Commentary Magazine


Dashiell Hammett's “Private Eye”:
No Loyalty Beyond the Job

In the career and writings of Dashiell Hammett, one of the most successful American practitioners of the detective story, David T. Bazelon finds crystallized a problem of increasing significance to modem culture: the moral abdication involved in the technician’s relationship to his job. 

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The figure of the rough and tough private detective—or the “private eye,” as we have come to call him with our circulating library knowingness—is one of the key creations of American popular culture. He haunts the 25-cent thrillers on the newsstands, he looks out at us grimly from the moving-picture screen, his masterful gutter-voice echoes from a million radios: it is hard to remember when he was not with us. But he is only some twenty years old. His discoverer—his prophet—is Dashiell Hammett.

In the chief critical history of the detective story written by a fellow-believer—Howard Haycraft’s Murder for Pleasure (1941)—Dashiell Hammett is placed centrally in “the American Renaissance of the rate twenties and early thirties.” Except for the fact that this “Renaissance” started a bit late and ended a bit soon, it coincides with a much larger cultural and social impulse that (except for the depression and the consequent preparation for war) was the most significant feature of the inter-war period. Culturally, this impulse would include, defined in the most general way, the productions of Hemingway, Faulkner, Dos Passos, Farrell; the critical work of Edmund Wilson; the “brain trust” aspect of the New Deal; and the whole complex of expression connected with the diffusion of Marxist ideas and the growth of political consciousness.

But what began as a revolt of the individual sensibility against the whole ideological pattern allied with American participation in the First World War (the great “debunking”) ended in bureaucracy, Stalinism, proletarian literature, lots and lots of advertising-Hollywood-radio-popular-magazine jobs, and—another war.

The relation between Popular Frontism and popular culture is not accidental; the kind of mind that is able to construct commercial myths without believing in them is the same kind of mind that needs to construct one great myth in which it can believe, whether it is the myth of Abraham Lincoln-Franklin Roosevelt-Walt Whitman-John Henry, or the myth of the Socialist Fatherland, or some incongruous mixture of the two. And the tenacity with which the creator of popular culture holds to this myth—in the face of all the facts which precisely his “sophisticated” mind might be expected to understand—is the measure of the corruption that this one great “ideal” is supposed to cover. Nor is it accidental that these members of the “working class,” when threatened with the loss of their fantastically lucrative jobs, should be able to speak in all sincerity of being threatened with starvation because of their political convictions. For what holds this uneasy psychic structure together for the living individual is that American Nirvana—the Well-Paying Job. In America a good job is expected to be an adequate substitute for almost anything; in an industrial society, the job is the first and last necessity of life. And American society is not only more industrialized than any other, it also embodies fewer traditional elements that might contradict the industrial way of life.

The ascendancy of the job in the lives of Americans—just this is the chief concern of Dashiell Hammett’s art. When tuberculosis forced him to return to writing, it was his job experience that he drew upon; and his knowledge of the life of detectives could fit easily into a literary form that had at least as much in common with a production plan as with art. As soon as he got a “better” job, he stopped writing. And, as we shall see, the Job determines the behavior of his fictional characters just as much as it has set the course of his own life.

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The most important fact in Samuel Dashiell Hammett’s biography is that he worked off and on for eight years as an operative for the Pinkerton detective agency. Hammett claims that he was pretty good as a detective. (He was involved in several "big” cases, including those of Nicky Arnstein and “Fatty” Arbuckle.) We may take him at his word, since detective work is the only job-including his writing—at which he ever persevered.

Hammett seems to have come from a Farm—his place of birth is specified only as St. Mary’s County, Maryland, and the date is May 25, 1894. But he received his slight education in Baltimore, leaving school-the Baltimore Polytechnic Institute—at the age of thirteen. His jobs, in more or less chronological order, were: newsboy, messenger boy, freight clerk, stevedore, railroad laborer, detective. During the First World War, he served in Europe as a sergeant in the Ambulance Corps and contracted tuberculosis. He spent two years in hospitals; and his disease finally forced him to abandon his career as a private investigator. Until he began to write in 1922, he worked as advertising manager for a small store in San Francisco.

Apart from one tubercular hero and one dipsomaniac (both of whom are also investigators), Hammett’s fictional characters are derived almost entirely from his own experience as a detective.

His first detective stories, built around the nameless figure of the “Continental Op,” were published in pulp magazines—Black Mask, Sunset, and the like. Hammett was one of a group of detective-story writers who had begun producing violent, realistic material in opposition to the refined puzzles of such old hands as S. S. Van Dine. These postwar stories signified a sharp turn from the genteel English tradition toward the creation of a “lean, dynamic, unsentimental” American style (although, as George Orwell has demonstrated, the English too were solving imaginary crimes in new ways and in new settings). Hammett took the lead in this development.

