Sunday, March 24, 2013

Edmund Wilson On Hammett

I went back and read “The Maltese Falcon,” which I assumed to be a classic in the field, since it had been called by Alexander Woollcott “the best detective story America has yet produced” and, at the time of its publication, had immediately caused Mr. Hammett to become what Jimmy Durante, speaking of himself, has called “duh toast of dub intellectuals.” But it was hard for me to understand what they had thought—in 1930—they were toasting. Mr. Hammett did have the advantage of real experience as a Pinkerton detective, and he recharged the old formula of Sherlock Holmes with a certain cold underworld brutality which gave readers a new shudder in the days when it was fashionable to be interested in gangsters; but, beyond this, he lacked the ability to bring the story to imaginative life. As a writer—despite the praise of him one has heard—he is surely almost as far below Rex Stout as Rex Stout is below James M. Cain. “The Maltese Falcon” today seems not much above those newspaper picture strips in which you follow from day to day the ups and downs of a strong-jawed hero and a hardboiled but beautiful adventuress

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