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Hammett's Moral Vision
By George J. "Rhino" Thompson
Vince Emery ProductionsCopyright © 2007 George J. Thompson
All rights reserved.
Hammett's Moral Vision: Three Decades and a Hot Tub Later
THE WRITING OF THIS book came about by what you might consider an incident of good fortune.
As a doctoral student at the University of Connecticut, I had embarked upon a dissertation of the novels by George Meredith. I'd read the entirety of Meredith's novels and letters, and in doing so conceived of a study I sensed would secure me my Ph.D. I began writing and after 100 pages I found myself floundering like a weak swimmer in deep water. I was discovering I didn't much care for Meredith's characters, their plights, or his style of presentation. I felt cloyed, trapped, and disheartened.
Meredith was a bore.
As an English professor I was then teaching two classes — six hours a week — while seeking to complete the last great hurdle in my five-year Doctoral hunt. I was tired. I'd discovered I'd chosen my subject poorly and I'd had enough of the "graduate experience" to last several dreary lifetimes. One evening, I tossed all I had written into a much-visited downtown garbage can. While walking home I came to believe my doctoral pursuit was over.
Upon reaching home I told my wife what I had done. She was horrified. We had sacrificed much over the past four years, and now had a young infant, little money, and apparently an even lesser future. I bravely told her, "Well, I can always go back to teaching English in high school ... or I could become an FBI agent."
So much for my verbal judo skills at the time!
Frustrated, and soundly trounced by my less than happy bride, I retreated to a hot tub. I'd snagged a paperback book I rescued the day before while surfing a garage sale. It was Hammett's Red Harvest. I read the entire book in one sitting. I became fascinated with the harsh realism of the Op's ventures in Personville/Poisonville. "So much like the revenge tragedies of the Elizabethan and Jacobean eras," I thought out loud. "So unlike the prissy, boring, predictable world of Meredith," I remarked to no one in particular.
Perhaps, I thought, I might make good use of Hammett to save both my doctorate AND marriage?
The next day, I went to my grim-faced advisor and informed him of my decision to quit Meredith, perhaps, indeed, to settle for the Masters and leave at the end of the semester. I cleverly mentioned toward the end of our meeting that although I knew Dashiell Hammett was not considered part of the typical university canon of approved works, Red Harvest had mesmerized me. Perhaps a good study of his novels might prove an atypical scholastic adventure?
I expected to hear a polite guffaw and curt dismissal. Instead, Professor Irving Cummings quietly mused, "You know, I have always thought that. Indeed I have often wished I'd done something on Hammett and the hard-boiled tradition myself."
Hardly believing what I'd just heard, I asked Professor Cummings if he would allow me to read on and develop a workable thesis.
He encouraged me to read all the so-called hardboiled writers. Not only the novels of Hammett, but of Raymond Chandler and Ross Macdonald! Then we could see where we were with a dissertation proposal.
Several weeks later, having read sixteen hours a day, I returned to Professor Cummings' office. I respectfully said, "You know, I could write on all three — Hammett, Chandler, and Macdonald — but I believe there is enough in the Hammett canon for a good dissertation."
He smiled. "I know that, but you had to do your homework on the tradition. Let's do it!"
I owe Dashiell Hammett — and the wise and patient Dr. Cummings — my Ph.D.
Indeed, as you will see, Hammett has shaped my life — as he can yours — in several important ways.
While teaching at Emporia State University (Kansas), I published my dissertation serially in The Armchair Detective journal, commencing in 1973. My academic colleagues were not impressed by my choice, but, like Hammett, I preferred to write for the people who do the work.
I was pleased by the numerous letters of appreciation I received during the 1970s from aficionados of detective literature. Some said I was the first writer to produce an extensive critical analysis of Hammett's fiction and to pay heed to the critical discourse concerning that fiction. I gave presentations on Hammett at several popular culture conventions, but otherwise I was busy teaching and building an academic career during those early years.
Police work, however, interested me. I was still intrigued by the world of the streets I had come to know through the Continental Op and Sam Spade, so I thought, why not see it for myself? In 1975 I became a reserve officer for the Emporia P.D. My academic colleagues again thought I was crazy. Nothing new there!
Another career was born! I loved the streets, the calls for service, and the adrenaline pump that was part of the work I did with the Emporia P.D. I spent more and more of my time riding with officers, finally becoming a Class A Reserve, which meant I could handle my own car and my own beat.
I discovered, much to my amazement, that the officers I worked with — the "old dawgs of the street" — shared a vision very close to that expressed by Hammett in his novels. The JOB and its completion was everything. The thin line between "them" and "us" was just that — thin! The best officers thought like the criminals, but kept their actions ethical. The world we worked in was, as in Hammett's world, unpredictable and unstable. Things never were as they appeared, and no one told you the truth. Deception was a way of life. All you had was yourself, your job knowledge, and your adherence to a larger code of right.
