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Title:The Mystery of Mystery: The Novels of Dashiell Hammett
Author(s):Gregory, Sinda J.
Department / Program:English
Discipline:English
Degree Granting Institution:University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign
Degree:Ph.D.
Genre:Dissertation
Subject(s):Literature, American
Abstract:Samuel Dashiell Hammett (1894-1961) has long been recognized as America's finest hard-boiled detective writer. Yet Hammett was more than a successful popular writer: he was a creator of a distinct body of fiction that is unique in its vitality, its language, and its vivid and singular vision. Hammett's five novels, all produced within a five-year period, are remarkable in their ability to infuse the action on the page with such intensity that the fiction is complete in itself and points not only to the outer world, but inwards to the world of fiction and to the consciousness that created it. He worked the prescribed boundaries of a highly stylized form of popular fiction and devised original, entertaining stories that helped establish the pattern for the quintessential private; but he was also constructing serious fictions that manipulated that pattern, sometimes undercutting its formulas, and sometimes deepening it with a complex irony that called into question the basic tenets of the genre.
This dissertation examines each of Hammett's novels in terms of form and theme and tries to articulate the two-fold appeal of his work: their successes as popular fiction and their successes as literature. Within each of his works, there are intricate literary strategies that can be probed and analyzed symbolically, metaphysically, and metafictionally until they yield the sharp, brilliant vision we expect of art. His first novel, Red Harvest, is a clear example of this. Filled with action, vivid character, and remarkable colloquial dialogue, Red Harvest is a study of personal systems, of ethical responsibility, of the individual's impotence against an overwhelming destructiveness of corruption, chaos, and death; yet all this is subtly woven into dramatic action that thrilled audiences of pulp, sensationalized fiction. As a result of this bi-liveled structure, there is an ongoing sense of revelation in Hammett: once a reader discerns there is something beyond the action-filled, violent whirl of motion and death that marks Hammett's works, a pattern of increasing complexity appears. Thus his second novel, The Dain Curse, is not only an exciting story of murder and family curse, it is a highly self-conscious, metafictional survey of detective fiction styles; moreover, Hammett uses the conventions of detective fiction in this novel as a means of addressing epistemological issues that bring into question the basic premises of the genre. Indeed, in The Maltese Falcon Hammett creates a work that is itself a testament of the unknowability of human conduct and motivation, for in it he manipulates details, characterization, and plot until the very concept of mystery emerges as the central point of the book.
Although such an insistence on the impenetrability of mystery may seem odd in a work of detective fiction, it is in fact the underlying assumption of all Hammett's novels. Solutions are offered in his works--we know at the end who killed whom--but his novels are concluded not in dissipation of mystery, but by reaffirmation of the limits of reason. Life is mystery Hammett insists--it cannot be understood, it cannot be explained, it cannot be categorized. Yet we search for patterns and motives that will define human behavior, we build systems of justice that reassure us that here are measures for human conduct, and we construct laws, ideologies, and fictions to dispell our fear that life is a random fluctuation. For Hammett the greatest mystery is human consciousness--how we know, how we think we know, how we lead our lives thinking life is a sane, responsible affair--and his fictions insist upon the ultimate mystery of the human experience.
Issue Date:1980
Type:Text
Language:English
Description:244 p.
Thesis (Ph.D.)--University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, 1980.
URI:http://hdl.handle.net/2142/66339
Other Identifier(s):(UMI)AAI8108523
Date Available in IDEALS:2014-12-12
Date Deposited:1980


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