I’ve been reading a bunch of Dashiell Hammett’s stuff since I found an old trade paperback of “The Continental Op” on one of John’s bookshelves a few months ago. I tore through it, and sort of fell in love with the whole concept: the gritty and explosive violence, the hero who was just as threatening as the villains, the way some mysteries remained mysteries after everyone (but the op) died.
John was a bit surprised at how much I fell in love with Hammett’s work, and I kept bugging him for more. While I know a lot of people are more in love with Raymond Chandler, and the way he writes such striking descriptions, (“…he looked about as inconspicuous as a tarantula on a slice of angel food cake.”*) there was something about the stripped down staccato firing of Hammett’s prose that really resonates with something in me.
I’ve been painfully aware when I write just how verbose and unnecessary most of my words are. A lot of that comes from fear, I think. As if I’m terrified that I can’t explain or convey what it is that is important, so I throw all the words I can think of at the reader, hoping something will stick.
With Hammett, it doesn’t matter. He’s not trying to trick you in to guessing whodunit – he’s just laying out a series of facts, and if you come to the same conclusion as the hero, great. If not, that’s okay: the villain gets away as often as not in the books. Sometimes you don’t have all the facts, and there’s nothing the reader or the character can do about it.
There’s also something great about Hammett’s work where he switches the old rules around, and he spends most of the story telling you, not showing you. But the voice of the narrator is so strong, that it ends up showing you the Continental Op’s character. Terse, and matter of fact.
It’s one of the things I love about Hammett, and it’s one of the things that someone who read my beat up copy of Red Harvest, apparently hated. There are notes scrawled all through the margins, underlining words, turns of phrase, and commenting how poor the writing is. That it’s “garbage” or that it’s “loose.” I can’t turn a page and not see this person’s opinion, scrawled across the book.
It’s driving me a little nuts to be honest, because who does this? And it’s not just the first few pages of the book. This goes on THROUGH THE WHOLE BOOK.
And it’s not the meet-cute sort of thing like you find in Abram’s “S” book that I desperately want to read. This is an attack on an author I really enjoy, and a book that I would like to enjoy, but I can’t because of my seething hatred for this bygone person, who’s own hatred is echoed on the pages of my book.
It’s not the relaxing, drift-off-to-sleep reading experience I’ve been looking forward to.
Honestly, and in pen. Who does that?!
* From Chandler’s Farewell, My Lovely. The whole book is filled with crazy similes and metaphors.