December 16, 2008

Hammett & Writing (Or how Old is New again)

I really need to brush up on my history reading... Really do. I am brushing up on my regular reading (the books I have meant to try but stayed away from just because they were the classics forced into the modern English courses I took in college). You know the ones, FitzGerald, Steinbeck and of course, Dashiell Hammett. Sorry to say, I still haven't read Steinbeck's classic but as this recession/depression deepens I will give it a whirl. Nothing like current events to validate the gloom of his Dust Bowl classics. FitzGerald and the Great Gatsby is still beyond me. I have read him but don't like his style of writing, no matter how much the teachers point out the way things in the novel reflect various things in the times. That's the problem with the teaching of the classics...the teaching to the philosophy of the times. I don't know what motivates writers to write the way they do. I do know that writing comes out of the back brain and down into the fingers to produce words. Is there conscious thought? Sure. Is there a plan of how the author wants the book to go? Absolutely! But!!! Is there a syllabus that tells the author -- dirt needs to be read as the way the stock market falls and this goes here because of the Great Depression, and that goes there because of the stock market? No. I don't buy it. Which is why I never majored in English. I couldn't spout the gospel according to whatever critic was forming the opinion of the teacher. That's why I went into Humanities and learned to take cultural things evoked in books and spoken of in histories at their face value and not 'read' my modern culture into them. I digress, however. Back to the main point of this note: Nothing could prepare me, however, for Hammett. I picked his work up after exhausting the library of my favorites. And fell in love. Lean prose, punchy dialogue and extremely close watch on what characters did and looked like. Really good background in the history as well. In the Maltese Falcon, for example, I always thought the 'bird' was just a story. Not something that happened in fact. I was wrong. Here is a link to the Knights of Malta (aka Knights of Rhodes, not to be confused with the Knights Templar). Thank god for google. I would never have had the patience to locate that information in the library. Fascinating history. And his prose on why he has to turn over the woman who killed his partner Miles is evocative of someone who had been through WWI and seen death close up:
"...When a man's partner is killed he'd supposed to do something about it. It doesn't make any difference what you thought of him. He was your partner and you're supposed to do something about it." (pp. 213-4) Maltese Falcon, First Vintage Crime/Black Lizard Edition, August 1992. First published 1929, 1930 Alfred A. Knopf, Inc.

Hammett served in WWI and it shows in that quote. The quote goes further than that. It shows me that the human urge is to do something when someone is killed. Death affects us all. And when death comes for a partner, it is avenged. Warts and all. Likable or not.

So I will start a collection of Hammett books of my own to come back to for thoughtful inspiration. Thin Man, Continental Op and The Glass Key are the books listed in the back of this edition. I am fascinated that at least two I know of have been turned into movies...Thin Man and The Maltese Falcon. But then I am a movie geek. Until peace, know peace

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