Dashiell Hammett's Handicap

Fans of mystery, sf, and romance know well the second-class status that’s routinely conferred on genre fiction. The big reviews and big awards go to literary fiction; meanwhile, genre fans are checking out, buying, and reading books in numbers that even National Book Award winners dream about. Writers like Michael Chabon, Cormac McCarthy, and even Philip Roth are helping to bridge the divide, but meanwhile, genre discrimination continues.

I just finished writing “Another Look at” Dashiell Hammett’s The Maltese Falcon for Booklist‘s Mystery Issue (coming May 1), and my Vintage paperback carries on its cover two of the most jaw-droppingly astonishing quotes:

“Dashiell Hammett is a master of the detective novel, yes, but also one hell of a writer.” —The Boston Globe

The Maltese Falcon is not only probably the best detective story we have ever read, it is an exceedingly well written novel.” —The Times Literary Supplement (London)

Granted, these blurbs are almost certainly contemporary to the novel, and we have come a long way since then.

But.

But. But. But.

How can anyone, in any era, have written such things? Did other writers also master the detective novel while somehow remaining poor writers? Were other terrific detective stories somehow badly written?

Over at Book Group Buzz, Neil Hollands recently did a nice post called “Conquering Genrephobia.” Check it out.

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About the Author:

Keir Graff is Executive Editor of Booklist Publications and the author of five books. His most recent is the middle-grade novel, The Other Felix (2011). Follow him on Twitter at @Booklist_Keir.

2 Comments on "Dashiell Hammett's Handicap"

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  1. pete_anderson@comcast.net' Pete says:

    You know, I *really* have to track down my single-volume edition of Hammett’s novels. It’s been unjustly off my shelves for a while now, and I really don’t know where it is. The attic, I’m hoping.

  2. Keir says:

    It had been a *long* time since I’d read Hammett–I don’t know what I was waiting for, either!

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