He published five novels between 1929 and 1933. Together with the short stories written concurrently and earlier, these novels constitute almost the total body of his work. He has been phenomenally successful: his books are still being reprinted and most of his old stories have been dug up and republished. But he has written almost nothing in the last fifteen years. Since 1932 he has wanted to write a play, to begin with, and then go on to “straight” novels; he has said that he does not admire his detective stories. Hammett has been in Hollywood off and on since the early 30′s.

There is an obvious coincidence between the beginning of Hammett’s sojourn in Hollywood and the de facto end of his literary effort. Moreover, his job in the West Coast magic factories (at a reported fifteen hundred dollars a week) is not strictly a writing one; he is employed as a trouble-shooter, patching up scripts and expediting stories, often when the film is already before the cameras. Until 1938 Hammett seems to have been exclusively occupied with his joy-ride on the Hollywood gravytrain, but in that year—it was the height of the Popular Front period—he was seized by “political consciousness.” Already forty-four, he had spent six of his best years in Hollywood instead of writing his play, and thus was more or less ready for religion.

Unlike many victims of the Popular Front, Hammett went on following the Communists—up hill and down dale: Popular Front—No Front—Second Front. We can only assume that his need is great. During the war he was president of the League of American Writers and as such occupied himself lining up talent behind war activities in general and the second front in particular. He also joined the army. At present he serves as head of the New York branch of the Civil Rights Congress, a Stalinist “front” organization; most recently his name turned up as a sponsor of the Cultural and Scientific Conference for World Peace, held in New York in March.

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The core of Hammett’s art is his version of the masculine figure in American society. The Continental Op constitutes the basic pattern for this figure, which in the body of Hammett’s work undergoes a revealing development.

The older detectives of literature—exemplified most unequivocally by the figure of Sherlock Holmes—stood on a firm social and moral basis, and won their triumphs through the exercise of reason. Holmes, despite his eccentricities, is essentially an English gentleman acting to preserve a moral way of life. The question of his motives never arises, simply because it is answered in advance: he is one of the great army of good men fighting, each in his own way, against evil. Who needs a “motive” for doing his duty? (Holmes’s love for his profession is never contaminated by any moral ambiguity: he is not fascinated by evil, but only by the intellectual problem of overcoming evil.) With Hammett, the moral and social base is gone; his detectives would only be amused, if not embarrassed, by any suggestion that they are “doing their duty"—they are merely doing.

The Op is primarily a job-holder: all the stories in which he appears begin with an assignment and end when he has completed it. To an extent, competence replaces moral stature as the criterion of an individual’s worth. The only persons who gain any respect from the Op are those who behave competently—and all such, criminal or otherwise, are accorded some respect. This attitude is applied to women as well as men. In The Dain Curse, the Op is attracted deeply only to the woman who has capacity and realism—and he fears her for the same reason. So Woman enters the Hammett picture as desirable not merely for her beauty, but also for her ability to live independently, capably—unmarried, in other words.

But the moral question is not disposed of so easily. Hammett’s masculine figures are continually running up against a certain basic situation in which their relation to evil must be defined. In Red Harvest, for instance, the detective doing his job is confronted with a condition of evil much bigger than himself. He cannot ignore it since his job is to deal with it. On the other hand, he cannot act morally in any full sense because his particular relation, as a paid agent, to crime and its attendant evils gives him no logical justification for overstepping the bounds of his “job.” Through some clever prompting by the Continental Op, the gangsters—whose rule is the evil in Red Harvest—destroy each other in their own ways. But it becomes a very bloody business, as the title suggests. And the Op’s lost alternative, of perhaps having resolved the situation—and performed his job—with less bloodshed, grows in poignancy. He begins to doubt his own motivation: perhaps the means by which a job is done matters as much as the actual accomplishment of the job.

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One of the most suggestive aspects of this situation is that the Op’s client hinders rather than aids him in resolving the evil. For the client is the capitalist who opened the city to the gangsters in the first place, to break a strike. (This ambiguous relation to the client is characteristic in that it further isolates the detectives; suspicion is imbedded like a muscle in Hammett’s characters, and lying is the primary form of communication between them. In two of the novels, the murderer is an old friend of the detective.) If the Op were not simply employed—that is, if he were really concerned with combating evil—he would have to fight against his client directly, to get at the evil’s source. As it is, he confines his attention to his “job,” which he carries out with an almost bloodthirsty determination that proceeds from an unwillingness to go beyond it. This relation to the job is perhaps typically American.

