More with the deconstructing of the hardboiled hero. For an author who basically invented the genre, Hammett spends an awful lot of time uninventing it. To his everlasting credit, I hasten to add.
This time the protagonist, Ned Beaumont, isn't a private eye. This can't be emphasized enough: he's not a private eye. I say this can't be emphasized enough because he acts like a private eye in a Dashiell Hammett book. He solves the case, of course, but even before he does that he runs around doing the things a Hammett private eye does in order to solve a case. Has run-ins with thugs and dames, turns up clues, steps lightly around cops, consorts with known criminals. Gets the crap beat out of him. Drinks alone. Plays it close to the vest.
But he's not a private eye. He's a political op, not a Continental one: the right-hand man of the boss of an old-time political machine in an unnamed Eastern city that's not New York. A boss who may well have committed the murder that's at the heart of this story, the mystery Ned's trying to solve.
Except - and here's the kicker - maybe he's not trying to solve it. We never know, not until very close to the end. The murder happens, Ned finds the body, Ned warns his boss that it looks bad for him, and then Ned spends the rest of the book running around doing the things a private eye does. Except that we're not sure if he's trying to aid the investigation or hinder it, solve the murder or keep it from being solved. He gets himself deputized to the D.A.'s office, but maybe he's trying to keep the cops looking in the wrong direction, away from his boss. He's loyal to his boss - that's never (or seldom) in doubt (but then, watch that ending) - but we don't know if that loyalty extends to believing he didn't do it, or in fact means assuming he did do it and not caring. In fact it's a distinct possibility for much of the book (and at one point it becomes a near certainty) that he doesn't want to know who did it, and just wants to gum things up so that nobody ever knows.
And yet it reads like a detective story, because like I say, Ned acts like a private eye. In every respect except for that one niggling detail that he may not be trying to solve the crime. And how much does it say, and about what, that trying to expose the truth and trying to cover it up end up looking like the same thing?
Was Dashiell Hammett the best novelist of his generation?