Don’t think I’m as crooked as I make out to be, Sam Spade admonishes Brigid O’Shaughnessy. It’s good for business. In almost the same breath he adds—it’s bad for business if I let my partner be murdered (and don’t catch the murderer).
Picture Bogart delivering those lines (unquoted because I am terrible at exact quotes) to a wet eyed Mary Astor. His teeth are bared, animal like. He looks as hunted as she feels, even though this is technically, for him, a triumph. He’s about to sacrifice the woman he loves—or at least feels something for—in the name of good business.
You can’t pull the wool over Sam’s eyes.
You just can’t.
And what of the bleak eyed, granite faced Continental Op? I have to confess I almost adore him. I find it hard to believe myself, given the first ‘encounter’ I had with him was in Hammett’s first novel ‘Red Harvest’. He colors the town of ‘Poisonville’ red. Shootouts, knives, a good old conk on the head, and a mickey finn or two later, the town is emptied of most of its thugs and all their leaders, the gutters swimming in blood and gore. The unnamed Op returns in story after story, never allowing any personal information and precious little feeling to leak into his narratives.
And yet, I am left with the feeling that I’m seeing a jaded, cynical hero gone to seed. Yes, I do believe he’s a hero. Not just because he catches bad guys. He’s willing to swim with the sharks if that’s what it takes to reel them in. He’s a hero because he’s immune to blandishment. He won’t take bribes. He won’t be seduced—by women, money or power. I strongly believe the Op survives the day to day horrors of the job, in harsh locales, with harsher associates because he believes in good and evil. There are mobsters and private eyes who only believe in power and might in Dashiell Hammett’s world—and every story, every novel reiterates the belief that absolute power corrupts. The Op—and most of Hammett’s (anti)heroes shun power. They stay in the shadows, and seem content to do so.
Why do these world weary men act as they do? They’re disillusioned men, who’ve served in varied armies and have seen the seedier side of life. They carry scars in their souls as well as their bodies. I don’t think they are heroes because they believe in good and bad and fight for good. They’re heroes because they know there’s no absolute good or bad in a person. They know the system is messed up. They fight within the system anyway. They know there’s rampant corruption that they can do little to control.
They’re on the side of the angels anyway.