Monday, January 4, 2010

Did Dashiell Hammett Hate Poetry?

We here at Poetry & Popular Culture might offer a sawbuck for hard evidence to prove it, because we think he did—hated it like a private dick hates a glass that's half empty or a heart that's too full. And if Hammett didn't hate it, then the hard-boiled Continental Op of Hammett's fictional San Francisco Continental Detective Agency sure did. Which makes sense—as much sense as a skirt in heels and the flatfoot hot on her tail. After all, what use does a private eye have for poetry—the genre that obscures, covers its tracks, revels in riddles, and deals in metaphor? A dick deals in facts, untangles riddles, sorts out mystery. He may have gum on his shoes, but he doesn't need his toenails to twinkle.

Poetry and the P.I., it would seem, are as incompatible as a chili dog and a just-pressed shirt. Exhibit A: Red Harvest from 1929, in which the Continental Op is hired to clean up Personville, a town so corrupt that most people know it as Poisonville. Seems that Personville's original gangsta—Old Elihu Willsson, who owns the bank, newspapers, a senator and the governor—is losing ground in his old age. The Op is reluctant to stick around and do the dirty work, so Old Elihu appeals to the Op's manhood. "I'll talk you your sense," he says. "I want a man to clean this pig-sty of a Poisonville for me, to smoke out the rats, little and big. Its a man's job. Are you a man?"

But the Op retorts:

What's the use of getting poetic about it? If you've got a fairly honest piece of work to be done in my line, and you want to pay a decent price, maybe I'll take it on. But a lot of foolishness about smoking rats and pig-pens doesn't mean anything to me.

In the Op's calculus, the values of money and honesty overlap with clear speaking; foolishness, rats, and pig-pens, on the other hand, line up with poetry.

Exhibit B: The Dain Curse, also from 1929, in which the Continental Op returns to investigate a string of mysterious deaths that follow Gabrielle Leggett wherever she goes. The people using Gabrielle as cover explain to her that her bad luck is the product of a family curse, an explanation Gabrielle buys but which the Op thinks is a bunch of hooey—about as real as a peroxide blonde. Check out this exchange with Fitzstephan, a novelist interested in psychoanalysis who becomes the Op's drinking acquaintance and sounding board:

Fitzstephan drank beer and asked:

"You'd reduce the Dain curse, then, to a primitive strain in the blood?"

"To less than that, to words in an angry woman's mouth."

"It's fellows like you that take all the color out of life." He sighed behind cigarette smoke. "Doesn't Gabrielle's being made the tool for her mother's murder convince you of the necessity—at least the poetic necessity—of the curse?"

"Not even if she was the tool, and that's something I wouldn't bet on."

In hindsight, this passage becomes even more damning of poetry (not to mention psychoanalysis) when it turns out that Fitzstephan himself is actually the murderer who's been framing Gabrielle. So not only does poetry come up short because it's not the "tangible, logical, and jailable answer" that the Op seeks, but in The Dain Curse it's the very language of criminal activity. Even novelist-criminals speak it!

It's clear that the Continental Op's factual, logic-based approach to solving crime extends to language as well. When he reports in The Dain Curse, for example, that "Her face didn't tell me anything. It was distorted but in a way that might have meant almost anything," he's talking about the act of reading—the inability to read. And regardless of whether he's reading poetry or a suspect's face, distortion and indeterminacy almost always get in his way. The irony of all this, of course, is that the Continental Op's own language is so colorful at times that he himself could be called downright poetic. In fact, one character in Red Harvest calls him on this. "My God!" she exclaims, "for a fat, middle-aged, hard-boiled, pig-headed guy, you've got the vaguest way of doing things I ever heard of." What happens to this truth teller? It's no surprise to P&PC that she ends up dead as a doornail.