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