Hammett’s Moral Vision
George J. Thompson.
Introduction by William F. Nolan
San Francisco: Vince Emery, 2007
$24.95. 246 pages. ISBN: 097258983X
Reviewed by J.A. Zumoff
City College of New York
In ‘The Simple Art of Murder’, his famous 1944 essay on Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler argues that in the end it did not matter if The Maltese Falcon (1930) is in fact ‘a work of genius,’ because, ‘Once a detective story can be as good as this, only the pedants will deny that it could be even better’. (1) Similarly, just as Hammett was the first author to make crime fiction literature, George Thompson was the first critic to subject Hammett to systematic serious academic analysis. As Thompson describes in the first chapter of the present work, while a graduate student in English in the late 1960s, he became exasperated with academia and was on the point of giving up when he decided to write his doctoral thesis on Hammett’s novels. This thesis (2) and the seven articles based on it published in the magazine The Armchair Detective are fundamental to the fact that Hammett is taken seriously as a literary figure, albeit a minor one. Although these sources are not quite so hard to obtain as the marketing for this book implies—I was able to download Thompson’s thesis at my university library and The Armchair Detective is held by the New York Public Library, among others—their publication, finally, in a handsome easily bought volume can only be seen as positive. (Although not a big-name publishing house, Vince Emery is publishing a series of books on Hammett that promises to be not just attractive to Hammett fans but to those who study him as an academic subject as well.)
Thompson argues that at the center of Hammett’s writing is his ‘extremely ambiguous moral vision’  and that there is ‘a clear and definitive progression of man’s progression to deal morally and ethically with decadent worlds’ . In short, Hammett’s world is both corrupt and corrupting, and amid this is the private investigator trying to carry out his work while avoiding being corrupted himself. Thompson traces the evolution of this code from Hammett’s first novel, Red Harvest (1929), to his last, The Thin Man (1934). In Red Harvest, the narrator of the story— the unnamed operative of the Continental Detective Agency (the Continental Op)—is called to an industrial Midwestern town, which is dominated by competing gangs and corrupt police and businesses. Through pitting different factions against each other, the Op cleanses the city, at least temporarily, of its endemic corruption. The Op, to Thompson, is both ‘a man who has a [moral] code’ but also has ‘a propensity to become caught up in the action, to become personally involved in feelings that have little to do with professional codes of ethics’ . This in turn sets up the moral dilemma at the heart of the novel: that in order to be successful, the Op. ‘must be able to think like the corrupt man, in this case, even act like him’ without himself becoming corrupt . The Op himself bemoans his tendency towards going ‘blood simple’, i.e., becoming as corrupt and violent as the natives. This difficult balancing act, while externally successful since the Op does cleanse the city, is both precarious and internally damaging to the Op. Hammett’s second novel, The Dain Curse (1929), has the theme that ‘reality is highly problematic’ . In this reading, ‘our perception of reality is imperfect because our minds are imperfect’ and as a result ‘we create fictions about ourselves in order to survive’ . As in Red Harvest, corruption is a central theme, but in this case it is not social corruption, but personal corruption: the murderer is corrupted by sexual lust.
The Maltese Falcon (1930), widely seen as Hammett’s best novel and no doubt his most famous book, is, for Thompson, ‘where for the first time [Hammett] articulates a fully moral vision’ . Again, common Hammett themes, such as the ‘problematic nature of reality’  and ‘inescapable loneliness and uncertainty’  are central to Thompson’s reading. Spade’s maneuvering through the dangers of the plot ‘suggests that the external world lacks certainty, and therefore one must not count on the stability of anything outside one’s self’ . Acting on this understanding, Spade illustrates that ‘[i]n a chaotic world, a man must make his own stability’ as he searches for ‘truth in a false world’ [112-113]. However, this stability and truth—what defines his moral vision—alienate Spade from the world he lives in, turning him into ‘an outsider, an exile, from his community even though his job is to search out corruption and attempt to right justice’ . To Thompson, then, Spade’s experience proves that ‘a moral man [can] act in a corrupt world without himself becoming infected’, but only at the cost of ‘skepticism and alienation’ . (He becomes, in other words, hard-boiled.)
Hammett’s penultimate novel, The Glass Key (1931) presents an even darker vision, evidence of ‘a growing pessimism in Hammett’s view of modern society, and a clear-eyed view of the dilemmas of a man of integrity in an immoral universe’ . In this novel, personal and political corruption is melded together, since the main characters are corrupt politicians. Ned Beaumont, a gambler and loyal aid to the corrupt politician Paul Madvig, is ‘the epitome of a loser’  who defines himself by his loyalty to Madvig. Yet the surrounding society is marked above all by betrayal and corruption. ‘Crime and guilt are coextensive with society itself, and betrayal comes to represent the way of life in the new society’ . By the end of the novel, ‘all that has been shown to have been the center of Beaumont’s life is shattered—all, that is, but his adherence to truth, and it is this alone which keeps him from the decadence around him’ . Yet this vision ‘exacts a terrible price’ on Beaumont, ‘more severe, perhaps, than immoral action’ .
Thompson calls his chapter on Hammett’s last novel, The Thin Man (1934), ‘the end game’ . It is, he suggests, of all Hammett’s novels, ‘the darkest of all because it suggests the almost total alienation of modern man’ . The main character of the book, retired detective Nick Charles, ‘has given up’  since for him ‘the quest for truth no longer carries any inherent meaning. Answers may be found, but nothing changes, and this suggests that what was once a meaningful human activity is no longer so’ . Nick returns to detective work, but largely as an ‘armchair detective, remote and alienated from the world he so unwillingly serves’ . He solves cases, but really has lost interest in the solutions. ‘The hardboiled skin survives, but its reason for existing is gone.’ It is easy to see why Thompson sees in this the twilight of Hammett’s authorial vision, since Nick Charles essentially resolved Hammett’s ‘moral vision’, but in the negative: ‘the hardboiled attitude is only a stance, devoid of meaningful connection with the internal self’ . In other words, the detective surrenders to the corruption around him, and ceases to serve any real function. On this negative note, Thompson concludes that this was Hammett’s last novel because ‘he had no more to say’ .
