Murder Is Our Peculiar Pastime: Fifty Notable American Crime Novels: 23-24

BY MARTIN KICH

Hammett, Dashiell.  The Maltese Falcon.  New York: Knopf, 1930.

Dashiell Hammett’s The Maltese Falcon was not the first hardboiled detective novel.  That distinction is commonly accorded to John Daly’s first Race Williams novel, Knights of the Open Palm (1923).  But The Maltese Falcon and its film adaptation gave the sub-genre international exposure and transformed it into an equal competitor to the “cozy” and the “scientific” traditions in the detective genre. In fact, Hammett’s novel has influenced not only subsequent generations of detective novelists, stretching from Raymond Chandler, Ross MacDonald, and Mickey Spillane to James Lee Burke, James Ellroy, and Michael Connelly, but also “mainstream” and “literary” novelists from Nelson Algren and James M. Cain to Richard Condon, John Gregory Dunne, and Mark Costello.

The novel introduces Sam Spade, a quick-witted, thick-skinned private detective not overly concerned with lawfulness or even with justice.  He adheres to an idiosyncratic code that permits him to have an affair with his partner’s wife but compels him to bring his partner’s murderer to justice.  In The Maltese Falcon, he sets out to do just that and becomes involved with an eccentric group of characters who have been trying to get their hands on the Maltese Falcon, a mysterious historical artifact that represents sudden riches, the means to pursue elusive possibilities.  It is, in Spade’s closing phrase, “the stuff that dreams are made of.”

The first film directed by John Huston, The Maltese Falcon was a very close adaptation of Hammett’s novel, and the characters can no longer be separated from the actors who portrayed them: Humphrey Bogart as Spade; Mary Astor as Spade’s dangerously evasive client, Brigid O’Shaughnessy; Sydney Greenstreet as Kaspar Gutman, the “fat man” obsessed by the Falcon; and Peter Lorre as the effeminately weird Joel Cairo, who’s trying to play all the angles but can’t seem to catch a break.

Harris, Thomas.  Silence of the Lambs.  New York: St. Martin’s, 1988.

Certainly Thomas Harris did not invent the serial killer genre.  A great deal of fiction, as well as nonfiction, about serial killers was produced following the infamous Ripper murders in London’s Whitechapel district and continued to be produced, albeit in spurts, throughout the twentieth century.  What separates Harris’ serial killer novels featuring Dr. Hannibal Lecter from all of their predecessors is Harris’ integration of the dramatic advances in the science of criminal profiling.  In the 1960s and 1970s, there was a seeming epidemic of serial killings, and the killings were seen as emblematic of the pathological alienation produced by modern life.  At least in part, this seeming epidemic can be explained as a dramatic increase in investigative and public awareness.  Advancements in computer technologies enabled law enforcement to “track” serial killings for the first time, and the expansion of mass media heightened the public awareness of the crimes.  Drawing on the information now available in databases, profiling was developed as a criminological response to the new or newly apparent menace.

Harris used profiling to achieve a paradoxical combination of effects in his characterization of Lecter and other serial killers.  On the one hand, the insights into the perverse logic of serial killers’ thinking allowed Harris to approach his characters scientifically, to present them as fascinating case studies of how a complex set of factors might transform someone into a methodical and yet very compulsive killer.  On the other hand, the intimacy of the characterizations served to personalize these “monsters” and, in a strange confluence with the media’s turning them into celebrities, even to humanize them.  By Hannibal, the novel which follows Silence of the Lambs, Hannibal Lecter has clearly become the protagonist, rather than the nemesis in Harris’ series.

In Silence of the Lambs, adapted to an Academy Award-winning film starring Jodi Foster and Anthony Hopkins, a young F.B.I. profiler draws on Lecter’s expertise to stop a serial killer who is skinning his victims to create a gender-crossing “second skin” for himself.  Despite the gruesome perversity of these crimes, the pursuit of this active serial killer becomes almost secondary to the verbal sparring between the profiler and Lecter, who is so extraordinarily dangerous and cunning that he is kept in a special cell with redundant layers of security–and yet still manages to engineer an escape.

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Previous Posts in This Series:

Murder Is Our Peculiar Pastime: Fifty Notable American Crime Novels: 1-2: https://academeblog.org/2015/06/24/murder-is-our-peculiar-pastime-fifty-notable-american-crime-novels-1-2/.

Murder Is Our Peculiar Pastime: Fifty Notable American Crime Novels: 3-4: https://academeblog.org/2015/07/02/murder-is-our-peculiar-pastime-fifty-notable-american-crime-novels-3-4/

Murder Is Our Peculiar Pastime: Fifty Notable American Crime Novels: 5-6: https://academeblog.org/2015/08/07/murder-is-our-peculiar-pastime-fifty-notable-american-crime-novels-5-6/

Murder Is Our Peculiar Pastime: Fifty Notable American Crime Novels: 7-8: https://academeblog.org/2015/08/11/murder-is-our-peculiar-pastime-fifty-notable-american-crime-novels-7-8/

Murder Is Our Peculiar Pastime: Fifty Notable American Crime Novels: 9-10: https://academeblog.org/2015/08/18/murder-is-our-peculiar-pastime-fifty-notable-american-crime-novels-9-10/

Murder Is Our Peculiar Pastime: Fifty Notable American Crime Novels: 11-12: https://academeblog.org/2015/09/19/murder-is-our-peculiar-pastime-fifty-notable-american-crime-novels-11-12/

Murder Is Our Peculiar Pastime: Fifty Notable American Crime Novels: 13-14: https://academeblog.org/2015/11/15/murder-is-our-peculiar-pastime-fifty-notable-american-crime-novels-13-14/.

Murder Is Our Peculiar Pastime: Fifty Notable American Crime Novels: 15-16: https://academeblog.org/2016/01/09/murder-is-our-peculiar-pastime-fifty-notable-american-crime-novels-15-16/.

Murder Is Our Peculiar Pastime: Fifty Notable American Crime Novels: 17-18: https://academeblog.org/2016/04/24/murder-is-our-peculiar-pastime-fifty-notable-american-crime-novels-17-18/.

Murder Is Our Peculiar Pastime: Fifty Notable American Crime Novels: 19-20: https://academeblog.org/2016/05/20/murder-is-our-peculiar-pastime-fifty-notable-american-crime-novels-19-20/.

Murder Is Our Peculiar Pastime: Fifty Notable American Crime Novels: 21-22: https://academeblog.org/2016/08/17/murder-is-our-peculiar-pastime-fifty-notable-american-crime-novels-21-22/.

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Previous Series:

The final post in each series is followed by links to all of the previous posts in that series.

National (In-)Security: Fifty Notable American Espionage Novels: https://academeblog.org/2014/08/30/national-in-security-fifty-notable-american-espionage-novels-49-50/

America Re-Imagined, in Retrospect: Fifty Notable American Novels about the “West”: https://academeblog.org/2015/06/02/13370/

 

 

3 thoughts on “Murder Is Our Peculiar Pastime: Fifty Notable American Crime Novels: 23-24

  1. Pingback: Murder Is Our Peculiar Pastime: Fifty Notable American Crime Novels: 25-26 | ACADEME BLOG

  2. Pingback: Murder Is Our Peculiar Pastime: Fifty Notable American Crime Novels: 27-28 | ACADEME BLOG

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