The Mystery of Dashiell Hammett

After reading only a few works by Dashiell Hammett, it’s not hard to recognize the reasons for his popularity. His cool and collected detectives, ever calm in the face of danger, put a new spin on the concept of the traditional hero, while his casual yet carefully constructed language conveys masterful intelligence without pomposity. But beyond these modern innovations, Hammett still accomplishes the classic aim of storytelling; just as in any good story, he gives his readers a glimpse into a different world, one filled with excitement and mystery.

“Pulp fiction” covers, the lurid illustrations on mass market paperbacks, were primarily meant to draw readers into these worlds. With their insinuations of sex, crime, and violence, they gave readers a taste of the excitement to be found in each story. Many of Hammett’s novels and stories were published in this format, but later editions of his most popular works, like The Continental Op pictured below, completely abandoned this cover strategy.

The Continental Op, published by Lawrence E. Spivack, 1945
The Continental Op, (New York: Lawrence E. Spivack, 1945) From the Sheridan Libraries, Johns Hopkins University. Photo by Laura Ewen

Why would Hammett’s publishers shift away from this typical structure? It seems this drastically different approach serves as a testament to Hammett’s mastery of his form and popularity with his readers. The most prominent aspect of this cover, featured exactly in the middle, is Hammett’s name in bold, drawing attention to his stamp as the most important feature of the book. This suggests that by the time of this edition’s publication, his reputation has already been firmly established. The blurb on the cover reaffirms this, as it emphasizes that Hammett “is our most important modern originiator.” The choice of this quote to advertise the book is unique in that it focuses wholly on the author and his skill rather than the content of the particular novel.

This approach serves another purpose, as it draws attention to the appeal of the book’s mystery. The artful use of suspense is integral to Hammett’s detective stories, as each twist and turn keeps the reader in the dark until the very end. Therefore, since Hammett’s quality as a writer has already been established, there is no need to reveal any content of the book – rather, the reader can approach it with the excitement of the unknown. Both the headline “Bestseller Mystery” and the gun paired with a mask, suggestive of hidden identities, emphasize the complete novelty of the experience of reading this book, in which previous knowledge of the plot would actually detract from the exhilaration of entering its dark and seedy world. Only the badge in the cover’s corner signifies that this book will share a story of detective intrigue and prepares the reader to reconnect with a character they may already know.

In this way, I think that this kind of cover allows Hammett’s stories to be read the way they were meant to be. I feel even more inclined to pick up this copy of The Continental Op than I would one with an illustrated cover – my previous experience reading Hammett has already given me a feeling of what this book has to offer, a story whose delights are best appreciated when completely unexpected.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s