Hardboiled, Bare, Understated
Dashiell Hammett is often credited with being the inventor of hardboiled fiction, a genre known for being unsentimental and brutally honest in its style. A combination of urban realism and wry humor, the hardboiled writing style is as tough as the characters that populate the novels. Hammett's crisp style grew out of his experience writing case reports during his stint as a Pinkerton operative. His professional just-the-facts approach colored his literary writing, too, creating a gritty realism that hit all the right notes for a voraciously reading public.
One of the best examples of Hammett's "bare-bones," minimalist writing appears in Chapter 2 when the narrator describes Spade rolling a cigarette after hearing the news of Archer's death:
Spade's thick fingers made a cigarette with deliberate care, sifting a measured quantity of tan flakes down into curved paper, spreading the flakes so that they lay equal at the ends with a slight depression in the middle, thumbs rolling the paper's inner edge down and up under the outer edge as forefingers pressed it over, thumbs and fingers sliding the paper cylinder's ends to hold it even while tongue licked the flap, left forefinger and thumb pinching their end while right forefinger and thumb smoothed the damp seam, right forefinger and thumb twisting their end and lifting the other to Spade's mouth.
He picked up the pigskin and nickel lighter that had fallen on the floor, manipulated it, and with the cigarette burning in a corner of his mouth stood up. He took off his pajamas. (2.5)
In this scene, Spade's feelings are never once described, but the readers are told every detail of his careful, precise technique as he makes himself a cigarette. In fact, did you notice that the first paragraph is actually one single sentence? What is the effect of devoting such prolonged attention to Spade's seemingly minor act of rolling a ciggie? Well, keeping in mind that Spade has just found out that his partner is dead, Spade appears to be calmly lighting a cigarette, but he also finds the process itself calming.
On the surface, Spade seems unaffected by the news, but it's also possible that his cigarette rolling is his way dealing with how upset he really is underneath. Notice the "deliberate care" that Spade takes to "measure" out just the right amount of flakes. We can tell by Spade's efficiency that this isn't the first one he's rolled, nor will it be his last. And as Spade lifts the cigarette to his mouth and picks up his lighter off the floor to light it, we can sense that he seems to be trying to cope with the news and come to terms with his partner's death.
Hammett once said that he was influenced by his early work as an advertiser when he tried to make the most of "understatement, not to deceive, but to increase the impression made" (source). And in this smoking scene, we can see Hammett's masterful use of understatement, not only in the understated description of Spade's cigarette rolling, but also most effectively, in the very last sentence, "He took off his pajamas."
Pay attention to how short this sentence is compared to the two previous sentences. This description would be pretty unremarkable if we read it on its own. But in the context of Spade's slow deliberation, this ordinary sentence is transformed into a brief, intense burst of words, like a sudden punch to the chin or slap to the face. In just five short words, Hammett drives home the point that Spade has steeled his nerves and is now ready to face the problem head-on.
Stylistically, Spade has often been compared to Ernest Hemingway because they share a similar minimalist approach to writing. Like Hemingway, Hammett uses a spare style with plain sentence structure and accessible language. It's a kind of writing that is hardboiled, but also boiled-down, so that what we're left with is only the really good stuff, the cream of the crop with no excess fat.