What is wrong with the character of the Op—this American—is that he almost never wrestles with personal motives of his own. The private eye has no private life. He simply wants to do his job well. One might think he was in it for the money—but his salary is never made known, is apparently not large, and he isn’st even tempted to steal. Each story contains at least one fabulously beautiful woman—but the Op goes marching on. If he is a philosopher of some peculiarly American acte gratuit, a connoisseur of crime and violence, we never know it, since we are never permitted to know his thoughts. So, while this character often holds a strong primitive fascination because he represents an attempt at a realistic image of a human being who succeeds (survives not too painfully) in an environment of modern anxiety, he is, ultimately, too disinterested—too little involved—to be real.

It is interesting, in view of the importance of job-doing to the detective, to remark the reasons for this lack of personal motivation. What the Op has as a substitute for motives is a more or less total projection of himself into the violent environment of crime and death. And by “projection” I mean that he surrenders his emotions to the world outside while dissociating them from his own purposeful, responsible self; he becomes a kind of sensation-seeker. So, despite all the Sturm und Drang of his life, it remains an essentially vicarious one, because the moral problem—the matter of individual responsibility or decision-making in a situation where society has defaulted morally—is never even faced, much less resolved. The question of doing or not doing a job competently seems to have replaced the whole larger question of good and evil. The Op catches criminals because it is his job to do so, not because they are criminals. At the same time, it is still important that his job is to catch criminals; just any job will not do: the Op has the same relation to the experience of his job, its violence and excitement, the catharsis it affords, as has the ordinary consumer of mass culture to the detective stories and movies he bolts down with such regularity and in such abundance. His satisfactions require a rejection of moral responsibility—but this in itself requires that he be involved in a situation charged with moral significance—which exists for him solely that it may be rejected.

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Hammett must have felt the lacks in the Op, for the detective figures that follow—Sam Spade in The Maltese Falcon, Ned Beaumont in The Glass Key, and Nick Charles in The Thin Man—all represent attempts to give his character a more genuine human motivation. And this attempt to intensify the meaning of his detective was also, naturally, an effort on Hammett’s own part to express himself more deeply.

“Spade had no original. He is a dream man in the sense that he is what most of the private detectives I worked with would like to have been and what quite a few of them in their cockier moments thought they approached. For your private detective does not—or did not ten years ago when he was my colleague—want to be an erudite solver of riddles in the Sherlock Holmes manner; he wants to be a hard and shifty fellow, able to take care of himself in any situation, able to get the best of anybody he comes in contact with, whether criminal, innocent bystander or client.” This statement of Hammett’s in his 1934 introduction to The Maltese Falcon could have applied equally to the Op, except that Spade is more fully realized.

Spade differs from the Op primarily in the fact that he has a more active sexual motive of his own. This sexual susceptibility serves to heighten, by contrast, his basic job-doing orientation. So when Spade, in conflict, chooses to do his job instead of indulging in romantic sex, he takes on more dramatic meaning than does the hero of the Op stories. That is, a new, definite motive has been admitted to the public world, and its relations to that world explored dramatically. But Spade always chooses to be faithful to his job—because this means being faithful to his own individuality, his masculine self. The point of the character is clear: to be manly is to love and distrust a woman at the same time. To one woman, Spade says, “You’sre so beautiful you make me sick!”

The very center of Spade’s relation to women resides in a situation where the woman uses her sex, and the anachronistic mores attached to it, to fulfill a non-sexual purpose of her own, usually criminal. It is this situation in The Maltese Falcon, coming as the climax of Spade’s relation to Brigid O’shaughnessy, that is the supreme scene of all Hammett’s fiction. Its essence is stated very simply by Spade as he answers Brigid’s—the woman’s eternal—"If you loved me you would. . . .“ “’sI don’st care who loves who,” he says. “I’sm not going to play the sap for you.”

In his great struggle with Brigid, Spade must either deny or destroy himself. Because of the great distance between his self (summed up in a masculine code grounded in a job) and others whom he loves and does things for (women or clients), Spade is seldom able to act “normally” in significant situations. His choice is usually between being masochistic or sadistic—unless he simply withdraws his inner sentient self from the objective situation. It is his job that so alienates him from life—and yet it is his job also that gives him his real contact with life, his focus. If his emotions released their hold on his job, he would find himself adrift, without pattern or purpose. On the other hand, the job is obviously a form of—not a substitute for—living. This dissociation of the form of one’s life from the content of actual life-gratifications is symbolized excellently by the fact that the Maltese Falcon—around which so much life has been expended and disrupted—turns out to be merely a lead bird of no intrinsic interest or value.

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Ned Beaumont of The Glass Key is Hammett’s closest, most serious projection, and the author himself prefers The Glass Key to all his other books—probably because it was his chief attempt at a genuine novel.

