Dashiell Hammett is to the mystery novel as Jerome K. Jerome is to the travelogue. To put it bluntly, both are grandmasters of the driest humor in the least likely places. From The Thin Man (1933), a typical bit of banter by protagonist Nick Charles in conversation with a wronged lady (Chapter 20):

Presently she said: "It's none of my business, Nick, but what do people think of me?"

"You're like everybody else: some people like you, some people don't, and some have no feeling about it one way or the other."

Hammett is by turns sardonic and rhapsodic, as in one of the opening paragraphs of The Maltese Falcon:

She was a lanky sunburned girl whose tan dress of thin woolen stuff clung to her with an effect of dampness. ...

He's also analytic, e.g. near the end of The Thin Man (Chapter 31) when the detective notes:

"When murders are committed by mathematicians," I said, "you can solve them by mathematics. Most of them aren't and this one wasn't. ..."

Lillian Hellman, long-time friend of Dashiell, describes his polymathy in a biographical essay at the beginning of The Big Knockover:

... The interests of the day would go into the nights when he would read Bees, Their Vision and Language or German Gun Makers of the 18th Century or something on how to tie knots, or inland birds, and then leave such a book for another book on whatever he had decided to learn. It would be impossible now for me to remember all that he wanted to learn, but I remember a long year of study on the retina of the eye; how to play chess in your head; the Icelandic sagas; the history of the snapping turtle; Hegel; would a hearing-aid – he bought a very good one – help in detecting bird sounds; then from Hegel, of course, to Marx and Engels straight through; to the shore life of the Atlantic; and finally, and for the rest of his life, mathematics. He was more interested in mathematics than in any other subject except baseball. ...

The hit-and-miss reading, the picking up of any book, made for a remarkable mind, neat, accurate, respectful of fact. He took a strong and lasting dislike to a man who insisted mackerel were related to herring, and once he left my living room when a famous writer talked without much knowledge of existentialism, refusing to come down to dinner with the writer because he said, "He's the greatest waste of time since the parcheesi board. Liars are bores." A neighbor once rang up to ask him how to stop a leak in a swimming pool, and he knew; my farmer's son asked him how to make a trap for snapping turtles, and he knew; born a Maryland Catholic (but having long ago left the Church), he knew more about Judaism than I did, and more about New Orleans music, food and architecture than my father who had grown up there. Once I wanted to know about early glassmaking for windows and was headed for the encyclopedia, but Hammett told me before I got there; he knew the varieties of seaweed, and for a month he studied the cross-pollination of corn, and for many, many months tried plasma physics. It was more than reading: it was a man at work. ...

(cf. ThreeManBoat (10 Jan 2002), MichaelVentris (10 Jul 2002), TimeToRead (8 Mar 2003), PickyAboutFacts (11 Mar 2003), SimpleArtOfMurder (4 Dec 2005), ...)

TopicLiterature - TopicEntertainment - TopicScience - TopicHumor - TopicLearning - 2006-01-21

(correlates: PeaceAndAffirmation, HerodotusOnFreedom, JohnsonOnAnecdotes, ...)