Back “Suggestions to Detective Story Writers,” Dashiell Hammett

From Dashiell Hammett: Crime Stories & Other Writings

The Voice in the Closet by Herman Landon, The Thirty-first Bullfinch by Helen Reilly, and The Other Bullet by Nancy Barr Mavity, all published in 1930. The many errors in these three novels motivated Dashiell Hammett to publish his list of the “blunders” writers of detective novels should avoid.

In late 1926, Dashiell Hammett began a three-year tenure as the crime fiction critic for the Saturday Review of Literature. A former Pinkerton detective, Hammett had made a name for himself as the Black Mask contributor whose streetwise stories offered readers a realism sorely lacking in most of the magazine’s fare. In his first column for the Saturday Review, he began a weary assessment of five new books by relating what a “fellow sleuth” at Pinkerton had told him after confessing “without shame” to a passion for mystery novels: “I eat ’em up. When I’m through my day’s gum-shoeing I like to relax; I like to get my mind on something that’s altogether different from the daily grind; so I read detective stories.”

The state of the genre was still a matter for despair in 1930, when Hammett joined the staff of the New York Evening Post to publish a new “Crime Wave” column. During his six months at the paper, he reviewed over eighty novels and story collections, but for one article, after realizing that the latest three books under review (pictured above) were overwhelmed with errors and sloppiness that would “earn detective stories as a whole the sneers of the captious,” he threw up his hands and addressed his fellow authors as a group. “I am annoyed by the stupid recurrence of these same blunders in book after book,” he began, noting that the authors of most Westerns and sea novels do at least some research. “Surely detective story writers could afford to speak to policemen now and then.”

So, instead of reviewing the books at hand, he offered a list of suggestions on how to avoid certain of his professional pet peeves. (“A pistol, to be a revolver, must have something on it that revolves.”)

You can browse Hammett’s advice for mystery writers at our Story of the Week site, along with an introduction detailing Hammett’s humor-filled frustrations with the books published by his crime-fiction colleagues.

Read Dashiell Hammett’s “Suggestions to Detective Story Writers”

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