From Nightmare Town
Dashiell Hammett is remembered as the godfather of American hardboiled detective fiction. In his introduction to Nightmare Town, William F. Nolan quotes Raymond Chandler’s 1944 essay “The Simple Art of Murder,” in which Chandler wrote that Hammett “took murder out of the Venetian vase and dropped it in the alley.” Hammett’s writing was tough and urban, a stark contrast to the politeness of the English drawing-room mystery, and his characters were lowlifes and degenerates, venal politicians and wealthy greedheads.
Though Hammett is most commonly remembered as the author of three classic 20th century genre novels from the late ’20s and early ’30s – The Red Harvest, The Maltese Falcon, and The Glass Key – he had a wider range than these three books might suggest. That range was frequently on display in the short stories he wrote for influential genre magazines of the time, most especially the pulp journal Black Mask. It was here that he published stories featuring one of his most famous detectives, the Continental Op (who many people think was loosely based on the author himself, once an employee at the Baltimore office of the Pinkerton Detective Agency).
“His Brother’s Keeper” is a departure for Hammett in that it is not a detective story. Originally published in Collier’s magazine in February 1934, the story is narrated in the first person by Eddie “Kid” Bolan, a nineteen-year-old pugilist who has built a promising reputation based on his willingness to get in the ring and positively pummel his opponents. What he lacks in finesse, he makes up for in brute force. (In the story, Eddie draws a distinction between boxing and fighting: he does the latter but aspires to the former.)
Eddie’s manager is his older brother Loney, a selfish hustler who is having an affair with the wife of the local ward boss, Big Jake Schiff. Both brothers recognize the danger in this dalliance, especially after a rival manager, Pete Gonzalez, who is close with Big Jake, indicates that he knows about the affair.
Hammett’s story is about loyalty and riffs on the Biblical story of Cain and Abel, not least in the title of the piece. The verse from Genesis 4:9, which occurs immediately after Cain murders his brother, reads, “Then the LORD said to Cain, ‘Where is Abel your brother?’ He said, ‘I do not know. Am I my brother’s keeper?’ ” Hammett examines this question obliquely and with certain alterations; in his version, it is the venal brother who dies, and his murder is effected indirectly. The author muddies the waters of culpability, in large part by leaving ambiguous exactly what happens to Loney at the story’s close.
His murder takes place offstage, after Loney departs from the dressing room following a title bout between Eddie and Sailor Perleman. The fight has been fixed, something everyone but Eddie realizes. Before the bout, Loney tells his brother that he is worried he overmatched the Kid, and says, “Maybe you’ll be lucky to get a draw.” During the fight Eddie, refuses to back down; Perelman gets Eddie into a clinch and growls in his ear, “What’s the matter with you? … Are you gone nuts?” The reader comprehends what’s going on, even if Eddie does not.
It is axiomatic that any first-person narrator is by nature unreliable; Hammett’s tactic is to make Eddie uneducated and not particularly nimble mentally, thereby creating an ironic distance between the character and the reader. Eddie, always willing to believe the best of everybody, is unable to piece together the unsavoury motives of the people around him. But he provides sufficient information for the reader to fill in the missing puzzle pieces.
Eddie’s complete lack of guile also marks a departure for Hammett, whose jaundiced view of the world – or at least its manifestation in early 20th-century capitalist America – came through in characters like the laconic and jaded Sam Spade. Here, Hammett presents his reader with an earnest naif who is fiercely loyal to his brother, even though Loney has done nothing to deserve such fidelity.
Loney, a more typical Hammett character, is cynical and conniving; he is perfectly willing to serve his brother up as a sacrificial lamb in the ring if it will make him enough money to get out of town and avoid repercussions from his ill-advised romance. It is only when he sees Perelman beating Eddie to a bloody pulp that he comes to feel any remorse; his advice late in the bout is a selfless act that has fatal consequences for him.
Much has been said about Hammett’s prose style, which provided the template for hardboiled writers from Chandler to Robert B. Parker. Hammett’s trademark spareness and street-level argot are on full display here, but in “His Brother’s Keeper” they are placed in the service of a morally ambiguous, tightly controlled narrative that does not rely on the convolutions of the detective story for its appeal or momentum.
Unlike other Hammett stories that are highly plotted and determined, “His Brother’s Keeper” unfolds more organically and feels less artificial. The end, once it is reached, seems predetermined, and there is no huge revelation or twist at the close. The dread arises not because it is unclear where the story is going, but because it is absolutely clear. The suspense emerges out of a constantly heightening sense of impending doom and the catharsis, when it arrives, is less a release of tension than a confirmation of the reader’s worst fears.
The misplaced guilt that Eddie feels in the story’s close is painful and the last line – a mere eight words long – hits with remarkable power. Just like a perfectly placed right hook from a dogged and tenacious fighter.