I read this collection of Dashiell Hammett’s short stories as context for Raymond Chandler’s novels. I loved those and I was curious to see what had preceded them and to see if there were any obvious influences. The answer is yes and no.
First of all the similarities: although Dashiell Hammett stopped writing in 1934 just as Chandler was getting going, they both wrote short stories for ‘The Mask’ magazine, although not at the same time. They both use a first person detective to explore their respective worlds; both detectives (Phillip Marlowe in Chandler’s Los Angeles and the Continental Op in Dashiell Hammett’s San Francisco) have a strong moral compass. And both Chandler and Hammett used writing short stories for ‘The Mask’ as an apprenticeship for the serious business of writing novels – Hammett wrote 5, and Chandler 6.
Differences include: Hammett writes mainly about San Francisco and Chandler about Los Angeles; Hammett makes no real attempt to build characters (or at least he doesn’t in these short stories) while Chandler’s characters yell at you off the page; although very well written, Hammett’s prose is purely plot functional whereas Chandler is constantly crafting beautiful literature with very real characters and detailed artistically constructed descriptions of place. Paradoxically, Hammett’s novels translated into better films: ‘The Maltese Falcon' trumps Chandler’s ‘The Big Sleep’ and so forth. And one final paradox is that although Hammett was writing from real life experience - he had actually been a Pinkerton agent - Chandler, who was a former oil company accountant, wrote more vivid prose.
There are 7 stories in this collection. The first (‘The Tenth Clew’) and the last ('The Farewell Murder') of which were my favourites. My main criticism of a couple of the other stories was that they were far too long – they feel like they were deliberately padded out – almost as if the author was being paid by the word. Maybe he was.
Still, I enjoyed these and they have spurred me on to read Dashiell Hammett’s novels which I was vaguely aware of anyway – Red Harvest, The Dain Curse, The Maltese Falcon, The Glass Key & The Thin Man. 4 stars.