“My Mount Rushmore, Hammett, Black Mask” (by Dave Zeltserman)

Dave Zeltserman is the award-winning author of over twenty crime, horror, and thriller novels, several named by the Washington Post, NPR, American Library Association;, or Booklist as best books of the year. His novel Small Crimes was made into a Netflix original film. Small Crimes belongs to a genre EQMM readers may not readily associate the name Zeltserman with—hardboiled crime fiction. For a number of years the Massachusetts author has been writing a series of classical whodunits for EQMM, inspired by Rex Stout’s Nero Wolfe novels. I am referring, of course, to the Julius Katz and Archie series, which has won both Shamus and EQMM Readers Awards. Dave began his fiction-writing career on the hardboiled end of the mystery spectrum, however, and in this post he talks about the key writers who inspired him. His new book, Everybody Lies in Hell, is due out October 1.—Janet Hutchings

Positions two, three, and four on my personal Mount Rushmore of crime fiction writers would be occupied by Rex Stout, Donald Westlake, and Jim Thompson. I doubt it would surprise many EQMM readers following my Julius Katz mystery stories to learn that I’ve spent many enjoyable hours in the company of Nero Wolfe and Archie Goodwin. Whenever I pick up a Nero Wolfe book, I marvel at the cleverness and sly humor in Stout’s writing. Next up would be Donald Westlake, who in my opinion is the greatest crime fiction writer of the last fifty years. His prose is simply pitch-perfect. There never seems to an unnecessary word, and every word he uses just seems to be the right ones. His Dortmunder books are a lot of fun, his Parker books written as Richard Stark are among my favorite crime novels, as is his brilliant and mesmerizing novel The Ax. Jim Thompson would take the final position. His novels and short stories have had a profound effect on me as both a reader and writer. I didn’t know what to expect when I picked up my first Thompson novel, Hell of a Woman, and it turned out to be both an unnerving and exhilarating experience. Thompson suckered me into believing that his protagonist Frank “Dolly” Dillon was just a hard luck guy instead of what he turned out to ultimately be. Thompson opened my eyes to how a writer can break every rule as long as he or she can figure out how to make it work. His amusing Mitch Allison conman stories inspired my first EQMM story, Money Run, and his psycho noir novels had a strong influence on my first novel Fast Lane and a few reviewers claimed also on my third novel Small Crimes.

Stout, Westlake, Thompson, all great writers, but first and foremost on my personal Mount Rushmore would be Dashiell Hammett. No writer has had more of an impact on the crime fiction genre than Hammett. It can be argued that each of his five novels created a distinct crime fiction subgenre: with The Maltese Falcon, the search for the rare object, The Glass Key, the political crime novel, The Dain Curse, the supernatural crime novel, The Thin Man, bordering on screwball, the sophisticated married couple investigating a murder, and Red Harvest, a man riding into a corrupt town and cleaning it up. The Maltese Falcon had three film adaptations, a radio series, and it inspired a number of spoofs, including Black Bird and Beat the Devil (which also starred Humphrey Bogart and Peter Lorre). There were six Thin Man movies starring William Powell and Myrna Loy and a television series starring Peter Lawford and Phyllis Kirk. There was a film adaptation of The Glass Key and a surprisingly faithful three-part TV miniseries of the The Dain Curse given that the nameless op was replaced by a private eye named Hamilton Nash played by James Coburn, who is almost the exact opposite physically of how the op was written. While there might not have been an adaptation of Red Harvest, the novel, which made Time magazine’s all-time best one hundred English-language novels, inspired a number of films, including Kurosawa’s Yojimbo and the Coen brothers’ Miller’s Crossing.

As important as Hammett’s novels are to the genre, his twenty-eight Continental Op stories (all but two of which he wrote for Black Mask) might be his most important contribution. The nameless private eye who narrates these stories, as well as Red Harvest and The Dain Curse, is a short, stocky, and not particularly handsome man. Women sometimes show interest in him, but more times than not it’s because they have an agenda; not that the op is ever fooled by this. He’s nobody’s sucker! Smart, resourceful, tough, cynical, and as dogged as they come, he can’t be bribed because, as he explains in one of the stories, no amount of money is worth the satisfaction he gets from his job.

Hammett spent five years as a Pinkerton detective, and his experiences informed his writing, with the Continental Detective Agency a stand-in for Pinkerton and the op based on detectives he knew. Here’s Hammett on his nameless detective: “The ‘op’ I use is the typical sort of private detective that exists in our country today. I’ve worked with half a dozen men who might be he with few changes. Though he may be ‘different’ in fiction, he is almost pure ‘type’ in life.”

In The Dain Curse, the op saves his client, Gabrelle Leggett, several times. Hammett clues the reader in on the true nature of the op during this exchange near the end of the book between Gabrielle and the op:

“You came in just now, and then I saw—”

She stopped.

“What?”

“A monster. A nice one, an especially nice one to have around when you’re in trouble, but a monster just the same, without any human foolishness like love in him, and—What’s the matter? Have I said something I shouldn’t?”

The Continental Op stories are such a joy to read not only because of the authenticity that Hammett brought to his writing, but because the op (in my opinion) has the best voice of any P.I ever written and that nobody was better at plotting these types of stories than Hammett. Each of them is a tightly written masterpiece.

Raymond Chandler sums up perfectly what makes Hammett so great: “Hammett was spare, hard-boiled, but he did over and over what only the best writers can ever do. He wrote scenes that seemed never to have been written before.”

Along with Hammett, Black Mask published other crime fiction greats, including Raymond Chandler, Erle Stanley Gardner, Raoul Whitfield, and Paul Cain. Brother’s Keeper, my eighteenth story published in EQMM, was published as a Black Mask story. I don’t take getting published by EQMM lightly. It’s the premiere crime fiction magazine with a storied past which, like Black Mask, has published more than its share of great crime and mystery writers. But because of Black Mask’s connection with Hammett and the op this story means something a little more special to me.

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3 Responses to “My Mount Rushmore, Hammett, Black Mask” (by Dave Zeltserman)

  1. pauldmarks says:

    Dave, a great selection for your crime writers Mt. Rushmore. Mine might be a little different, but definitely with Hammett.

  2. Robert Lopresti says:

    Very interesting concept. I’m with you 75% of the way. Being obsessed with short stories I would replace Jim Thompson with Stanley Ellin.

  3. Leigh says:

    Thus far, my Rushmore includes about 16 authors. I need a Mount for classics, one for hardboiled, another for English (waving at Lindsey Davis), living authors, dead authors, etc. Dashiell Hammett makes more than one of my lists, as recently discussed on SleuthSayers. I read everything Hammett between ages 13 to 15, but haven’t visited the Dain Curse since then. What a great exemplar.

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