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Dropping Murder from the Vase into the Alley?: Challenging Hammet’s Alleged Realism Jesús Ángel González Universidad de Cantabria

Newcastle, April 2008


Dropping Murder from the Vase into the Alley?

HAMMETT, A REALISTIC WRITER? Hammett [...] was one of a group—the only one who achieved critical recognition—who wrote or tried to write realistic mystery fiction [...] [he] took murder out of the Venetian vase and dropped it into the alley [...] gave murder back to the kind of people that commit it for reasons, not just to provide a corpse [...] He put these people down on paper as they were, and he made them talk in the language they customarily used for these purposes. (Raymond Chandler, “The Simple Art of Murder” )  

Hammett as an advertiser: letters to the editor, reviews. A way to sell his stories. Realism challenged by metaphoric interludes in all his novels: dreams, parables and hallucinations 2


Dropping Murder from the Vase into the Alley?

RED HARVEST: Hallucinations  

Personville-Poisonville Two hallucinations:  

With a woman Chasing an enemy

Two functions: 

Distorted perceptions of reality (part of the whodunit, clues) Clues about the detective’s personality: 

Critique of the hard-boiled hero: “The Seventeenth Murder” Close relationship with Dinah Brand, although the hard-boiled code would never let the op express his feelings. 3


Dropping Murder from the Vase into the Alley?

THE DAIN CURSE: Hallucinations and message 

Drug-induced hallucination (simplistic function: to uncover a setup) Another interlude: ‘message from the grave’

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Dropping Murder from the Vase into the Alley?

THE MALTESE FALCON: Flitcraft Parable ďƒ˜ ďƒ˜

The

Contradictory critical interpretations Message: hypodiegetic narrative embedded in another narrative. 3 functions (Rimmon-Kennan): 1.

2.

3.

Actional: to maintain or advance the action. Explicative: to offer an explanation of the diegetic level Thematic: to establish relations of analogy, similarity or contrast 5


Dropping Murder from the Vase into the Alley?

1.

Actional function : Why does Spade tell Brigid this story? ďƒ˜

ďƒ˜

Open parable: the moral comes at the end In order to warn her: Spade is like Flitcraft, adjusts to circumstance. There are no absolute values except those which lead to personal survival.

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Dropping Murder from the Vase into the Alley?

2. Explicative function : What does the story tells us about the characters? 

Spade as a ‘blond Satan’: it opens the possibility of a guilty hero and turns the personality of the detective into one of the most important elements of the ‘whodunit’

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Dropping Murder from the Vase into the Alley?

3. Thematic function : What does the story tell us about Hammett’s view of life? 

“ Men died at haphazard … and lived only while blind chance spared them” The only solution is to adapt your life to circumstance

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Dropping Murder from the Vase into the Alley?

THE GLASS KEY: Dreams 

Ambiguous novel: external perspective that never really explains the characters Investigator: a gambler, not a detective. Why does he act? To overcome the limitations of his narrative technique: dreams  

Ned’s dream: fish Janet’s dream: a variant of Hansel and Gretel, the glass key Meaning? 9


Dropping Murder from the Vase into the Alley?

1.- Actional Function : Why are they telling each other these dreams? ďƒ˜ They are flirting, sending obscure messages to each other, sexual overtones

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Dropping Murder from the Vase into the Alley? 2.- Explicative Function : What do the dreams say about the characters?  Dreams as keys to the whodunit:  Ned’s dream: Ned’s distrust towards Janet (misleading him in his investigations)  Janet’s dream: Her unconscious is revealing the result of their quest: her own father has killed her brother (snakes=corruption). Key made of glass: Once the door is open, it cannot be locked Janet must face reality instead of lying  Dreams as keys to Ned and Janet’s personalities, touchstones to show their evolution  Two endings in Janet’s dream: immaturity  Variant of the Garden of Eden story: Janet is like Eve, finds the forbidden food, loses innocence, accepts the existence of evil and leaves with Ned. 11


Dropping Murder from the Vase into the Alley?

3.- Thematic Function : Hardboiled hero’s attitude towards women. 

Red Harvest : Hallucination as an allegory of the Op’s inability to accept his relationship with Dinah The Maltese Falcon : Flitcraft story as a way of indicating the lack of commitment with the woman that Spade “maybe loves” The Glass Key : Like Adam and Eve, Janet and Ned taste the forbidden fruit, lose innocence and leave the city together

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Dropping Murder from the Vase into the Alley?

THE THIN MAN: Packer story 

New protagonist: Nick Charles, a detective married to an intelligent, witty woman Ironic comedy of manners hiding a very grim view of life: selfishness, greed and hate Means to highlight this view of life: very intrusive metaphorical interlude, the Packer story, cannibalism during the conquest of the West Only explicative and thematic functions: an inversion of the myth of the American Dream. Story of pioneers who end up eating each other: parable of American society during the Depression 13


Dropping Murder from the Vase into the Alley?

Realism? A matter of style: Hammett conveys an illusion of realism through style     

Colloquial, direct language Violent society Morally ambiguous characters Skeptical view of life Realistic plots?

“ This technique is called realistic only owing to a misapprehension (…) it is perfectly obvious that this fictitious world is not attempting a reproduction, pure and simple, of reality, but the most arbitrary form of stylization. It is born of a mutilation, and of a voluntary mutilation, performed on reality” (Albert Camus about roman noir)

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Dropping Murder from the Vase into the Alley?

Realism? In order to overcome the limitations of this ‘mutilation’ and the objective narrative: Anti-realistic device, metaphorical interludes Messages, dreams, parables and hallucinations with actional, explicative and thematic functions:

  

Clues to the whodunit Keys to the characters’ inner world Metaphors of Hammett’s philosophical views

Multidimensional literary device that allowed him to question the configuration of the hard-boiled hero he was creating and deconstructing at the same time 15


Dropping Murder from the Vase into the Alley?

gonzalezja@unican.es 16

Dropping murder from the vase into the alley: Hammett's alleged realism  

Dropping murder from the vase into the alley: Hammett's alleged realism

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