Open Access Te Herenga Waka-Victoria University of Wellington
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Five Murders in a Fictional City

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posted on 2021-11-13, 23:44 authored by Sinclair, Alasdair

Dashiell Hammett is best remembered for a series of attributes that are at best chimerical and at worst outright misleading. This thesis will briefly look at each of these red herrings and how they originated before offering an alternate theory for interpreting his work.  The superseded reading strategies are: that he invented the hard-boiled detective – as exemplified by Humphrey Bogart in The Maltese Falcon; that he translated his real-life experience as a detective for the Pinkerton Detective Agency into his fiction, thereby giving it a realistic, quasi-factual quality; and his unique combination of the excess and hedonism of the "roaring 20s" with a brand of nascent communism are deeply coded in his fiction. The foundation for all of these misconceptions is the dialogue between Howard Haycraft's description of him in Murder for Pleasure and Raymond Chandler’s response, in the famous essay, “The Simple Art of Murder”. The one truth that they agree on, and which survives in the critical discourse is that Hammett was an innovative and effective prose stylist.  This thesis looks past these conceptions of Hammett, and offers an alternate quality for which Hammett should be remembered: his reconfiguration of the detective formula not as a means in and of itself, but as a building block for stories that have a traditional novelistic value. This thesis uses five of the murders amongst the numerous killings in Red Harvest to illustrate this reading strategy in detail. Hammett's reconfiguration of this central genre feature lives on in numerous modern works of fiction and film that are broadly in the action or adventure genres.


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Date of Award



Te Herenga Waka—Victoria University of Wellington

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Author Retains Copyright

Degree Discipline


Degree Grantor

Te Herenga Waka—Victoria University of Wellington

Degree Level


Degree Name

Master of Arts

ANZSRC Type Of Activity code

970119 Expanding Knowledge through Studies of the Creative Arts and Writing

Victoria University of Wellington Item Type

Awarded Research Masters Thesis



Victoria University of Wellington School

School of English, Film, Theatre and Media Studies


McNeill, Dougal