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Teaching the American Twenties: Exploring the Decade through Literature and Art


The Murder Mystery

Elevating Pulp Fiction

Dashiell Hammett

A former Pinkerton detective, Dashiell Hammett created detective characters completely unlike the hired thugs that often filled the ranks of private detective agencies. After having been offered money to assassinate Frank Little, a leader of the International Workers of the World who was organizing miners in the Northwest, Hammett quit the agency with a marked sympathy for workers and people disenfranchised by the forces of capitalism.

In his books, detectives were often alienated, relatively virtuous men struggling to survive in the urban jungle. In submission letters to publishers, Hammett proclaimed his goal of raising the detective novel from simplistic pulp fiction to the level of literature. In line with his critique of the vicious city, Hammett incorporated many of the styles, techniques, and themes of expressionist art, film, and theater, including hyperbole, distortion, caricature, compacted dialogue, domestic conflict, and sudden reversals of characterization. His descriptions of cityscapes are also expressionistic in that they project states of "wounded subjectivity" onto the environment. Characters' anxieties and feelings of alienation show up as angular, geometrically abstracted vistas-urban landscapes described as cones and squares rather than as houses and buildings-often composed of "harsh contrasts of light and dark."

One critic notes that the instability of his characters and the untidy, unsatisfying endings of his novels are best symbolized by the statue of the Maltese Falcon itself—after his characters have committed murder and chased this statue across the globe, it turns out to be empty and worthless. Hammett makes an ironic statement as his narratives display the very elements of modern life he critiqued—the emptiness and futility of searching for meaning in a degenerate modern world.

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Letter to Mr. Black from Dashiell Hammett
Letter to Mr. Black from Dashiell Hammett
Dashiell Hammett

Letter to Mr. Black, a prospective publisher

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