. The Op keeps his emotions to himself; better yet, he prefers not to have any emotions, he is just doing his job.* His clipped utterances convey a tinge of cynicism, and this is enhanced by the wise-guy remarks he often smuggles into his personal descriptions. Most writers’ descriptions are bland, just setting the scene before getting into the action (a reason why Hemingway avoids them); but Hammett’s episodic portraits convey a moral judgment, and a sardonic wit. We don’t learn much about the Op as a character, but he is a master of the wise-crack. He doesn’t engage in repartée, but in his mind he looks down on the people he deals with.**

* “This lawyer was bound upon getting me worked up; and I like my jobs to be simply jobs-- emotions are nuisances during business hours.” [Op.98]

* People he likes are usually cops.: “... his freckles climbing up his face, to make room for his grin.” [Op.419]

The Op also conveys his easy familiarity with slang, sprinkling his narrative with underworld expressions. This is part of the hard-boiled character that Hammett is credited with inventing. He didn’t start the literary movement conveying the speech of ordinary people of the lower classes. This had been done previously by writers like Twain, Bret Harte, and Kipling. Such writing could be verbose, showing off, or mocking the speaker. Stephen Crane’s Maggie, A Girl of the Streets  (1893) is so full of lower-class dialect and phonetic spellings that it is tedious to read. Hammett inserts a mere razor-cut of slang here and there, following his tactic of never impeding the flow of the story.

There is an unintended consequence of Hammett’s word-portraits. Every person has a particular type of nose-- straight, thick, hooked, up-turned;  a shape of the head:  narrow, broad-cheeked, round, oval-- and Hammett’s training made him sensitive to all the little things that combine to make someone look distinctive. In writing his stories and novels, Hammett was at pains to set off his characters from each other, both by descriptions and by making up unusual names; and his most important characters usually get an over-the-top description.  (The Op himself is never described, except we learn that he is short and heavy, reversing Hammett’s own appearance, tall and thin.) This tendency to portray exaggerated, even grotesque persons is one of the things that appealed to Hollywood in filming his novels.

This reaches a climax in The Maltese Falcon, where all the bad guys are extremes: the Fat Man (Sydney Greenstreet’s character) who resembles the “big balloon of a man” quoted above, except that he wears the pompous morning dress (tail-coat, cravat, spats) of the old-fashioned British upper class. Joel Cairo (Peter Lorre), the dandy with foppish manners, a  carnation in his lapel, and a perfumed handkerchief in his wallet. Wilmer, the diminutive gun-man, who talks tough (and shoots people cold-bloodedly) but who barely comes up to Humphrey Bogart’s shoulder. Why have a tiny gun-man instead of a more plausible strong-armed hoodlum? Just breaking the pattern and thereby being memorable. Visually-oriented Hollywood used the same set of actors (Greenstreet, Lorre, Elisha Cook, Bogart) in other classic film noir. It is also a reason why The Maltese Falcon is fun rather than threatening: its bad guys are too grotesque to be real.*

* All the killings happen off screen, and the one real thug in the story, Thursby, is never seen or even described.

Micro-observations and emotional domination

The Op is an excellent observer of other people-- not just what they look like, but the little signals they give off.

“I paused at the door of the Figgs’ room, until my ear told me that they were sleeping. At Mrs. Gallaway’s door I had to wait several minutes before she sighed and turned in bed. Barbra Caywood was breathing deeply and strongly, with the regularity of a young animal whose sleep is without disturbing dreams. The invalid’s breath came to me with the evenness of slumber and the rasping of the pneumonia convalescent.” [Op.79]

“She talked for five minutes straight, the words fairly sizzling from between her hard lips; but the words themselves didn’t mean anything. She was talking for time-- talking while she tried to hit upon the safest attitude to assume.” [Op.97]

“The Whosis Kid let go of the woman and took three slow steps back from her. His eyes were dead circles without any color you could name-- the dull eyes of a man whose nerves quit functioning in the face of excitement.” [Op.240]

“I was puzzled. The Dummy’s yellowish eyes should have showed the pinpoint pupils of the heroin addict. They didn’t. The pupils were normal. That didn’t mean he was off the stuff-- he had put cocaine into them to distend them to normal. The puzzle was-- why? He wasn’t usually particular enough about his appearance to go to that trouble.” [Op.306]

The detective sees through people’s motives by quickly recognizing the clues they are giving off about what they are trying to accomplish. He is like a Goffman-inspired sociologist, who sees the impressions people are trying to convey and what effort they have to put into the performance. In The Maltese Falcon, Brigid O’Shaughnessy plays at being naive, nervous, helpless, overwhelmed; but Sam Spade is having none of it. “You’re not going to go around poking at the fire and straightening up the room again, are you?” [Novel.438]

The result is the detective always dominates the interaction.   He sets the rhythm, and refuses to let the other side take charge. He listens when he is getting information, but when he is getting nowhere he quickly pulls the plug. He is a skilled practitioner of emotional domination, which micro-sociology characterizes as: taking the initiative, feeling confidence and energy, and imposes one’s timing on the other. * If possible, he pushes the other person into passively going along. If he meets stone-walled resistance, he writes off the encounter for another time. But in Hammett’s narratives, he almost always dominates: generally more verbally than physically. (The Op is a tough fighter, but Hammett realistically shows when he is overmatched and has to take a beating.)

* Research with audio and video recordings shows EDOM is based in the fractional micro-seconds of talking and bodily movements. [Collins 2004]

In this sense, his detective-characters are charismatic, in the small encounters of everyday life. Sam Spade is the most dominant of them, which is why he is the most famous hero/anti-hero.

Never trust first appearances: plot twists and final de-briefing scene

Hammett never rests with a single mystery pursued to its solution. His stories almost always feature an unexpected plot reversal. What the detective’s problem seems to be at first turns out to be covering up something else. And this is not just the conventional whodunnit shifting back and forth among suspects, but the very nature of the crime turns out to be different. A suicide appears to be blackmail but investigation opens a backlog of deceptions and murders; a kidnapping turns out to be a scam; a suspect confesses to a murder he didn’t commit, but that’s not the end of it.

