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Gangsters in Hats

Richard Mayne, 17 May 1984

Essays on Detective Fiction 
edited by Bernard Benstock.
Macmillan, 218 pp., £20, February 1984, 0 333 32195 2
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Dashiell HammettA Life at the Edge 
by William Nolan.
Arthur Barker, 276 pp., £9.95, September 1983, 0 213 16886 3
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The Life of Dashiell Hammett 
by Diane Johnson.
Chatto, 344 pp., £12.95, January 1984, 9780701127664
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Hellman in Hollywood 
by Bernard Dick.
Associated University Presses, 183 pp., £14.95, September 1983, 0 8386 3140 1
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... James Naremore, in Professor Bernard Benstock’s symposium, seems to imply that it does. Dashiell Hammett, he writes, ‘challenges the easy distinctions between popular and high art, and the critical language that normally sustains those distinctions’. Implicitly, perhaps he did – although the evidence suggests that he thought his thrillers ...

Into the Alley

Daniel Soar: Dashiell Hammett, 3 January 2002

Nightmare Town: Stories 
by Dashiell Hammett, edited by Kirby McCauley and Martin Greenberg et al.
Picador, 396 pp., £16.99, March 2001, 0 330 48109 6
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Selected Letters of Dashiell Hammett 1921-60 
edited by Richard Layman and Julie Rivett.
Counterpoint, 650 pp., £28.99, June 2001, 1 58243 081 0
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... Chesterton: a much more dangerous thing.) The person usually credited with finding a way out is Dashiell Hammett. Raymond Chandler, Hammett’s more sophisticated successor, made the claim most publicly in the Atlantic Monthly in 1944 in an essay that has come to be seen as his manifesto: ‘...


John Brown, 18 November 1982

Shadow Man: The Life of Dashiell Hammett 
by Richard Layman.
Junction, 285 pp., £9.95, August 1981, 0 86245 027 6
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... Universally acclaimed as the pioneer of the modern detective-thriller, Hammett died in 1961, yet this is the first full-length account of his life to appear. In the context of the continuing vogue for biography, such a delay constitutes a small literary mystery, and in the preface to Shadow Man Richard Layman supplies a terse explanation ...

Burning Witches

Michael Rogin, 4 September 1997

Raymond Chandler: A Biography 
by Tom Hiney.
Chatto, 310 pp., £16.99, May 1997, 0 7011 6310 0
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Raymond Chandler Speaking 
edited by Dorothy Gardiner and Kathrine Sorley Walker.
California, 288 pp., £10.95, May 1997, 0 520 20835 8
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... in The Block Mask, the magazine which invented the hardboiled detective. Drink was finishing off Dashiell Hammett as the pre-eminent Block Mask author – Hammett wrote his last book, The Thin Man, the same year – and Chandler took his place. Since he wrote slowly and deliberately he barely made a living from his ...

The Schoolmen ride again

Richard Mayne, 15 May 1980

Cinema: A Critical Dictionary: The Major Film-Makers 
edited by Richard Roud.
Secker, 1120 pp., £25, February 1980, 9780436428302
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The Dream that Kicks: The Prehistory and Early Years of Cinema in Britain 
by Michael Chanan.
Routledge, 356 pp., £12.50, January 1980, 0 7100 0319 6
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... Hawks and Orson Welles? Their inclusion seems to me like bracketing Conrad with Edna Ferber or Dashiell Hammett – worthy enough artificers, but not engaged in mature art of the kind which deepens our lives. Uneasiness grows when Roud admits to his ‘blind spots’: Eisenstein, Murnau, Mizoguchi, Rossellini and Bergman. To be fair, he prints long ...

Formulaic Thrills

Thomas Jones: A mathematical murder mystery, 20 January 2005

The Oxford Murders 
by Guillermo Martínez, translated by Sonia Soto.
Abacus, 197 pp., £9.99, January 2005, 0 349 11721 7
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... As Dashiell Hammett once pointed out, murders, even in fiction, are not like mathematical problems. This hasn’t, however, prevented plenty of other crime writers from treating them as if they were. In the equation are a few constants – the corpse, perhaps the time and cause of death – and a few unknown quantities ...

Barriers of Silliness

J.I.M. Stewart, 1 July 1982

The Great Detectives: Seven Original Investigations 
by Julian Symons.
Orbis, 143 pp., £7.95, October 1981, 0 85613 362 0
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Critical Observations 
by Julian Symons.
Faber, 213 pp., £9.95, October 1981, 0 571 11688 4
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As I walked down New Grub Street: Memories of a Writing Life 
by Walter Allen.
Heinemann, 276 pp., £8.95, November 1981, 0 434 01829 5
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... this ‘is not the same thing as being a great novelist’. The essays on Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett, both admirably balanced appraisals, tell a similar story. It was Chandler’s strength, and his weakness, that he brought [a] basically sentimental aestheticism to the crime stories, so that they had increasingly to be about a romantic ...

