Harry Ransom CenterThe University of Texas at Austin

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

The Murder Mystery


"Then I did another not at all heroic thing. I turned on all the lights in the room, lighted a cigarette (we all like to pose a little now and then), and sat down on the bed to await my capture. I might have stalked my enemies through the dark house, and possibly have nabbed them; but most likely I would simply have succeeded in getting myself shot. And I don't like to be shot."
Dashiell Hammett, The House in Turk Street (1924)

The 1920s are known as the Golden Age of the detective story. One of the singular accomplishments of the era was the invention of the "Hard Boiled" (or "Tough Guy") detective, a particularly American slant to the detective story, which was previously a largely British form. These stories and novels celebrated adventure, instinct, speed, the common, even vulgar, tongue, and a certain lawlessness. In many ways they were a reaction to the excessive materialism of the times, mirroring the public reaction to Prohibition and the simultaneous rise of the gangster as an American type. They also present an ambivalent reaction to the increasing urbanization of America. The city itself is often both the hero and the villain. Against both the gangster and the hero was the detective: Race Williams, Sam Spade, The Continental Op, Ned Beaumont, Nick and Nora Charles, and later, Philip Marlowe, Mickey Spillane, Lew Archer, V. I. Warshawski, and many others. These characters represent the same qualities and values that Lillian Hellman felt characterized possibly the greatest of them all, Dashiell Hammett.

Cover and flap from <em>The Maltese Falcon</em>
Cover and flap from The Maltese Falcon
Dashiell Hammett

The Maltese Falcon (1930) by Dashiell Hammett, dust jacket and inside flap.

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