A consequence is that the last part of every story has to give a retrospective explanation of what really happened. These de-briefing scenes tend to be artificial and anticlimactic. Often the captured crook will spill out all the details, even if he is on the way to the electric chair. Or the detective explains his solution to an interested audience. In the Thin Man films, this takes the form of gathering the dramatis personae together while the sleuth explains what everyone did. This concluding letdown is a price of the writer’s clever plot-twists. It would carry over to Raymond Chandler’s similarly constructed mysteries.

Hammett’s steps as a writer

Hammett broke into Black Mask  in October 1923, and published a total of 9 stories, all featuring the Continental Op, over the next 9 months. Within another year he had published 6 more. Black Mask was a cheap-paper (“pulp”) magazine published as a pot-boiler by a respectable New York publishing house.  Hammett got in on his credentials as an ex-Pinkerton detective, and the magazine played him up as a new kind of detective writer, and soon had him at the top of their stable. Through early 1926 (i.e. a period of two and a half years) he published a total of 21 stories; then his short story production declined, with only 7 more stories as his work in this genre petered out in 1930. Hammett wasn’t slowing down, but shifting to longer works, turning his detective tales into novels. In the transition period, he was publishing his novels in serialized form in Black Mask. “The Cleansing of Poisonville” was serialized in 4 installments over the winter of 1927-8, and published as a novel, Red Harvest, in 1929.  Novels paid much better than stories (royalties instead of by-the-word), and generated more fame and critical recognition.

How does one turn short stories into novels? By making them longer, more complex, more characters, more plot twists. The early stories of 1923-4 were very condensed, averaging 6,000 words; then more than doubled to 14,000 words. Hammett also began to link stories together, carrying over into sequels with overlapping characters. An early story was bare-bones. The longer stories added more scenes, more wise-cracks, more clever word-portraits. * Hammett started with the laconic style from his Pinkerton shadowing reports, and built his trademark by expanding. He kept a careful balance; just enough additional wording, without losing the clipped, tight-lipped tone. Hammett was a meticulous rather than an inspired writer, honing his sentences and revising carefully. It was also an instance (perhaps rare enough)  where good editors made useful criticism and suggestions. At least at the beginning, there was something of a team quality to Hammett’s creativity. 

* We see the same thing a decade later when Raymond Chandler revised his short stories into novels: generally, combining several unrelated stories, and thereby making for a serpentine plot structure. Comparing the original stories with the later novel, we see Chandler revising his word-portraits and wise-cracks, always in the direction of making them longer.

Hammett also began to make his stories more exotic, even far-fetched and fantastic. His best work is known for its San Francisco atmosphere, but Hammett in the mid-1920s also had the Continental Op traveling to a fictional Balkan state to stave off a revolution; to a gambling house in Tijuana complete with an auto chase in the desert; an Arizona cowboy town where rival ranch-hands have a grudge fight and the Op has to prove he can ride a bucking bronco. He experiments with expanding his repertoire by veering into clichés might be considered trial-and-error learning. There are country mansions with plots hinging on rich invalids and inheritances. An especially far-fetched plot (“The Gutting of Couffignal”) involves an island off the California coast inhabited by rich people; a gang using military weapons cuts off the bridge to the mainland and loots the entire town, until the Op (who was called there to guard some pricey wedding presents) shows his own military prowess to overcome an armored car. The twist is that a former Russian general who lives on the island engineered the whole thing.

Even the San Francisco setting was turned fantastic in “The Big Knock-Over” [1927]. The Op notices that the city saloons are full of famous criminals from all over the country, and people are murdered for knowing what is going on. It turns out that a huge criminal coalition has been organized to close off the main downtown streets, with gunners at every corner keeping back the cops, while the biggest banks in the city are robbed. Everybody has minute instructions about their part in the operation, logistics, getaway cars and all. The Op can do nothing to stop it; but this is a long story (with a linked sequel), and it transpires that the ad hoc mega-gang has been double-crossed by a mastermind who made off with the loot, and this is where the Op makes his inroads. His word portraits have a  workout giving distinguishing features to Itchy Maker, Bluepoint Vance, The Shivering Kid, Alphabet Shorty McCoy, Toby the Lugs et al., leaving the whole thing with the tone of caricature. Hammett’s on-the-job learning must have convinced him there was nothing more to do in this direction, since at this time he was beginning to write serialized novels that stayed closer to his forte as insider to the detective business.

The private eye parts company with the cops

The Continental Op was an organization man working in tandem with the police. Perhaps because some of the Op’s more fantastic adventures had him off on his own, without his usual organizational backup, Hammett began to imagine what he could do if they cops became one of the obstacles. The turning point is a late story, “The Main Death” [June 1927]. A women reports her husband was killed in a home robbery while holding a large amount of cash. The Op tracks the robbers and offers to let them get away without telling the police, if they give him all the money. They think he is shaking them down. But the Op knows there is no murder case against them, since the only person who could testify to the killing won’t do it. Why not? Because he made the wife admit that her husband commited suicide; she made up the story to keep the life insurance from being canceled. The Op is no longer the straight-laced company man; he is breaking its rules and its code of ethics, showing more human sympathy, and keeping his manuevers to himself. He is acquring depth as a character, and even showing some emotions on the job.

Adding sex

The Op’s career to this point has been almost completely sexless. He deals with plenty of women, all of whom he treats with disdain. His rich clients have wives much younger than themselves, beautiful and stylish women whom the Op tacitly regards as bimbos. The Op is impervious to them.

When his editor told him to introduce more sex appeal, Hammett wrote “The Girl with the Silver Eyes” [1924] which has the following in a linked story: “A white face beneath a bobbed mass of red-colored hair. Smoke-gray eyes that were set too far apart for trustworthiness-- though not for beauty-- laughed at me, exposing the edges of little sharp animal-teeth. She was beautiful, as beautiful as the devil, and twice as dangerous... She laughed at me-- a fat man all trussed up with red plush rope, and with the corner of a green cushion in my mouth... Her smoke-gray eyes lost their merriment and became hard and calculating.” [Op.126] She goes through further disguises and plot twists, but the Op was wary from the outset.

Not until Sam Spade do we get a detective who has a sex life. Hammett makes him a lady-killer.