Loyalty is the substitute for job in The Glass Key. And the factors of masculinity are a little more evenly distributed among the several characters than in Hammett’s more purely detective-story writing. Beaumont is not a professional sleuth, although he occupies himself with getting to the bottom of a murder. Furthermore, the book ends not in the completing of a job but with the hero and heroine planning marriage. We never know whether Beaumont’s motive in solving the murder is loyalty, job-doing, or love. However, because the motivation is more complex, though confused, it is superior to that in Hammett’s other work.

Beaumont is Hammett’s only weak hero. He gambles irrationally, gets nervous in a crisis, and seems to be tubercular. The issue of the masculine code is therefore presented in him more sharply and realistically. Unlike the Op, Beaumont is directly involved in evil since he is sidekick to a political racketeer. His relation to the woman involved is ignored over long stretches of the novel, and when Beaumont ends up with Janet Henry we are surprised because unprepared emotionally—although the development is logical in the abstract. It makes sense as consequence rather than as conscious purpose. All in all, The Glass Key is an expressive but very ambiguous novel. And this ambiguity reflects, I think, Hammett’s difficulty in consciously writing an unformularized novel—that is, one in which an analysis of motives is fundamental.

The ambiguity is also reflected in the style, which is almost completely behavioristic. "He put thoughtfulness on his face"—and one doesn’st know whether he is thoughtful or not. We are given various minute descriptions of the hero’s breathing process, the condition of his eyes, etc. Hammett employs the technique, I presume, as expertly as it can be. But it is a poor one to begin with, being too often a substitute for an analysis of consciousness—being, that is, the distortion of such an analysis. (There is only one story in which Hammett shows us the processes of thought in his characters—Ruffian’s Wife—and it is an embarrassing failure.) But just as consciousness is a weakness for Hammett the man (his conscious mind has been dominated by mere formulas—Stalinism, the detective story, etc.), so analysis of consciousness would appear the same for Hammett the artist. And, of course, he is not wrong. Consciousness is either accepted as an essential, growing factor in the structure of one’s life, or else it suffers continual distortion—not by accident, but inevitably.

Beaumont’s friend, Paul Madvig, is also his boss and his superior in strength and manliness—almost, indeed, a homosexual love-object. The factors that make Beaumont succeed where Madvig fails—in getting Janet Henry—are therefore extremely important: Beaumont has more awareness of the pretensions of higher society; he banks more on cunning than on pure power; he prefers silence to lying; he does not protect the girl’s father-murderer but fights him. Beginning with more weakness than Madvig, with defects in his male armor, he is eventually a more successful male because of his capacity to approach the objects of his desire indirectly—to work upon their relations in the real world rather than remaining fixed on the intrinsic qualities that his desire attributes to them. This factor of cunning and restraint, of knowing when to talk and when to shut up, when to fight, when to run, appears, then, as the final fruit of Hammett’s brief but not unrewarding engagement in literature. The private investigator’s shrewdness emerges finally as more important—more reliable in a pinch—than his toughness (which in Ned Beaumont is reduced to the power to endure rather than. the power to act aggressively).

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Now such an indirect road to satisfaction must be supplemented by consciousness—by which I mean a comprehensive hypothesis as to the nature of real life, based on as accurate as possible an understanding of the environment—or else it is likely to become frustrating beyond endurance. We can assume this alliance between our deep desires and a carefully defined world on paper, intellectually; but can it be lived? Or, a less ambitious question, can it subserve the creation of an aesthetically unified novel?

In the case of Hammett, the answer apparently is no—not without great distortion. For Hammett, in The Glass Key, got only as far as the experience of the vital need of knowing (beyond the horizon of the job). He then collapsed—quite completely. Instead of following his literary problem where it was leading him, he preferred to follow his new-found Hollywoodism down whatever paths of pleasure it might take him. He postponed the attempt to resolve those problems with which life had presented him. But it was, it could be, only a postponement, and after a few years he came upon Stalinism—that fake consciousness, fake resolution, perfect apposite of Hollywoodism—and crossed the t’s of his lost art.

Nick Charles, the hero of The Thin Man, spends more time drinking than solving crimes. If he does his job at all, it is only because Nora, his wife, eggs him on for the sake of her own excitement. Nick is as indulgent of his wife’s whims as he is of the bottle’s contents. Ned Beaumont’s weakness, which was at least to some degree a product of moral consciousness, becomes in Nick Charles the weakness of mere selfindulgence, the weakness of deliberate unconsciousness; thus literal drunkenness becomes a symbol of that more fundamental drunkenness that submerges the individual in commercialized culture and formularized "progressive” politics. The Thin Man was very successful, as I have noted. It is a very amusing detective comedy. But whatever the book was publicly, to Hammett himself it must surely have been an avowal of defeat. He had to give up Ned Beaumont, because Ned Beaumont was almost a human being and The Glass Key was almost a novel. It is Nick Charles who survives best in the atmosphere in which Hammett has stifled his talent.

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