Chandler on Hammett

In his 1950 essay, the Simple Art of Murder, Raymond Chandler writes about the various styles of mystery writing and the genius of Dashiell Hammett, the first hardboiled detective fiction writer. Hammett himself was a detective at the Pinkerton Detective Agency in San Francisco, until health problems and disillusionment with some of the agency’s tactics drove him to try his hand at writing. He wrote with the lingo, he wrote about what he knew, and he wrote with a stripped-down style that Hemingway later became famous for. Chandler writes:

Hammett took murder out of the Venetian vase and dropped it into the alley. [...] He wrote at first (and almost to the end) for people with a sharp, aggressive attitude to life. They were not afraid of the seamy side of things; they lived there. Violence did not dismay them; it was right down their street.

Hammett gave murder back to the kind of people that commit it for reasons, not just to provide a corpse; and with the means at hand, not with hand-wrought duelling pistols, curare, and tropical fish. He put these people down on paper as they are, and he made them talk and think in the language they customarily used for these purposes. He had style, but his audience didn’t know it, because it was in a language not supposed to be capable of such refinements. They thought they were getting a good meaty melodrama written in the kind of lingo they imagined they spoke themselves. [...] He is said to have lacked heart, yet the story he thought most of himself is the record of a man’s devotion to a friend. He was spare, frugal, hardboiled, but he did over and over again what only the best writers can ever do at all. He wrote scenes that seemed never to have been written before.

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