Culminating in The Maltese Falcon

All these trends come together in  The Maltese Falcon. Hammett is back in his city of mystery and fog, San Francisco. He has a new detective, tall and handsome-- since there is going to be a sex-centered plot, the Continental Op had to be replaced. The word-portraits are longer and fancier, but their characters are worthy of it. The wise-cracks are no longer in these snippets, but delivered by Sam Spade himself. We no longer have a first-person narrative, and as you will recall, the attitudes of the laconic Op came through his sardonic tags in describing what people looked like. Now the detective’s major characteristic is to talk and act like a wise-guy. He pushes emotional dominance to a main feature of the plot. No one every pushed the Continental Op around, but Spade is a verbal aggressor, keeping his opponents off balance by cutting them off.

            “The fat man bunched his lips, raised his eyebrows, and cocked his head a little to the left. “You see,” he said blandly, “I must tell you what I know, but you will not tell me what you know. That is hardly equitable, sir. No, no, I do not think we can do business along those lines.”
            Spade’s face became pale and hard. He spoke rapidly in a low furious voice: “Think again and think fast. I told that punk of yours that you’d have to talk to me before you got through. I’ll tell you now that you’ll do your talking today or you are through. What are you wasting my time for? ... God damn you! Maybe you could have got along me if you’d kept clear of me. You can’t now. Not in San Francisco. You’ll come in or you’ll get out-- and you’ll do it today.’
            He turned and with angry heedlessness tossed his glass at the table. The glass struck the wood, burst apart, and splashed its contents and glittering fragments over the table and floor...
            The fat man said tolerantly: “Well, sir, I must say you have a most violent temper.”
            “Temper?” Spade laughed crazily... He held out a long arm that ended in a thick forefinger pointing at the fat man’s belly. His angry voice filled the room. “Think it over and think like hell. You’ve got til five-thirty to do it in. Then you’re either in or out, for keeps.” [Novel.483-4]

Sam Spade is almost the opposite of an organization man. He still has a friend among the cops, Sergeant Tom Polhaus, who helps him from time to time, especially at the outset where he calls Spade to the scene of his partner’s murder. But the cops play another role in the drama, adding to the suspense. A thought-experiment: remove all the scenes where the cops interfere and what have we got left?

-- After Spade gets home from viewing the body, Polhaus and his boss, Lieutenant Dundy, pay a late-night call at his apartment. They inform him that Spade is himself a suspect of killing Thursby, the man who is believed to have killed Spade’s partner Miles Archer. This plot tension of Spade being charged with one murder or another continues to the end of the book.

-- Joel Cairo and Brigid O’Shaughnessy are starting to reveal their past connection and distrust at Spade’s apartment, when the cops arrive again, wanting to interrogate him about his affair with his dead partner’s wife. Spade blocks them from entering, but the noise of Cairo and Brigid fighting inside gives the cops reason to come in. Now they are suspicious of everybody, but Spade palms them off with a ridiculous story that they were only mocking the cops with a make-believe fight, and no one is preferring charges against anyone. The cops pick up Cairo anyway for a grilling, but Brigid comes even more under Spade’s protection as he tells the cops she is one of his operatives.

-- Spade talks to his sleazy lawyer/fixer and gets called in to the District Attorney’s office. The D.A. tells Spade he could be charged as an accomplice for concealing information about a murderer. The police think Thursby’s old enemies are involved because of his role in a welshed gambling debt. Spade gets angry and high-handed again; but he knows the cops are sniffing around the trail that would lead to Brigid who once was involved with Thursby in some caper in the Orient.

-- The final scene, in Spade’s apartment, after the black bird is delivered and turns out to be a fake. The fat man, Cairo and Wilmer all take it on the lam, and Spade calls the cops. Before they arrive, Spades tells Brigid, she had better come clean.

“Spade, face to face with her, very close to her, tall, big-boned and thick-muscled, coldly smiling, hard of jaw and eye, said: “They’ll talk when they’re nailed-- about us. We’re sitting on dynamite. Give me all of it-- fast. Gutman sent you and Cairo to Constantinople?”  [Novel.575]

In the over-all plot structure, this is the inevitable debriefing scene, that always features at the end of a Hammett story explaining what really went on-- the back-story that has been covered up by the mystery the detective has been trying to solve. Mostly this de-briefing is an boring anticlimax. But not here: For one thing, there is a twist. Spade gets out of her the truth, that she was the one who killed Miles Archer. And Spade then counts all the reasons why, if he protects her from the police, she would have something on him that would hang over their relationship forever. He sums up:

            “And eighth-- but that’s enough. All those on one side. Maybe some of them are unimportant. But look at the number of them. Now on the other side we’ve got what? All we’ve got is the fact that maybe you love me and maybe I love you.”
            “You know,” she whispered, “whether you love me or not.”...
            She put her face  up to his face. Her mouth was slightly open with lips a little thrust out. She whispered: “If you loved me you’d need nothing more on that side.”
            Spade set the edges of his teeth together and said through them: “I won’t play the sap for you.”
            She put her mouth to his, slowly, her arms around him, and came into his arms. She was in his arms when the door-bell rang.  [Novel.582-3]

The film closes even better with a shot of Brigid going down in the elevator with the cops, the sliding grill closing like the bars of a cell.

Remove these scenes, and what remains? Spade with Wonderly/Brigid; Spade with the gunman Wilmer, and bits with Cairo; Spade with Gutman and eventually the whole gang. Hammett would have to contrive some other way of bringing out the back story, and conveying the tension that is driving Spade. This could be done, but most dramatic, confrontational scenes-- the most theatrical-- would be lost.

The Maltese Falcon has much less physical action, and very little on-stage violence, compared to Hammett’s stories and earlier novels. The scene-by-scene drama happens almost entirely in Spade’s verbal tussels over emotional domination. And it is a superior piece of dramatic writing for that. The Maltese Falcon  has Hammett’s trademark plot twists. Initial appearances are deceptive; Miss Wonderly’s series of cover stories are quickly seen through. (“Oh, that,” said Spade lightly. “We didn’t exactly believe your story.” ... “We believed your two hundred dollars.”) [Novel.416]  It takes a while to unravel that these people are connected together, that they are all looking or waiting for something, and so on.* 

* The germ of the plot is in a 1926 story, “Creeping Siamese,” about a couple who had found a treasure of gems in Burma, doubled-crossed their partner when escaping across the Pacific to San Francisco, and then are threatened with murder when the old partner finally reappears. This is the back-story, which the Continental Op learns after investigating their initial cover story for hiring a detective for protection. Two years later Hammett started writing The Maltese Falcon.

