A reviewer paid me a gratifying compliment recently by suggesting the relationship between Miranda and Morgan in my mysteries is akin to Hammett's Nick and Nora in “The Thin Man” series. It turns out there isn't a series, just one novel stretched beyond recognition in a succession of movies. Like Hammett's best known work, The Maltese Falcon (1930), The Thin Man (1934) is familiar as a cultural icon, but I had never read either so I thought I'd give them a try.
Dashiell Hammett's characters are "louche." I've always wanted to use that word in a sentence because it feels right, but I had to look it up to be sure it meant "appealingly decadent." Everybody drinks. Nobody thinks. They smoke. They sleep in late, and around, with a dismaying lack of vigour. The men are effete, the tough guys included. They giggle about getting tight and they gossip. Women are girls, the bright ones like baubles. The obsessive use of slang mires the plots in another era and threatens to asphyxiate them.
Hammett captured or even helped to create the zeitgeist of his time. Times change and his writing seems louche. It's worth remembering how profoundly important Hammett is in the history of the mystery genre, especially its American version. We owe him, readers and writers, alike. But that doesn’t mean we have to read him: there are so many writers out there, so many recent novels worth reading. Unlike the canonical ‘literary’ texts, the foundational works in genre writing aren’t essential reading to appreciate what’s being written now.