One strength of Thompson’s approach is that he examines the development of Hammett’s ‘moral vision’ through all five of his novels and thus can focus on Hammett’s development as an author, and not just on his most popular work, The Maltese Falcon. This allows Thompson to argue that Hammett’s ‘moral vision’ evolved through his work. It is a shame, then, that Thompson did not likewise examine Hammett’s earlier short-story writing, since this would have allowed him to trace this vision even further back. Many of the same themes are present in his Black Mask writings in the early and mid 1920s. Hammett had already raised questions about the futility of looking for truth, the corruption of the detective, and the hard-boiled nature of the detective, before he even published his first novel. Thus it seems too neat to claim a strict progression.
Both on this basis and in general some of Thompson’s emphasis on the ‘development’ of Hammett’s vision seem misplaced. For example, Thompson claims that since Sam Spade returned Gutman’s money and turned in Brigid to the police at the end of The Maltese Falcon, this ‘make[s] speculation concerning Spade’s possible corruption at the end patently absurd’ . This certainly does show that Spade was not corrupted either by greed or lust—the two corrupting influences that are constant in Hammett’s work—but he has, still, betrayed his lover, framed a man for a crime while allowing others to walk free, and thoroughly mucked-up any sense of justice that the reader may have about American society. He remains true to his own vision, his own code, but for little apparent end except his own subjunctive vision of how the world ought to be. If Gutman and the other villains in the book novel are single-mindedly pursuing the Maltese Falcon, which turns out to be a fake, then Spade is also pursuing something that also turns out to be not real. Spade is shown to be cynical towards the truth, and his own sense of morality seems to serve no end—not even his own personal enrichment. Spade famously argues that even though he disliked his partner, he is supposed to do something. At the end of the novel, Spade seems as corrupt as all the other characters in the novel, but without any rational explanation.
Similarly, the Continental Op in Red Harvest breaks free from the corruption of Personville, but shows himself capable of manipulating his client, his company, and playing off one corrupt faction of another for no discernable purpose except to see what happens. The Op is a man on a mission—and everything is subsumed in this vision and he is willing to manipulate other people in order to achieve his goal. But there is no purpose to his maneuverings—even the basic mystery of the novel changes. Years earlier, in ‘The Golden Horseshoe’ (1924) the Op described how ‘One way of finding what’s at bottom of either a cup of coffee or a situation is to keep stirring it up until whatever is on the bottom comes to the surface.’ (3) This is not a ‘moral vision’ but a profoundly amoral one. If the detective is supposed to serve as an agent of rationality, in Hammett’s works he increasingly serves as an agent of irrationality—not for personal gain, which would be rational, but for its own sake. This suggests that the difference between Nick Charles and the Continental Op is not that the latter has stopped believing in his work, but that he has merely tired of his manipulation of reality—much as a child with a magnifying glass might get bored with burning bugs without changing his own stance vis-à-vis the insect world.
Related to this is the question, what is the role of the detective? If, as Thompson argues, Hammett’s vision involves the ability of the detective acting in a corrupt world without becoming corrupt himself, it is certainly valid to ask to what end is the detective acting? Thompson argues that ‘Hammett examines the dilemmas of pragmatic, morally self-conscious heroes who attempt to do their job efficiently while holding on to their own authenticity’ . Yet, so long as ‘their job’ is increasingly irrational, it makes little sense to talk about the detectives’ efficiency and authenticity. In the standard mystery novel, the detective had an integrative role, to root out the irrational aspects of society and, through solving a crime, make the society rational again. Hard-boiled crime fiction, which Hammett pioneered, scrapped this conception. As Thompson shows, Hammett often called into question the existence of truth itself. Thus what was the detective doing? Rather than ordering the world, Hammett’s detective seems intent on just stirring things up. (Since Hammett was the first major detective writer who had actually been a detective, there is no doubt an element of self-examination in Hammett’s novels.)
Finally, it is a shame that more than 35 years have passed between the original doctoral thesis and this book. Both Vince Emery and Thompson are to be commended for finally publishing this work; however, inevitability the text seems dated at times. Although there are some superficial references to current popular culture, the book reads like an unearthed dissertation. There is lively engagement with critics, for example, who were contemporary in the 1960s and 1970s, but there is nothing about subsequent readings of Hammett. The references to the canons of American and English literature (Melville and Shakespeare pop up several times) also weigh the text down. Normally, of course, these would have been taken care of in the revision stage between thesis and monograph, but the time elapsed and the fact that Thompson left academia makes one doubt that anything could have been done about this and still have published the book. Overall, Hammett’s Moral Vision is a valuable book, and anybody attempting to subject Hammett to serious criticism must read and grapple with its analysis even if, to the present reviewer, they at times appear to be questionable.
(1) Raymond Chandler, The Simple Art of Murder (New York: Pocket Books, 1952), 191.
(2) George J. Thompson, ‘The Problem of Moral Vision in Dashiell Hammett’s Detective Novels’ (University of Connecticut, 1972).
(3) In Steven Marcus, ed., Crime Stories and Other Writings (New York: Library of America, 2001) 250.