The Op gets his twists of revelation by investigation: shadowing, checking records, having violent encounters along the way. The Maltese Falcon moves forward in another way: Sam Spade sits in his office, and someone comes in; a gunman follows him on the street or sits in a hotel lobby. This itself is a reversal: the shadow-methods of the Op and his organization now appear on the side of the enemy. In a sense, Spade cracks the case by happenstance. That is to say, Hammett is pulling the strings of the plot, rather than moving it by the actions of the energetic Op. This might seem contrived if we had a moment to stop and think; but the dramatic scenes are so good -- and the characters are so amusing (such as Cairo/Peter Lorre holding up Spade to search his office)-- that the pace carries us along without a let-up.

A serial, a novel, three film versions: at last a classic

Hammett wrote The Maltese Falcon during fall 1928; serialized it in Black Mask during fall and winter 1929; published the novel in February 1930, to excellent sales and star reviews. By June, he had sold the movie rights to Warner Brothers. But here the trail wanders off. He had already sold the movie rights to Red Harvest in 1929, and a not-very-good film was released by Warner Brothers in 1930 under the title Roadhouse Nights, which tells us something about the trouble Hollywood would have in figuring out how to present Hammett’s work. By May 1931, the first Maltese Falcon film was released, starring a gangster-type actor, Ricardo Cortez. It did not do well. There was enough interest in Hammett-- who had now become famous, and was doing script work in Hollywood-- to make a second version in 1936. It was now called Satan Met a Lady, and had A-list casting with Bettie Davis in the female lead. This too failed. But Hammett was in demand; his next novel, The Glass Key, was filmed in 1935, and again in 1942 (in a version that launched the careers of Alan Ladd and Veronica Lake). Hammett’s final novel, The Thin Man, was released by MGM in 1934, with William Powell and Myrna Loy as Hammett’s  detective couple, Nick and Nora Charles. It was so popular that five Thin Man sequels followed from 1936 to 1947. 

Someone in Warner Brothers finally figured out that Hammett’s best book could make a successful movie. The secret, it turns out, was to not screw around with revising and adapting it. The 1941  The Maltese Falcon  follows the book almost exactly-- unusual for Hollywood. If you watch the film with the book in hand, you will see almost every line of dialogue is in the book. There are some cuts; some dialogue is shortened; a few scenes are omitted (mostly the undramatic ones, plus, as we shall see, all the explicit sex scenes). There are of course no word-portraits, but the characters are depicted on screen almost exactly as Hammett described them-- Gutman, Cairo, Wilmer, Brigid. The only exception is Humphrey Bogart’s Sam Spade. This seems ironic, since it was the movie that launched Bogart to stardom. The other candidate for Bogart’s best film, Casablanca, [1942, again Warner Brothers] was made on the heels of The Maltese Falcon and using it as a model.

A clue to why Satan Met a Lady was a flop, and the 1941 Maltese Falcon an instant classic, can be found in the opening lines of Hammett’s novel.

            “Samuel Spade’s jaw was long and bony, his chin a jutting V under the more flexible V of his mouth. His nostrils curved back to make another, smaller, V.  His yellow-grey eyes were horizontal. The V motif was picked up again by thickish brows rising outward from twin creases above a hooked nose, and his pale brown hair grew down-- from high flat temples-- to a point on his forehead. He looked rather pleasantly like a blond satan.” [Novel.391]

Satan Met A Lady quite literally takes off from this word-portrait of Sam Spade. The role was given to Warren William, a tall, bony, aquiline actor who played in comedies and musicals. The problem is he is not at all a tough guy, and he plays Sam Spade as a comedy-romantic role, as a supercilious fop and a smiling clown, which is exactly what a Hammett detective hero is not. The physical byplay is close to slapstick, ruining even those spoken lines that come from Hammett. To make matters worse, the scene is shifted away from San Francisco; the black bird becomes Roland’s horn; the Fat Man becomes a matronly Fat Lady; Wilmer the diminutive gunman becomes a slovenly thug; the Peter Lorre part turns into a tall, broad-shouldered Englishman  with an “I say, old chap” accent and an umbrella. Bettie Davis is sassy, pulls a gun on people, and makes a defiant speech when pseudo-Spade turns her over to the police. There is even a happy ending as pseudo-Spade goes off with his dizzy-dame secretary.

This was Hollywood mix-and-match: since they didn’t want to repeat the 1931 film (which played it closer to the book), they changed as many thing as they could. Where Bogart is super-cool, Mary Astor is fragile/treacherous, Sydney Greenstreet the archetype of the upper-class epicurean, and Peter Lorre uniquely precious-and-sinister, the 1936 rendition manages to turn memorable characters and scenes pedestrian and silly.

Hollywood had some excuse for trying to play up the comedy/romantic side of Hammett. At that time, by far his most successful film was the Nick and Nora Charles combination in the Thin Man, already being remade over at MGM. The gentleman-detective Nick Charles is debonair, childishly playful especially when he is tipsy (a running joke in the films), always good-humored and never very tough, neither physically violent nor verbally contentious. Why not play it this way, and see if any of the William Powell/Myrna Loy halo might rub off on Warren William et al? 

The Maltese Falcon was a transitional book for Hammett. If we compare the book (unchanged since 1929) to the 1941 film, we can see where the ambiguities were and how the film-makers created a sharper image by cuts. 

Hammett was at a point in his career where he wanted to make his detective a more complicated and emotional character with a libido. Hammett went overboard making Spade emotional, mostly in the direction of being belligerent and angry. The film tones this down. Compare the endings of the scene quoted above, where Spade walks out on Gutman and slams the door.  The novel:

            “Spade rode down from Gutman’s floor in an elevator. His lips were dry and rough in a face otherwise pale and damp. When he took out his handkerchief to wipe his face he saw his hand trembling. He grinned at it and said, “Whew! so loudly that the elevator operator turned his head over his shoulder and asked: “Sir?” [Novel.488]

In the film, Bogart in the hotel corridor claps his hands and laughs.  It had all been a performance to emotionally dominate his opponent. Bogart’s Spade is cool and self-controlled all the time. Hammett’s Spade is more realistic (people in violent confrontations usually have a hang-over period of feeling tense, until the adrenaline wears off), but this undermines his hero image.

