Dashiell Hammett, along with Raymond Chandler and Ross Macdonald, are considered the three pillars of classic American hard-boiled writing. Hammett came first, however, and pretty well perfected the genre and writing style when it was still in its infancy. As much as the latter two authors leaned on him, to my mind they never surpassed him. He was the best.

I am not the first to note the curious fact that Hammett published five mysteries in five years, one of them among the greatest novels ever written, then never finished another book for the remaining 27 years of his life. No one ever really figured out why, including Lillian Hellman, his companion during those 27 years, though alcoholism, tuberculosis, and persecution by the US government (Hammett spent time in jail due to his political beliefs) are among the chief suspects. (A new collection of his short fiction, The Hunter and Other Stories, reveals that Hammett may have been hoping to shake the tough-guy image and write something completely different, but the stories failed to interest editors, hence their publication now for the first time.)

His first novel, Red Harvest (1929) has a standard-issue feel at the opening, when an unnamed private investigator arrives in Personville (aka "Poisonville") at the behest of an influential client whose life has been threatened. The client is killed before they meet, but his father hires the PI to find his son's killer. The suspects number a greedy girlfriend, a crooked chief of police, the victim's wife, and several of the town's gangsters. So far, so ordinary. But that's where things start to change, and before long you realize you're in the hands of a master of two of America's favourite themes: violence and vengeance. The PI quickly learns he can't trust anybody, including his employer, who first asks him to clean up Personville then orders him to leave town. After one-too-many assassination attempts, however, the PI is unwilling to vacate: now it's personal. "All in all it's one swell dish," is how one character sums things. And that's how the nameless PI deals it, serving up first one gangster after another in his unbending quest to restore law and order. The protagonist has strong similarities to Sam Spade, Hammett's most famous creation, but other characters from his third and best-known volume, The Maltese Falcon, also find their prototypes here, in this powerful and highly engaging story.

The Dain Curse followed the same year, in what may have been an attempt to cash in on the success of its predecessor. For his second book, Hammett threw everything into the cauldron: family curses, religious cults, drug addiction, stolen jewels. You name it, it's there. And not to the book's credit. Perhaps Hammett felt paralyzed by his beginner's luck and tried to figure out just what makes a book work with this second volume. Another nameless PI serves as the writer's alter-ego, making him sound at times like an author in search of a convincing psychology of character and event, voicing the story's apparent contradictions while testing some possible plot permutations. All in all, it's one big mess. But, what's more intriguing: that this book is one of the least enjoyable works of detective fiction of all time or that Hammett's next would be the greatest?

Of his third and most successful book, The Maltese Falcon (1930), I cannot say enough. Its story of greed and treachery, as characters play one another off in quest of the famed "black bird" of Malta, has inspired me and countless others to imitate its perfection and mastery. It is at times funny, cruel, compassionate, bleak, insightful, and riveting. Many will know the John Huston-Humphrey Bogart collaboration that also made it one of the most famous movies of all time. And rightly so. To Hammett's everlasting credit, much of the filmscript was lifted straight from the book, and it all works beautifully even now. The combination of oddball characters, wickedly funny dialogue and immaculate plotting make this the perfect noir masterpiece, as PI Sam Spade avenges the death of his partner Miles Archer and makes the world seem right in a cock-eyed, cynical kind of way. It was ranked 56 in Modern Library's 100 Best English-Language Novels of the 20th Century.

Hammett's fourth book, The Glass Key (1931), is an oblique tale written in a completely different tone from his earlier work. It's as though abstract expressionism has infected his style. Tension is rampant, but with little or no emotional anchoring between reader and characters. Here, all is ambiguity: Ned Beaumont, a racketeer, is asked to investigate the death of a respected senator's son by his best friend, a crime boss who wants to marry the senator's daughter. Politics and crime intersect and bisect repeatedly as the story grows more and more convoluted, until nearly everyone's motives are suspect. The purposeful withholding of the characters' rationales contributes to a sense of overall unease, where the reader never knows whom to trust, though both the story's end and the murder reveal are neatly fitting. This was said to be Hammett's favourite of his books.

Three years passed before the publication of The Thin Man (1934), Hammett's last novel. His sense of humour is back and smarter than ever, but there is an additional element in the work: love. The writing of this book happened to coincide with his relationship with playwright Lillian Hellmann, Hammett's companion for the last 30 years of his life, and to whom the book is dedicated. Here, the protagonist is Nick Charles, a former-private investigator who spends his time partying and drinking with his clever young wife, Nora. Against his will, Nick is drawn into a murder investigation along with Nora. The couple are fun and lively and seemingly free of sexual inhibition, as their frank (for the times) sexual banter--including comments on male genitalia--proclaims. The relationship is also refreshingly free of traditional sex role stereotyping, another miracle for its dour era. This is Hammett's happiest book and a fitting epitaph for one whose life would eventually take a permanent downslide into illness, incarceration and disillusionment.

Jeffrey Round is a writer, playwright and filmmaker. Lake On The Mountain, his first Dan Sharp mystery, won the Lambda Award for Best Gay Mystery in 2013. Pumpkin Eater, the second Dan Sharp mystery, is to be published in March 2014. Round is also author of the Bradford Fairfax comic mystery series and other books. Visit his website: http://www.jeffreyround.com.


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