Sunday, May 19, 2024

Suggestions to Detective Story Writers

Dashiell Hammett (1894–1961)
From Dashiell Hammett: Crime Stories & Other Writings

The Voice in the Closet by Herman Landon, The Thirty-first Bullfinch by Helen Reilly, and The Other Bullet by Nancy Barr Mavity, all published in 1930. The many errors in these three novels motivated Dashiell Hammett to publish his list of the “blunders” writers of detective novels should avoid.
Soon after Dashiell Hammett published his third novel, The Maltese Falcon, to critical acclaim and strong sales, he accepted a position as crime fiction reviewer for the New York Evening Post. Between April and October 1930, in thirteen “Crime Wave” columns, he read and reviewed a total of eighty-five books, virtually all of them forgotten in the decades since. A former Pinkerton Agency detective, Hammett often despaired of the unrealistic scenes and inexpert characters that populated the genre—much as he had when he was a critic for the Saturday Review of Literature earlier in the decade.

The week before he began his “Crime Wave” installments, though, he submitted to the Evening Post a longer review of a single book: The Door by Mary Roberts Rinehart. Far and away the most popular American mystery novelist during the first half of the twentieth century, Rinehart wrote some forty novels that sold more than ten million copies during her lifetime. Hammett didn’t think much of the plot of The Door: “The maintenance and complication of the mystery depend too largely on folks consistently missing each other by unpredictable inches in the dark and unpredictable seconds in the light.” Yet he admitted that the book was compulsively readable:
Nobody who begins it is at all likely, barring acts of God, to leave it unfinished. He may hoot at its soft spots, he may be irritated by its old-fashioned cast—Mrs. Rinehart is distinctly not a writer of this decade—but he will read it through. Well, readability is the standard by which books of this sort should be judged.
Where the novel really failed, in Hammett’s view, was with the lack of professionalism shown by the lead detective (“a nice enough fellow personally, in spite of his habit of strewing the scene of his operations with broken toothpicks”) and with the implausibility of the book’s pivotal clues (“walking-sticks buried naked in earth that is stamped down over them are not dug up fairly covered with anybody’s fingerprints”).

The incompetence of the genre’s detectives and the sloppiness of authors’ research continued to earn Hammett’s scorn. When he was reviewing books for the Saturday Review, Hammett excoriated The Benson Murder Case, one of S. S. Van Dine’s novels featuring detective Philo Vance:
Alvin Benson is found sitting in a wicker chair in his living room, a book still in his hand, his legs crossed, and his body comfortably relaxed in a lifelike position. He is dead. A bullet from an Army model Colt .45 automatic pistol, held some six feet away when the trigger was pulled, has passed completely through his head. That his position should have been so slightly disturbed by the impact of such a bullet at such a range is preposterous, but the phenomenon hasn't anything to do with the plot, so don't, as I did, waste time trying to figure it out. The murderer's identity becomes obvious quite early in the story. The authorities, no matter how stupid the author chose to make them, would have cleared up the mystery promptly if they had been allowed to follow the most rudimentary police routine. But then what would there have been for the gifted Vance to do?
Philo Vance, Hammett continued, “is a bore when he discusses art and philosophy, but when he switches to criminal psychology he is delightful. There is a theory that anyone who talks enough on any subject must, if only by chance, finally say something not altogether incorrect. Vance disproves this theory: he manages always, and usually ridiculously, to be wrong.” Later, when he wrote for the Evening Post, he tried again to get through a Philo Vance novel but found the district attorney and police sergeant “as incomparably inefficient, as amazingly ignorant of even beat-walking police routine, as ever.”

Perhaps inevitably, after several years of reading (and trashing) so many unremarkable novels, Hammett threw up his hands. His “Crime Wave” column in the June 7, 1930, issue of the Evening Post was supposed to be a review of three newly arrived mystery novels that were “from beginnings to endings, carelessly manufactured improbabilities having more than their share of those blunders which earn detective stories as a whole the sneers of the captious.” He declined to review the books he had been assigned and instead published a list of blunders he had encountered in these and other recent books, with the hope that writers might avoid them in the future. The column proved so popular that he supplemented the list a month later with several additional entries, and we reprint the combined lists as our Story of the Week selection below.

By the end of the year, Hammett was off to Hollywood, and his days as a book reviewer were behind him.