Performing Seals

Christopher Hitchens: The PR Crowd, 10 August 2000

Partisans: Marriage, Politics and Betrayal Among the New York Intellectuals 
by David Laskin.
Simon and Schuster, 319 pp., $26, January 2000, 0 684 81565 6
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... rather than being, as with Rahv, a steady and consistent and reassuring thing. Lillian Hellman and Dashiell Hammett were with the Stalinist faction rather than the group which Laskin ignorantly (and annexing the Stalinist locution) terms ‘Trotskyites’. But an account of a highly strung weekend in their company, with the names left out, could be placed ...

Surviving the Sixties

Hilary Mantel, 18 May 1989

Shoe: The Odyssey of a Sixties Survivor 
by Jonathan Guinness.
Century Hutchinson, 233 pp., £14.95, March 1989, 0 09 173857 1
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Lilly: Reminiscences of Lillian Hellman 
by Peter Feibleman.
Chatto, 364 pp., £14.95, February 1989, 0 7011 3441 0
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... and woman of conscience, but these early years – of her Broadway success, her stormy life with Dashiell Hammett, her courage before the Un-American Activities Committee – are passed over quickly. This is not a biography of Hellman, but a memoir of decline and decay, on the one hand, self-satisfaction on the other. Feibleman’s prose is like the old ...

Bonded by the bottle

Michael Wood, 14 June 1990

Writers in Hollywood 
by Ian Hamilton.
Heinemann, 326 pp., £14.95, June 1990, 0 434 31332 7
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... has much fun with film historians’ confusion in this zone. Just who was it who put the alcoholic Dashiell Hammett on a plane in 1937, or perhaps 1938? Hamilton warms to the work of Preston Sturges (‘there is always a touch of film criticism in his films’); but his story sinks again with the Hollywood witch-hunts of the late Forties and early ...

Futzing Around

Will Frears: Charles Willeford, 20 March 2014

Miami Blues 
by Charles Willeford.
Penguin, 246 pp., £8.99, August 2012, 978 0 14 119901 6
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... paper and who trampled the jolly old flowering arbutus under the library window.’ That is, until Dashiell Hammett: Hammett ‘gave murder back to the kind of people who commit it for reasons’. ‘Violence did not dismay them; it was right down their street … He put these people down on paper as they were and he ...

Grunge Futurism

Julian Loose, 4 November 1993

Virtual Light 
by William Gibson.
Viking, 336 pp., £14.99, September 1993, 0 670 84081 5
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Terminal Identity: The Virtual Subject in Post-Modern Science Fiction 
by Scott Bukatman.
Duke, 416 pp., £15.95, August 1993, 0 8223 1340 5
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... its ‘superspecific’ abundance of detail, is a direct descendant of the hardboiled prose of Dashiell Hammett. The opening paragraph of Virtual Light gives a flavour of this noir-ish, information-rich idiom: ‘The courier presses his forehead against layers of glass, argon, high-impact plastic. He watches a gunship traverse the city’s middle ...

Bounty Hunter

John Sutherland, 17 July 1997

Riders of the Purple Sage 
by Zane Grey.
Oxford, 265 pp., £4.99, May 1995, 0 19 282443 0
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The Man of the Forest: The Authorised Version 
by Zane Grey.
Nebraska, 383 pp., $15, September 1996, 0 8032 7062 3
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The Thundering Herd: The Authorised Version 
by Zane Grey.
Nebraska, 400 pp., $16, September 1996, 0 8032 7065 8
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... who have used the genre (notably Larry McMurtry and Cormac McCarthy), the Western still awaits its Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler, Kurt Vonnegut, or even its Georgette Heyer: that is, the writer capable of lifting its clichés into art. Elmore Leonard might have done it, had he not decided to switch to crime ...


Jenny Diski, 28 April 1994

Roald Dahl: A Biography 
by Jeremy Treglown.
Faber, 307 pp., £17.50, March 1994, 0 571 16573 7
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... each other to keep up what Treglown calls ‘the high gibberish quotient’ of their relationship. Dashiell Hammett was appalled to hear of Patricia Neal’s planned marriage to Dahl, while Leonard Bernstein told her she was making the biggest mistake of her life. Treglown met and interviewed Neal, divorced from Dahl after 30 years of a marriage during ...

A bout de Bogart

Jenny Diski, 19 May 2011

Tough without a Gun: The Extraordinary Life of Humphrey Bogart 
by Stefan Kanfer.
Faber, 288 pp., £14.99, February 2011, 978 0 571 26072 0
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... of movie stars we might have overlooked. More fundamentally, we have to thank Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett, who provided the mean-street-walking existential characters we willingly confused with the actors who played them. The new retro cool I wallowed in had Philip Marlowe and Sam Spade as its source: the hard men with soft, democratic ...

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