Hammett’s Spade is also more brutal to Brigid. In the penultimate scene where the conspirators and Spade are waiting for the black bird to be delivered, Gutman gives Spade an envelope with ten $1000 bills. In the film, Spade counts the money again later and accuses Gutman of having palmed one of the bills. “Do you want to say so or do you want to stand for a frisk?” [Gutman:] “Stand for--?” [Spade:] “You’re going to admit it, or I’m going to search you. There’s no third way.” Gutman takes out a crumpled bill and says, “I must have my little joke every now and then.” These lines are both in the book [Novel.566] and the film. But what precedes this episode in the book has been cut from the film:

In the book, Gutman is the one who points out there are only nine $1000 bills in the envelope, and implies with a gesture that Brigid is the one who stole the missing $1000. Spade takes her into the bathroom and demands that she strip.

            “She... whispered: “I did not take that bill, Sam.”
            “I didn’t think you did,” he said, “but I’ve got to know. Take your clothes off.”
            “Won’t you take my word for it?”
            “No. Take your clothes off.”
            “I won’t.”
            “All right. We’ll go back in the other room and I’ll have them taken off.”
            She stepped back with a hand to her mouth. Her eyes were round and horrified. “You would?” she asked through her fingers.
            “I will,” he said. “I’ve got to know what happened to that bill and I’m not going to be held up by anybody’s maidenly modesty.”
            “Oh, it isn’t that.” She came close to him and put her hands on his chest again. “I’m not ashamed to be naked before you, but-- can’t you see-- not like this. Can’t you see that if you make me you’ll-- you’ll be killing something?”
            He did not raise his voice. “I don’t know anything about that. I’ve got to know what happened to that bill. Take them off.”
            She looked at his unblinking yellow-grey eyes and her face became pink and then white again. She drew herself up tall and began to undress. He sat on the side of the bathtub watching her and the open door.... She removed her clothes swiftly, without fumbling, letting them fall on the floor around her feet. When she was naked she stepped back from her clothing and stood looking at him. In her mien was pride without defiance or embarrassment.
            ... He picked up each piece and examined it with fingers as well as eyes. He did not find the thousand-dollar bill. When he had finished he stood up holding her clothes out in his hands to her. “Thanks,” he said. “Now I know.” [Novel.565]

Also cut from the film was a segment from the earlier scene when Brigid remains in Spade’s apartment after Cairo and the police have gone. In the film, Spade interrogates her, and she admits to being a liar. Sam: “Was there any truth in that yarn?” Brigid: “Some. Not very much.” Sam: “We’ve got all night. I’ll make some more coffee and we’ll try again.”

What gets cut is what happens next in the book:

“She put her hands up to Spade’s cheeks, put her open mouth hard against his mouth, her body flat against his body. Spade’s arms were around her, holding her to him, muscles bulging his blue sleeves, a hand cradling her head, its fingers half lost among red hair, a hand moving groping fingers over her slim back. His eyes burned yellowly.” [Novel.467]  END OF CHAPTER.

The next chapter begins with Spade waking up with both of them undressed in his bed. He leaves her sleeping, takes her key from her pocket, and goes out to search her apartment. He doesn’t find anything, but besides seeking information, his action (when he conceals from Brigid) has the effect that she finds out when she goes home that someone has broken into her apartment. This scares her into coming back to Spade’s office, where he arranges for her to stay somewhere else to be safe-- and where he can find her. The film leaves out the part where he makes a mess of her apartment, revealing Spade being both manipulative and possessive.

The film censors their having had sex. Also cut are the lines when Spade first visits Brigid’s apartment and she pleads for her help, now that she knows Joel Cairo is also looking for the black bird:

             “I’ve thrown myself on your mercy, told you that without your help I’m utterly lost. What else is there?”  She suddenly moved close to him on the settee and cried angrily: “Can I buy you with my body?”
            Their faces were inches apart. Spade took her face between his hands and kissed her mouth roughly and contemptuously. Then he sat back and said: “I’ll think it over.” His face was hard and furious.” [Novel.439]

Other sex scenes were also cut from the film. After Spade acquires the black bird from the dying sea captain, he gets a telephone call purporting to be from Brigid at Gutman’s hotel--in danger. When Spade arrives, neither Brigid nor the fat man is there, but his daughter is: “a small fair-haired girl in a shimmering yellow dressing gown” who appears to have been drugged:

            “He caught her as she swayed. Her body arched back over his arm and her head droppped straight back so that her short fair hair hung down her scalp and her slender throat was a firm curve from chin to chest.
            She twisted convulsively around in his arms and caught at one of his hands with both of hers. He pulled her hand away quickly and looked at it. Across its back was a thin red scratch an inch and a half or more in length.
            “What the hell?” he growled and examined her hands. Her left hand was empty. In her right hand, when he forced it open, lay a three-inch jade-headed steel bouquet-pin. “What the hell?” he growled again and held the pin up in front of her eyes.
            When she saw the pin she whimpered and opened her dressing gown. She pushed aside the cream-colored pajama-coat under it and showed him her body below her left breast-- white flesh criss-crossed with thin red lines, dotted with tiny red dots, where the pin had scratched and punctured it.” [Novel.533]

The girl regains consciousness enough to tell him she scratched her chest to keep awake long enough to deliver a message from Brigid when he arrived. This sends Spade on a wild-goose chase to the suburbs; and when he returns and calls the hotel, he finds that no one is in the Gutman suite; a doctor had been called about a sick girl but that must have been a practical joker. This bit of sado-pornography would have been ultra-taboo in a film during the Code era. Cutting it also tones down the impression the book gives that Spade is finding sexual titillation all over the place.

Also omitted in the portrayal of Joel Cairo as a homosexual. In the showdown scene waiting for the black bird, Spade convinces Gutman that they have to offer the police a fall guy to blame the murders on. They finally agree on Wilmer, who gets disarmed of his pistols and knocked out by Spade. 

