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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’


Dropping Murder from the Vase into the Alley?

THE MALTESE FALCON: Flitcraft Parable ďƒ˜ ďƒ˜


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



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?


Actional function : Why does Spade tell Brigid this story? 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.


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’


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


Dropping Murder from the Vase into the Alley?


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


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


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)


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? 16

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