Simply put, this book is film noir and Hammett is perhaps the only writer who has defined both a literary and a film genre. His darkly twisted, crime-filled plots and the gritty anti-heroes narrating them are both oddly appealing and unsettling. But then, it’s always surreal to experience the origin of cliches, whether it’s watching The Godfather for the first time (I swear, half of all cultural references still come from that movie) or reading about the original Sam Spade putting his heels up on a desk and coolly surveying a gorgeous dame through a cloud of cigarette smoke.
Speaking of Sam Spade, I was fascinated by the sort of men consistently idealised in these novels, wondering if it was more a reflection of the author’s fantasies or his audience’s. At any rate, these stories made me suspect that perhaps all men secretly wish to be mysterious detectives – hard drinking, hard living, taking punches as well dealing them, living by their own codes while breaking others’, uncovering corruption, neutralising gangs and saving the beautiful, helpless ladies.
Of the five novels, my favourite was The Glass Key, mostly because of the epic badassness of its protagonist, Ned Beaumont, and the pleasingly archetypal supporting characters (and because there wasn’t a movie to be constantly comparing it to). Red Harvest was reasonably entertaining, while The Dain Curse was the weakest of the lot, in my opinion. Overall, I was surprised by the trashiness that was still evident despite these books’ age. I am sure they were considered incredibly racy and low-brow in the late 1920s/early 30s.