At this point we learn that Wilmer is a boy with long eyelashes. Cairo sits beside Wilmer, stroking and whispering to him:

“Cairo, still muttering in the boy’s ear, had put his arm around the boy’s shoulders again. Suddenly the boy pushed his arm away and turned on the sofa to face the Levantine. The boy’s face held disgust and anger. He made a fist of one small hand and struck Cairo’s mouth with it. Cairo cried out as a woman might have cried and drew back to the very end of the sofa. He took a silk handkerchief from his pocket and put it to his mouth. It came away dashed with blood. He put it to his mouth once more and looked reproachfully at the boy. The boy snarled, “Keep away from me,” and put his face between his hands again... Cairo’s cry had brought Brigid O’Shaughnessy to the door. Spade, grinning at her, jerked a thumb at the sofa and told her: “The course of true love.”  [Novel.567-8]

Three Women

Sexually, the plot revolves around a jealous triangle of three women. All three appear in the beginning and the conclusion, like bookends.  First of all we meet Effie, Spade’s secretary. She is described as “a lanky sunburned girl” and we are constantly reminded that her face is boyish. Effie is plainly in love with Sam, who casually calls her “darling” and “angel” and relies on her to man the office through any emergency and do a little sleuthing of her own. Effie is really his office wife. She sits on his desk, rolls his hand-made cigarettes for him. “She licked it, smoothed it, twisted its ends, and placed it betwen Spade’s lips. He said, “Thanks, honey,” put an arm around her slim waist and rested his cheek wearily against her hip, shutting her eyes.” [Novel.411]  The very first page, Effie ushers in Miss Wonderly, with the words: “You’ll want to see her anyway. She’s a knockout.”

Effie knows where she stands in Spade’s affections. She isn’t jealous of Wonderly/ O’Shaughnessy, obviously out of her league. Who she doesn’t like is Iva, Miles Archer’s wife, who pushes herself on Spade whenever she has the opportunity. The first thing Spade does after he sees Archer’s dead body is to phone Effie, to break the news to Iva and keep her away from him. Iva is always bursting in, and in fact she admits to calling the police and telling them to go to Spade’s apartment after she sees him enter the building with Brigid. This is how Iva and Sam get along:

            “She was a blonde woman of a few more years than thirty. Her facial prettiness was perhaps five years past its best moment. Her body for all its sturdiness was finely modeled and exquisite. She wore black clothes from hat to shoes. They had an impromptu air... Iva came quickly to him, raising her sad face for his kiss. Her arms were around him before his held her, When they had kissed he made a little movement as if to release her, but she pressed her face to his chest and began sobbing. He stroked her round back, saying “Poor darling.” His voice was tender. His eyes, squinting at the desk that had been his partner’s, across the room from his own, were angry. He drew his lips back over his teeth in an impatient grimace and turned his chin aside to avoid contact with the crown of her hat.” [Novel.409]

But Brigid O’Shaughnessy has the center of attention whenever she appears, and becomes Spade’s obsession (both professionally and otherwise) for the bulk of the story. For Spade, Iva is an unwelcome intrusion; and Effie is his pricipal ally on this front.

This is Brigid’s entrance:

            “A voice said, “Thank you,” so softly that only the purest articulation made the words intelligible, and a young woman came through the doorway. She advanced slowly, with tentative steps, looking at Spade with cobalt blue eyes that were both shy and probing. She was tall and pliantly slender, without angularity anywhere. Her body was erect and high-breasted, her legs long, her hands and feet narrow. She wore two shades of blue that had been selected because of her eyes... White teeth glistened in the crescent her timid smile made.” [Novel.391]

In the jealous triangle, Effie hates Iva, Iva hates Brigid, and Brigid is oblivious to the other two. Effie’s attitude towards Brigid is unexpected, but at least it balances: a negative of a negative is a positive. And Effie is so loyal to Sam that she roots for him in his love affairs too. This sets up a surprise conclusion-- which is definitely not in the film.

The film, as we know, ends with Brigid descending in the elevator cell on her way to the gallows. The book adds one more brief scene. It is Monday morning, and Effie if reading the newspaper when Spade arrives.

            “Is that-- what the papers have-- right?”  she asked...
            Her girl’s brown eyes were peculiarly enlarged and there was a queer twist  to her mouth. She stood beside him, staring down at him.
            He raised his head, grinned, and said mockingly: “So much for your woman’s intution.”
            Her voice was a queer as the expression on her face. “You did that, Sam, to her?”
            ...He looked sharply at her. He put his arm around her waist, his hand on her hip. “She did kill Miles, angel,” he said gently, “offhand, like that.” He snapped the fingers of his other hand.
            She escaped from his arm as if it had hurt her. “Don’t, please, don’t touch me,” she said brokenly. “I know-- I know you’re right. You’re right. But don’t touch me now-- not now.”
            Spade’s face became as pale as his collar.
            The corridor-door’s knob rattled. Effie Perine turned quickly and went to the outer office, shutting the door behind her. When she came in again she shut it behind her.
            She said in a small flat voice: “Iva is here.”
            Spade, looking down at his desk, nodded almost imperceptibly.  “Yes,” he said and shivered. “Well, show her in.” [Novel.584-5]

Full circle: on the first page of the book, after Effie announces Miss Wonderly, Spade said: “Shoo her in, darling. Shoo her in.” [Novel.391]

Yes, the book is more complicated than the film. More morally complicated too. But that is too much for a movie. There were a  number of strategic cuts in the climactic scene between Spade and Brigid. In the book, Spade keeps harping on his strategic concern that there has to be a fall guy, somebody to pin the murders on to satisfy the police. If he’s still worried about the cops suspecting him (an aspect that is much more prominent throughout the book than the movie), he is ready to sacrifice Brigid as the fall guy. He conveys a contagious sense of fear:

            “He looked at the watch on his wrist. “The police will be blowing in any minute now and we’re sitting on dynamite. Talk!”
            “She put the back of a hand to her forehead. “Oh, why do you accuse me of such a terrible--?”
            “Will you stop it?” he demanded in a low impatient voice. “This isn’t the spot for the schoolgirl act. Listen to me. The pair of us are sitting under the gallows.”

Well, not really the pair of them; mainly her. But Spade engages in both moral and physical intimidation: “He took hold of her wrists and made her stand up straight in front of him. “Talk!”  [Novel.577]

            More cut lines: “You came into my bed to stop me asking questions.”
            ... She put a hand on his hand on her shoulder. “Don’t help me me then,” she whispered, “but don’t hurt me. Let me go  away now.”
            “No,” he said. “I’m sunk if I haven’t got you to hand over to the police when they come. That’s the only thing that can keep me from going down with the others.”
            “You won’t do that for me?”
            “I won’t play the sap for you.” [Novel.580-1]

Only the last line was retained.

The film ending is shorter, cleaner, and more of a romantic tragedy. The limitations of the film medium took Hammett’s overly-ambitious, or not quite manageable piece of complexity, and turned in into an all-time classic. 

