Dashiell Hammett’s Handicap
Posted by: Keir Graff
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.
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?