April 05, 2007

Hammett in Fine Form

"The House in Turk Street"
collected in The Continental Op
Dashiell Hammett, 1924

Anybody who knows me, knows that I am a huge fan of Dashiell Hammett. My favorite pulp writer to read again and again. I won't get into everything I like about his work, because some of it will become obvious as I talk about this one story.

"The House in Turk Street" is typical Hammett: the prose is terse and rhythmic (though a bit more sensationalistic than in later work), the pace of the story's unfolding is tightly managed, the characters and bright and economically drawn (i.e. exploitative). The detective in this story is one of the great pulp characters of all time, the nameless operative for the Continental Detective Agency. Really, I can't think of a recurring mystery character who's more enjoyable on so many levels.

This particular story takes place all in a single house, over the course of just a few hours, and the hero spends a lot of it gagged and tied to a chair. There's a real understanding of drama in the way it unfolds - drama as opposed to plot, that is (though there's plenty of plot too). It's about the interactions among characters, the shifting power relationships, more than it's about the linear motion of a protagonist through situations. What's amazing is that Hammett manages to achieve this in a first-person narration, in a paid-by-the-word story for a 1920s pulp magazine.

It's hard to forgive the gender and (especially) ethnic stereotypes here, but if you can set them aside, it's a hell of a lot of fun to read. For me, it's always been easier to grimace and get past that kind of derogation when it's in popular genre fiction (though there are limits of course) than when it's in literature that makes claims to psychological depth.

I'm sure I'll talk about other Hammett work here in time, but this story contains so many of my favorite elements, figured it was a good place to start. The whole Continental Op collection is pretty marvellous, actually. Definitely worth reading, especially if you've never read any so-called "hardboiled" detective fiction.

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