Hammett’s career arc:  frenzied work pace, projects in all directions, declining creativity

Writing The Maltese Falcon in 1928 was the apex of Hammett’s writing career. He had been working at the craft for 5 years and was 34 years old. Before that he had a 5-year stint with the Pinkertons. He started working even earlier, from age 14 as office boy, newspaper hawker, dock worker, and salesman for his father’s failing businesses in Baltimore. His downwardly mobile family was like Dickens’ father being sent to debtors’ prison and the boy to a child-labor factory, giving the unexpected advantage of knowing much more about the underside of the world than merely school-trained authors.

For 4 years, Hammett wrote stories. As he made them longer and more complicated, he began experimenting with novels. Already in 1925 he started one called “The Secret Emperor” which sounds like one of his exotic-locale adventures.  By mid-1927 he was making the transition to novels. Things would grow increasingly hectic.

Overlaps: Red Harvest; The Dain Curse; Maltese Falcon

After serializing The Cleansing of Poisonville over the winter of 1927-28, Hammett began working with a literary publisher, Alfred A. Knopf, in February 1928, to turn it into a novel. Blanche Knopf, the publisher’s wife, worked closely with the manuscript during the spring, toning down the violence. At the same time, he was working on another series of linked stories, The Dain Curse, which he completed in June. By December, he had completed his third major project of the year, The Maltese Falcon.

The books are all different. Red Harvest is the most violent of Hammett’s works, set in a mining town, where the Op goes far beyond his instructions in breaking the law.

The Dain Curse is a classic San Francisco locale, about a mystical Oriental cult in a labyrinthine building, where spoiled rich youth and trophy wives see occult visions which are really caused by drugs piped into their rooms through ventilation pipes, giving Hammett the opportunity to describe the sensations of drug experience. This remains a typical Op story.

The Maltese Falcon is where Hammett abandons the Op as a lead character for someone both angry and sexy.

The three novels (published in February 1929, July 1929, and February 1930) sold increasingly well, with favorable reviews. By the time The Maltese Falcon came out, Hammett was famous. Movie rights to all three were sold almost immediately.

Overlaps: The Glass Key, The Thin Man, Hollywood and New York

Just before fame hit, Hammett was working on another novel, The Glass Key, which he began in fall 1929 and finished in 1930. Published in 1931, it too had good reviews and sales, and movies rights were quickly signed. Meanwhile Hammett moved to Hollywood. He contracted in early 1931 to write a second Sam Spade film, but his script was rejected. In the summer, he turned to another project, and wrote 65 pages of a novel called The Thin Man, but put the project aside when he moved to New York. By fall 1932, he was working on a new version of The Thin Man, which he finished in May 1933. The book was published in January 1934; MGM had already snapped it up and brought out the film in June, to tremendous success.

Thematically, his work is now all over the map. The Glass Key is about an Eastern city resembling Baltimore, run by a political boss who shakes down contributors for campaign funds, rakes off city contracts, and protects Prohibition-era speakeasies and gambling houses. The plot is the boss decides to back a Reform candidate, because he falls in love with his beautiful daughter. The boss also finds out his own daughter is shacking up with the reformer’s playboy son, and soon afterwards the boy’s corpse is found on the street. All this is seen through the eyes of a political fixer, Ned Beaumont, who tells the boss he is making a big mistake in upsetting a well-functioning racket. Bereft of police protection, gangsters push back, and threaten to pin the boy’s murder on the boss, using publicity from a newspaper that is in hock to the mob. Beaumont isn’t a detective nor a very heroic or ethical person, but he does risk his life while pretending to go in with the gangsters, to find out who is leaking information about the killing. There are some mystery-like twists and surprises in the story, and Beaumont ends up with the girl.

The Glass Key is an offshoot of the  Maltese Falcon manner, but even more cynical, except for the romantic ending. But there are no memorably grotesque or exotic characters, no astounding confrontation scenes, and no one is very sympathetic. It did OK as a book and a movie, but Hammett may well have felt there was nothing more for him to do in that direction-- especially since it was looking backwards towards his distant past.  But now he was partying with the rich and famous in Hollywood and New York. One can conjecture that Nick Charles is himself, surrounded by reporters wherever he goes, drinking merrily, tossing off urbane remarks to admirers, retired from detective work but still solving (fictional) murders on the side.

Too many distractions: fame, drinking, partying, sex, politics

The Thin Man series of films had a life of its own. Hammett was periodically in Hollywood, working on the sequels, but he was becoming increasingly unreliable, and most of what got filmed was by other writers. Hammett was no longer getting new work done. He failed to deliver a promised new novel to Knopf in 1936; crapped out on another novel contract in 1938, and again in 1939. The titles: “My Brother Felix” and “There Was a Young Man” seem to be off in new directions from anything he had done before;* Hammett had been a meticulous writer, and he probably felt they just weren’t up to the mark. His movie treatments were often tardy and his contracts suspended, his scenarios for Thin Man sequels rejected.  In 1939, MGM canceled his writing contract. .

* especially compared to his snappy early titles: “Crooked Souls,” “Slippery Fingers,” “Bodies Piled Up,” [1923], “Zigzags of Treachery,” [1924], “The Scorched Face,” “Corkscrew” [1925].

Hammett would to live to 1961, dying at age 66. But his creativity had long since petered out. What happened?  Some of it was sheer distraction. By the time he became famous in 1930, he was surrounded by other literary stars. He drank heavily at an endless round of parties on both coasts. He had affairs with numerous women-- among them on-the-make playwright Lillian Hellman, whose plays Hammett revised and collaborated on. He became involved in politics, signing petitions and appearing at Writers Congresses and anti-Fascist rallies in the 1930s, elected president of the League of American Writers, and active in Communist-front organizations.

It would be too easy to say this was just another writer who drank too much. He was pulled in too many directions. His main-- if not too reliable-- source of income was movie treatments for the Thin Man series and whatever else he could convince his admirers to float; but this would have pulled his head in conflicting directions:  Nick and Nora were candyland, where nothing very bad or very realistic ever intrudes (even the police don’t threaten to impede their investigations; the criminals are old friends of Nick, who brag about the times he sent them up the river; and their city, at least, has no hint of corruption). This must have grated with his episodic attempts at popularizing Sam Spade (as a radio show, as a comic strip, etc.). And his left-wing political activities must have made his literary and film work seem hypocritical, and vice versa.

