My Favorite Noirs: Dashiell Hammett



Hello there! I’m back from a long absence and I’ve got some great news. My latest book, Dead Man’s Drive, is coming out tomorrow! It’s a 1950s urban fantasy, about a hot rod-riding zombie protecting a Southern California town from occult evil. It’s the first book in my Rot Rods series, which I’ve been working on for a while now. I’ll be talking about it a lot more, I’m sure. You can read short stories from the Rot Rods series here, totally for free, if you want:

To celebrate, I’m going to talk about some of my influences for Dead Man’s Drive and one of my favorite genres ever – Noir. There are a lot of genres mixing it up in Rot Rods – Universal and Hammer Horror flicks, assorted B-Movies featuring zombies, vampires, giant insects and aliens, garish 1950s EC Horror comics, teenage racing movies, rockabilly craziness and more – but there’s a big vein of Noir running through it as well. I’m going to be talking about my favorite Noir authors, my relationship to their work, and some recommended reading and viewing if you’re interested in learning more.

I’m starting with one of the two founders of the genre, Dashiell Hammett. Unlike most writers (yours truly included), he actually writes about what he knows. You see, Hammett worked for the infamous Pinkerton Detective Agency and knew about tracking down criminals, busting labor unions, and living in a world without virtue firsthand. The Pinkertons were pretty heartless and Hammett left their ranks before he started writing. He had a pretty tragic life, eventually getting blacklisted for his communist leanings before dying in 1961.

If you’re looking for Noir stories, as I was when I was a high school student who had just seen the hyerpbolic Sin City movie and was searching for something similar, Hammett is probably one of the first to pop up. I read the Continental Op stories, Red Harvest, The Glass Key, and his most famous work, The Maltese Falcon, in my freshman and sophomore years in high school and loved them all. Hammett’s stories had plenty of violence. They had snappy dialogue and period authenticity. They had some truly nasty villains and doomed heroes who never really won.  For a high school student craving two-gun action, they were perfect.

For someone who’s a little bit older (and more mature? maybe? I don’t know), they’re great too. Hammett knows the unease of being a private detective, and existing in a dangerous world where morality will just get you killed quicker. He knows how unfair everything is, and how good intentions rarely pan out. There’s a big strand of timely social commentary in his novels and short stories, like having the villains in a Continental Op story be out-of-work White Russians craving the good life they lost in the revolution or the subtle pro-labor message in Red Harvest. For all those reasons, Hammett’s a noir author that you need to read.

Recommended Reading: I could make the easy choice and say The Maltese Falcon, which is an excellent story about scheming, betrayal, and treasure hunting – but I gotta go with my favorite, Red Harvest. This novel features the Continental Op, a nameless detective for the Pinkerton-esque Continental Detective Agency, who shows up in the town of Personville for some smalltime case. But he soon discovers that Personville (nicknamed Poisonville) is divided between a bunch of competing gangs. These gangs were imported to crush the local union (a typical practice Hammett must have been familiar with) but stuck around after the job was done. Maybe out of greed, maybe out of spite, the Continental Op starts playing the gangs against each other, making them destroy themselves in a bloody gang war. Hammett’s heroes are good at manipulation – getting criminal allies to turn on each other – and this is one of the more spectacular examples. Of course, the violence ends up consuming the Op as well, and he needs all his wits to make it out alive. The basic plot from Red Harvest – wandering, often anonymous badass walks into a divided town, plays the resident gangs against each other for fun and profit – has been used countless times, from Kurosawa’s Yojimbo to Leone’s Fistful of Dollars, and it will probably be used countless more times. But Hammett did it first, he did it the best, and he did it the coldest. Red Harvest is one of my favorite books and I urge you to check it out.

Recommended Viewing: Again, I could go with the obvious choice and pick the Humphrey Bogart-starring, John Huston-directed classic The Maltese Falcon, but that’s one of those movies you probably already know to watch. Instead, I’m going with a choice a little out of left field, but it happens to be my favorite movie ever. That’s the Cohen Brothers’ Miller’s Crossing, a Prohibition Era gangster flick that’s a sort of mix of Red Harvest and The Glass Key, combined with the Cohen Bros’ original ideas. Miller’s Crossing is great for a number of reasons, but it perfectly captures the feel of Hammett. It’s got the cheerfully corrupt and sleazy characters, a hero who’s an ace at manipulation, the amorality, the over-the-top violence, and – perhaps most importantly – the snappy, dark dialogue dripping with Twenties slang. The film’s often repeated refrain of ‘what’s the rumpus?’ is actually a line from Red Harvest, and the loving use of those archaic, hilarious words and phrases is enough to make Miller’s Crossing a classic.

Tomorrow – just in time for the release of Dead Man’s Drive – I’m going to examine the next titan of the genre, LA’s own Raymond Chandler.

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