I found a new "self" emerging from these experiences. I came to understand that randomness is actuality; indeed, uncertainty is the only certainty. Rather than try to control experience — as I had before — I became a participant and an observer of ongoing experience. All you can count on is what you bring to the event.
Police work was, for me, the "beam that fell" and changed my life. The earlier orderly world of academia seemed somehow false. In trying to fit in, I had unwittingly gotten out of step with reality. I very much felt a part of the Sam Spade-Continental Op world depicted in Hammett's novels.
In this new and evolving mode, I discovered something else, too: Effective cops are the best communicators in America! Rhetoric had always been one of my central interests, but no one had ever suggested to me that police officers were consummate rhetoricians. The officers I worked with, some with little or no formal education, were able to talk knives and guns out of people's hands, persuade people to calm down and act rationally, and repeatedly used their words to bring peace out of disorder. I was shocked! The best rhetoricians in the world were street officers! Aristotle would have been proud.
I applied for an extended sabbatical from my university, arguing that "police rhetoric" needed some serious study. Taking another risk, I applied for fulltime status with the Emporia P.D. and was accepted. I used my background in classical rhetoric to analyze the skill levels of the officers with whom I worked. I learned "street rhetoric" from them.
In April of 1982, I published an article in the FBI Bulletin, "Rhetoric: An Important Tool for Cops," and to my total amazement, over the next six months I received hundreds of letters asking me if I did training in police rhetoric. Taking another risk, I never returned to university teaching. I moved to Albuquerque, New Mexico, shortly thereafter, and founded The Verbal Judo Institute. I developed this new street rhetoric into the full-fledged police-training program now called Verbal Judo.
During the 1980s and 1990s, I spent 300 days a year on the road teaching Verbal Judo or "Tactical Communication" to police departments here in the U.S.A., Canada, and Australia. Verbal Judo is now recognized the as the premiere communication course for people who deal with the public in stressful and unpredictable circumstances, whether they are police officers, federal employees, or business executives.
During these years as I wrote my three books on Verbal Judo I kept in mind Hammett's insistence on being true to reality, the world as it is rather than as I might like it, and tried as best I could to keep my prose taut and muscular — as Hammett might have liked. I had to mirror the realistic edge of the world in which cops work and live. As I look back, my belief in the warrior "code" and my application of it to the modern peace officer comes almost directly from Hammett's works. It is our code that keeps us safe from the folly and greed surrounding us.
To maintain a realistic edge to my presentations, I continued my police work as a reserve with the Sandoval County Sheriff's department near Albuquerque and spent countless hours riding with officers from other departments, from NYPD, LAPD, LA County Sheriffs, Miami Dade P.D., and Chicago P.D., to Federal agencies such as the National Service, Forest Service, and DEA. Again, people thought I was crazy to spend time in such dangerous environments, but to me, it was the only way I could come to understand the "truth" of police work. I had to be competent in the job to preach to other officers how best to do it.
I now see, after all these years, that I followed, in my own way, the philosophy of the Continental Op and Sam Spade as I had defined it in my dissertation: Know the real world, deal with the enemy dispassionately, and above all, win with integrity to your own code. Hammett's detectives were warriors in a corrupt world. The Op and Spade were manhunters. They had their own code that kept them from falling to the greed and folly of those around them.
Just as Sam Spade had to be different from his world to bring the corrupt to justice, so, too, do today's police have to be unlike the people they serve if they are to complete the job tasks assigned. As the "Thin Blue Line" between order and disorder, peace and violence, officers must essentially be better and "unlike" those with whom they interact. To be effective, they may appear to be "like" those with whom they deal, but that is an illusion.
The code of the Peace Warrior, as we preach it in Verbal Judo, is bifurcated: Talk the talk of peace, but be prepared to respond to violence should force be necessary. Use words to redirect and calm, wherever and whenever possible. Model peace by your own behavior. But, should violence be unavoidable, be ready to employ physical skills with devastating, yet restrained, precision. Officers have always had formal training in the physical arts, but never, before Verbal Judo, in the verbal arts. In today's world, realism dictates that a formal, tactical approach to communication is necessary. I have tried to fill that void.
I now see, thirty years later, that my immersion in Dashiell Hammett's world created a state of mind I have carried with me ever since. As Joe Gores, on page 127 of his paper "Dashiell Hammett" in AZ Murder Goes Classic: Papers of the Conference (Scottsdale: Poisoned Pen Press, 1997), suggests of Hammett:
He was not a writer learning about private detection in order to create a detective hero; he was a detective learning about writing in order to make a living. This meant that as he wrote, he retained the detective's subconscious attitudes toward life.
My police experience, both as an actor and as an observer, has validated my thinking about Hammett's fictional detectives. The world of the streets is indeed "mean," unpredictable, and threatening to any good man who might try to make a difference. My professorial view, in 1972, of Hammett's Personville in Red Harvest was that its landscape was extreme. With my police experience, I no longer believe this to be so. Today's world is so corrupt — from drive-by shootings and mass murders to corporate lies and the "forked-tongues" of our elected representatives — Person-Poisonville seems an all too familiar landscape. The greed and folly of the characters in The Maltese Falcon now seem ubiquitous and commonplace, and even Nick's hedonistic stance in The Thin Man is understandable, if not entirely likeable.
