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LeRoy Lad Panek, Reading Early Hammett: A Critical Study of the Fiction Prior to The Maltese Falcon (Jefferson & London: McFarland & Company, Inc., 2004, $35.00, 219 pages, ISBN 0786419628)J. A. Zumoff, Tecnológico de Monterrey - Campus Sta. Catarina


Dashiell Hammett is largely remembered as the author of the Maltese Falcon (1930), which helped turn detective fiction into literature, as Raymond Chandler acknowledged in “The Simple Art of Murder” (1944). More knowledgeable readers might recall Hammett’s other novels, including Red Harvest (1929), The Dain Curse (1929), The Glass Key (1931) and the Thin Man (1934), but Hammett’s earlier work, as a contributor to Black Mask and Smart Set magazines, is usually, even if acknowledged, rarely analyzed, except as a precursor to the Falcon. Many of these stories are unavailable, but others can be found in several collections, or, in some cases, on the Internet.

Leroy Lad Panek, however, sets out to analyze these earlier works, and not just as roughs drafts of the Maltese Falcon, but as important works in themselves. In his preface, he criticizes the tendency to read Hammett “backwards” and argues that “all readers […] would benefit from reading Hammett starting from the beginning rather than the end and from a clearer, more accurate vision of what he actually wrote before he created Sam Spade and before hard-boiled writers became a school” [3]. Reading Early Hammett, therefore, looks at this early writing, dividing it roughly into four periods, each with its own chapter: Hammett’s first writings for magazines; his Continental Op stories for Black Mask; the novels based on the Op character; and the final Op stories. In addition, Panek adds a short conclusion, and a comprehensive chronological listing of Hammett’s early writing (usefully including both the original publication data and reprint information, if any).

As such, Reading Early Hammett fulfils a useful, if narrow, purpose. Die-hard Hammett fans will undoubtedly enjoy this book, and scholars should find it an important addition. However, there are some features that limit the book’s utility; some of these are probably inherent in this type of work, but others seem avoidable. Panek, especially in the chapter on Hammett’s first magazine writing, too often seems to just offer a short summary of a story, and then a quick analysis. Without the story at hand, this makes the book at times read as if would more appropriately serve as an introduction to a comprehensive collection of Hammett stories rather than a stand alone volume. More seriously, there seems to be little overarching analysis of these early stories, and the reader is left wondering about their relationship to one another and about Hammett’s development as a writer.

Several themes are touched upon. From his first, very short, published piece, Hammett made extensive use of irony, satire and sarcasm, including sudden, surprise endings. The author does mention this several times, but the importance of this in Hammett’s work is not really analyzed in any depth. And, given Panek's emphasis on not discussing the Falcon, the reader is left hanging as to the relations between Hammett’s tendency towards irony and satire and, say, the supreme irony found in his most famous novel.

This section, while the book’s weakest, does succeed in some aspects. Panek shows the sheer variety of Hammett’s early works, arguing that Hammett did not originally set out to be a detective writer. In fact, while detective stories were the largest single category of early Hammett stories, “sex stories” (i.e., those about relationships, not necessarily about sex per se), adventure stories, criminal stories, and even westerns, found their place in Hammett’s early oeuvre. Unfortunately, while a number of these show talent, as a whole, they are not very good.

Oftentimes these stories seem most valuable when read as precursors to Hammett’s later works. Thus, “The Assistant Murderer” (1926), the last private detective story Hammett wrote before the Maltese Falcon, reads like a preliminary draft of the Falcon. As Panek writes, the one thing Hammett did not adopt from this story in the Maltese Falcon was the actual plot; they involve similar devices and twists, including a private detective who cannot trust his client. And “Nightmare Town” (1926), in which the narrator stumbles upon an isolated Western town only to discover that nothing is as it appears and the entire city is corrupt, seems to have been the spiritual, if not narrative, inspiration of Red Harvest. While Panek links both of these stories (and others) to Hammett’s later work, this seems to be done in a superficial manner, and the reader is left wondering how and why Hammett developed into a better writer.

Far stronger is the second chapter, on the Continental Op. From 1923 to 1927, Hammett wrote 24 tales involving the nameless operative of Continental detective agency, and all but one of the stories was published in Black Mask, which were obviously modeled on Hammett’s own experiences as an agent of the Pinkertons. Panek argues that these stories marked a fundamental shift in Hammett’s style: he dropped his slapstick irony, changed his portrayal of the police, as well as began introducing criminal and police slang into the stories.

Panek raises some interesting questions, although he does not always answer them. For example, there is the question of how Hammett treats the police. According the Panek (who is credited on the back cover as having recently written The American Police Novel), Hammett’s views of the police underwent a dramatic change. “Hammett isn’t very nice to the police” in his early fiction, and often “the cops are not only disagreeable looking, but they also arrest the wrong person” [85]. However, by the time of the Continental Op, “Hammett changed the way he portrayed cops dramatically, because he knew better” [86]. In fact, Panek argues that Hammett, unique among his contemporary crime writers, “treated police officers with respect at a time when they received very little” [93]. However, this changed in Red Harvest, where he describes a “police force possessed of every vice associated with the profession” [130]. In fact, in that novel, the police play the role of a rival criminal syndicate. And although Panel does not deal with The Maltese Falcon, in that novel Sam Spade certainly has a rather cynical view of the police. Yet, the biggest gap in this analysis is any attempt to explain why Hammett’s perspective may have changed, and changed so dramatically. Panek suggests that Hammett’s “attitudes toward policemen and the police in the first run of Op stories reflect directly on Hammett’s personal experience” as a Pinkerton operative, given the fact that “Pinkerton operatives cooperated with the police” [95-96]. However, Panek never examines how Hammett’s relationship with his own experience as a Pinkerton changed dramatically as well. Thus Hammett, by the mid- to late-1930s had moved from a cadre of one of the most notorious (and among many unionists, despised) strike-breaking and anti-labor organizations, to a sympathizer of the American Communist Party, and, in the 1950s, a left-wing political prisoner when he refused to co-operate with the McCarthy investigations. However, in general, Panek does not examine the political or social context of Hammett’s writings—nor does he provide much literary context: the reader is left wondering how Hammett’s early stories compared to other Black Mask authors of the same period.

There are other, more minor, problems. Perhaps the greatest is a tendency to not engage with other critics of Hammett, except at times in very cursory dismissals (see p. 2 or p. 122 for example). There is also a tendency to use the same excerpts more than once: even though each use is appropriate in itself, the overall effect is needlessly repetitive. There are also a number of typos that, while not too serious, probably should have been caught in draft form. For example, the very useful chronological listing of all of Hammett’s stories includes his “Green Elephant” (October 1923) as from two different issues of The Smart Set and once from an anthology. In general, however, this book should be very useful for those already familiar with Hammett, but less useful for those new to his early work.

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