Good writing, especially of any great length, requires sustained concentration, a prerequisite for getting the flow that is the personal experience of creativity.  Hammett in 1928 and 1929 could devote himself for 3 months at a time to turning out a book. Later he no longer had the uninterrupted time, the energy, or the focus. His five novels are increasingly different from each other. The first two were in a groove, a natural trajectory of his Continental Op materials.* The Maltese Falcon combines  hard-boiled with real-life ambiguity about sex and love. The Glass Key drops the exotic facade to reveal ordinary dirty politics. The Thin Man turns the detective genre into pure sugar. Unable to start a new trajectory, and unable to continue with the old ones, Hammett was paralyzed as a creative writer.

* The Dain Curse expands a 1925 story, “The Scorched Face,” about rich young women in a drug cult, which blackmails them with photos taken during their orgies. The blackmail/ pornography idea here became the hook for Raymond Chandler’s first novel, The Big Sleep.

Raymond Chandler occupies the Sam Spade niche

But the development was not lost. Hammett’s best techniques were picked up by Raymond Chandler.

Chandler was 6 years older than Hammett (born in 1888 rather than 1894), but he got a later start as a writer. Chandler grew up mostly in England, saw combat in World War I, and worked in Los Angeles in the 1920s as bookeeper, financial auditor, and executive for an oil company. The discovery of oil in Southern California set off a boom of companies drilling wells, a fever of investment and their scandals; Chandler launched his upward career in the company by uncovering embezzlement.  By 1930, when Chandler was fired for heavy drinking, he had seen a lot of life in America’s fastest growing city and its revolution in social manners.

Looking around for a way to make a living, Chandler decided on writing. He schooled himself for what would sell. He started studying pulp magazines in 1930, and published his first story in 1933-- also in Black Mask. With his conservative English education, he decided to learn American English as if it were a foreign language. That meant especially its idioms and its slang-- no longer just part of the underworld, but percolating upwards in the American cultural democracy.

Chandler came into detective writing at just the time Hammett stopped. Chandler followed the same early path: short stories, then combining and expanding them into full-length novels. The first was The Big Sleep (1939) when Chandler was 51 years old. Biological age is less important for a writer than experience learning the craft. It took 6 years for Chandler to publish his first novel, the same as Hammett.

Chandler copied the Hammett brand. A hard-boiled detective inured to violence. This is Sam Spade resurrected, with no trace of the old organizational Op. Skilled at sizing up a situation from micro-observations, and a sardonic way of dominating people or at least holding them at bay.

The swift-moving plot, with minimal prose distractions. Vivid word-portraits, enlivened by wise-cracks.  Short, punchy titles: Farewell, My Lovely; Trouble is My Business; The High Window; Killer in the Rain.

Plots that twist far from their starting place when a client visits Philip Marlowe’s office-- whether it be a femme fatale, a squeamish female hick from the Midwest, or a moose-sized ex-con. And Chandler has Hammett’s structural weakness, the final reckoning in a scene where the detective has to explain who did what and who killed who and why. (Some of Chandler’s plots are so full of surprising episodes that experts say there are still ends left dangling.)

Cops sticking their nose in, threatening Marlowe,  putting him through the third degree and into a holding cell. Fighting through this is a much bigger deal in Chandler than in Hammett, and it underlines a bitterness in his lone-wolf character.

And there is a lot more sex. There are underworld molls now married to millionaires, rich daughters who do drugs, run up gambling debts at illegal casinos, and pose for pornographic pictures. There is more of a good girl/ bad girl contrast, with Marlowe being more of a romantic than Spade; he likes the tough good-girls who venture out into the underworld with him, flirty but self-possessed.

And more corruption. Here Chandler follows the lead of The Glass Key. It is taken for granted that the D.A. does everything with an eye for elections, that the police take payoffs to protect illegal gambling and drugs. Chandler particularly has it in for medical doctors. They run fake clinics that are really fronts for drug-peddling; Marlowe is drugged out and locked up in one of them in Murder, My Sweet. When he goes out checking lists of doctors in search of a lead, he finds doctors who get through the day on doses of heroin, and others who are ready to commit or cover up murder. The whole world is corrupt. And this gives a particular tone to his classic locale, Los Angeles in the 30s and 40s. It is la-la-land, sun-drenched casualness replacing formal clothes, formal manners, and old-fashioned ethics. 

Chandler’s writing career stayed on track where Hammett’s spun apart, by sticking to the techniques and settings that worked. He goes on writing novels and  stories, at a slow, meticulous pace, through the 1940s and 1950s, a total of 7 novels in 20 years. He has no burn-out, no diffusion of his energies, no confusion about what kind of book he wants to write next. 

He even survives Hollywood. Many of the top writers of the time were employed as script writers: Fitzgerald, Faulkner, Hemingway, Hammett, Chandler.  Most of these accomplished nothing-- even when they were adapting their own novels, the resulting film was worse or better than the original irrespective of their input. The exception is Chandler. He too hated the work regimen, writing regular hours on the studio lot, aware that everything could be changed by a director, and other writers could rewrite the script, sometimes multiple times. Yet Chandler wrote one of the greatest film noir, Double Indemnity (1944), about a crooked insurance salesman and his boss, the claims investigator (i.e. detective) who sees through everything. A conniving blonde is the bad seed, but the real drama is between the two men, almost an office married couple, building facades and tearing them down across an office desk. In the final scene, when a dying Fred MacMurray tells Edward G. Robinson, “I love you too”, it is reminiscent of the scene where Sam Spade says to his loyal secretary, “You’re a good man, sister.” Heart-breaking moments in the sea of hardboiled operatives.


Dashiell Hammett. 2017. The Big Book of the Continental Op. Vintage Crime.   [page references to this volume thus:]

Dashiell Hammett. 1999. Hammett: Complete Novels. The Library of America. [page references to this volume thus:]

Raymond Chandler. 1950. Trouble is My Business. (short story collection)

Nathan Ward. 2015. The Lost Detective. Becoming Dashiell Hammett.  Bloomsbury Publishing.

Tom Williams. 2012. A Mysterious Something in the Light: The Life of Raymond Chandler. Chicago Review Press.

Randall Collins. 2004. Interaction Ritual Chains.  Princeton Univ. Press.