The Peace Warrior we try to train in Verbal Judo must, I now see, have the very qualities of a Continental Op or a Sam Spade. Our model policeman must, above all, be professional. He is not hired to express his or her personal feelings; instead, he or she is expected to be a walking enactment of the law. A "hard-boiled" exterior is indeed necessary to help officers handle the harshness of the outside world and the psychological pressure the various calls for duty exert on them as they work the streets. But it is also necessary to protect the inner self, the self of integrity and ethical conduct. In The Thin Man, Hammett's darkening authorial vision ends with Nick Charles, whose "hard-boiled" stance is only that — a stance, devoid of meaningful connection with his internal self. In Nick, doing and being are forever disjoined, forever separated from dynamic and meaningful connection, and Hammett's vision closes on that note.
In our Verbal Judo training, however, we try to show officers they can conduct themselves authentically, and not drift into the cynicism and lack of commitment of a Nick Charles. We offer a series of strategies and tactics that enable officers to stay calm under pressure, focus on the goal of the discourse, and succeed in redirecting hostility into more peaceable channels. We teach officers to think that their quintessential job is to "think for people as they might think for themselves 48 to 72 hours later," without the present influences of liquor, drugs, or rage. Good officers "protect" people from themselves and others, and they "serve" by thinking for others as those others might think under better conditions. The officers are taught that the "Peace Warrior" is essentially a protector, a protector of the weak, the innocent, and yes, even the guilty — those who must nevertheless be brought to justice. I believe this is a vision that can keep officers motivated and free from the pitfalls of cynicism and pervasive ennui that entrapped Nick Charles and perhaps Hammett himself.
Had Vince Emery not contacted me about publishing my manuscript on Hammett, I do not know if I would have realized Hammett's influence on my present work with Verbal Judo. I now see the mindset I developed while immersed in Hammett became part and parcel of the mindset I used on the street as a police officer, and with slight changes, became the mindset I teach young officers in Verbal Judo.
As I reread my own work, now thirty years later, I am more convinced then ever that the world we live in needs hard-boiled operatives to right the wrongs and act when others will not, or cannot. That gray area, which is "the thin blue line" between the forces of good and the forces of evil, that area where the moral and ethical well-intentioned operative must work his magic, is today even more problematic than in Hammett's era. The good officer must know what laws can be bent, and how far, without breaking, and the good undercover officer must appear more corrupt than he is to be effective with those with whom he deals.
Knowing the risks of policing in today's society led me to make the mascot of Verbal Judo training the chameleon, that wonderful subtle little beast that can change its coloring to blend with its environment to survive and win the game of life. No doubt my immersion in Hammett's fiction, with its portrayal of Spade's and the Op's antics and gamesmanship, led me in this direction. Like the chameleon, street officers have to be flexible and capable of changing as the situations change. They have to wear a variety of faces to meet the faces they meet. They must look pleasant on one call when they may not feel at all pleasant, or intimidating when fearful at the next call. Ultimately, the must always have the skill of becoming who they have to be to handle the situation in front of them. Anything less is disaster. Role-playing and emotional distance is the secret of winning. Like Sam Spade, who tells Brigid, "I do hate being hit without hitting back ... but it's a cheap enough price to pay for winning," officers must keep distance and maintain a professional perspective if they are to win.
During my hundreds of hours working with successful officers in the big cities, I came to admire their work as I admired Sam Spade in The Maltese Falcon. Many of the officers, torn between the corruption of the streets and the uncertain backing and support from their own highly politicized departments, discovered that adherence to the job was their only salvation. These officers, dedicated as they were to doing the right thing, used their own integrity as a basis of action, as did Sam Spade. Like Spade, they focused on the job. Each job provided a beginning, middle, and end and thus became a way for them to hold onto reality. Ironically, to be successful in their jobs, these officers had to, like Spade, become "unlike" all others in their world, from the criminals they pursue to the departments they represent.
I argue in my chapter on The Maltese Falcon, that Hammett's rendering of Sam Spade shows that a moral man can act in a corrupt world without himself becoming corrupted or infected, but admittedly, the price is high. The hero is left with skepticism and alienation from those he serves. So, too, with all too many of today's better officers. They will tell you they feel alienated from their departments, and skeptical about the efficacy of the law and the court system. Only the pursuit of the individual job(s) and the tight fellowship they feel with their team members keeps them uplifted and motivated. The enjoyment lies in the "game" itself. The trick, as it was for Spade, is to keep integrity and focus as the game is played out.
Excerpted from Hammett's Moral Vision by George J. "Rhino" Thompson. Copyright © 2007 George J. Thompson. Excerpted by permission of Vince Emery Productions.
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