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For this week’s selection, we depart from the usual format and reproduce the selection, in its entirety, below.
You may also download it as a PDF or view it in Google Docs.

Suggestions to Detective Story Writers

A fellow who takes detective stories seriously, I am annoyed by the stupid recurrence of these same blunders in book after book. It would be silly to insist that nobody who has not been a detective should write detective stories, but it is certainly not unreasonable to ask any one who is going to write a book of any sort to make some effort at least to learn something about his subject. Most writers do. Only detective story writers seem to be free from a sense of obligation in this direction, and, curiously, the more established and prolific detective story writers seem to be the worst offenders. Nearly all writers of Western tales at least get an occasional glimpse of their chosen territory from a car-window while en route to Hollywood; writers of sea stories have been seen on the waterfront; surely detective story writers could afford to speak to policemen now and then.

Meanwhile, a couple of months’ labor in this arena has convinced me that the following suggestions might be of value to somebody:

(1) There was an automatic revolver, the Webley-Fosbery, made in England some years ago. The ordinary automatic pistol, however, is not a revolver. A pistol, to be a revolver, must have something on it that revolves.

(2) The Colt’s .45 automatic pistol has no chambers. The cartridges are put in a magazine.

(3) A silencer may be attached to a revolver, but the effect will be altogether negligible. I have never seen a silencer used on an automatic pistol, but am told it would cause the pistol to jam. A silencer may be used on a single-shot target pistol or on a rifle, but both would still make quite a bit of noise. “Silencer” is a rather optimistic name for this device which has generally fallen into disuse.

(4) When a bullet from a Colt’s .45, or any firearm of approximately the same size and power, hits you, even if not in a fatal spot, it usually knocks you over. It is quite upsetting at any reasonable range.

(5) A shot or stab wound is simply felt as a blow or push at first. It is some little time before any burning or other painful sensation begins.

(6) When you are knocked unconscious you do not feel the blow that does it.

(7) A wound made after the death of the wounded is usually recognizable as such.

(8) Finger-prints of any value to the police are seldom found on anybody’s skin.

(9) The pupils of many drug-addicts’ eyes are apparently normal.

(10) It is impossible to see anything by the flash of an ordinary gun, though it is easy to imagine you have seen things.

(11) Not nearly so much can be seen by moonlight as you imagine. This is especially true of colors.

(12) All Federal snoopers are not members of the Secret Service. That branch is chiefly occupied with pursuing counterfeiters and guarding Presidents and prominent visitors to our shores.

(13) A sheriff is a county officer who usually has no official connection with city, town or State police.

(14) Federal prisoners convicted in Washington, D.C., are usually sent to the Atlanta prison and not to Leavenworth.

(15) The California State prison at San Quentin is used for convicts serving first terms. Two-time losers are usually sent to Folsom.

(16) Ventriloquists do not actually “throw” their voices and such doubtful illusions as they manage depend on their gestures. Nothing at all could be done by a ventriloquist standing behind his audience.

(17) Even detectives who drop their final g’s should not be made to say “anythin’ ”—an oddity that calls for vocal acrobatics.

(18) “Youse” is the plural of “you.”

(19) A trained detective shadowing a subject does not ordinarily leap from doorway to doorway and does not hide behind trees and poles. He knows no harm is done if the subject sees him now and then.

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A few weeks ago, having no books on hand that I cared to talk much about, I listed in this column nineteen suggestions to detective story writers. Those suggestions having been received with extreme enthusiasm—to the extent at least of one publisher offering me a hundred dollars for a slightly more complete list—I, not needing that particular hundred dollars at the moment, herewith present a few more suggestions at the mere usual space rate:

(20) The current practice in most places in the United States is to make the coroner’s inquest an empty formality in which nothing much is brought out except that somebody has died.

(21) Fingerprints are fragile affairs. Wrapping a pistol or other small object up in a handkerchief is much more likely to obliterate than to preserve any prints it may have.

(22) When an automatic pistol is fired the empty cartridge-shell flies out the right-hand side. The empty cartridge-case remains in a revolver until ejected by hand.

(23) A lawyer cannot impeach his own witness.

(24) The length of time a corpse has been a corpse can be approximated by an experienced physician, but only approximated, and the longer it has been a corpse, the less accurate the approximation is likely to be.

Originally published in two parts in the New York Evening Post, June 7 and July 5, 1930. Article title added by Library of America.