A 2007 interview with the late George J. "Rhino" Thompson, author of Hammett's Moral Vision, and founder of the Verbal Judo Institute, Inc.

There is no one else on earth like Doc Thompson.  He was a university-level English professor before he chucked the academic life to become a patrolman on the mean streets.  Along the way, he became a leading authority on tactical communication, and now conducts “Verbal Judo” seminars for both law enforcement officers and civilian businessmen wanting to hone their verbal persuasion skills.

Back in the 1970s, he wrote his doctoral dissertation on the moral values expressed in Dashiell Hammett’s five novels.  A few years later, it was serialized over several issues of  The Armchair Detective, a fanzine dedicated to the mystery novel.  He was stunned to find out (three decades after the fact) that this obscure series of articles was valued as the most insightful analysis ever written about Hammett’s novels.  They have been collected and updated as Hammett’s Moral Vision, published in hardcover by Vince Emery Productions.

Doc was recently wrapping up a three-day seminar in Sacramento, and agreed to be interviewed.  After a long day of lecturing, he was obviously tired, but he still had plenty to say.

So, without further ado, meet my new friend, Dr. George J. “Rhino” Thompson, PhD.  Doc.

MIKE: How did you get the nickname Rhino?

DOC: Several years ago in Florida—I think it was in the mid-nineties—I’m teaching about four courses at a place in Jacksonville called IBTM.  These two cops come up to me and say: “Oh, you’re the Rhino!”  

And I say: “What do you mean, the Rhino?”  

And they say: “Well, you know, before we came down here, we figured we’d be playing some golf, and send one guy to the class, and the rest of us would go goof off.  So we decided to ask this FBI agent who’d been in your class before: “What is this guy like?  What’s his teaching style?”

And he replied: “Imagine a rhinoceros on amphetamines.  That’s his classroom demeanor.  You won’t be taking a break.  You won’t be out on the golf course.  You’ll be in class, and he’ll be in your face.”  And that’s where that came from.  And if you think about what I teach,  I teach the ability to deflect, and not be upset by what people say, so you develop a rhino skin.  So you get kind of “rhino-ized” by the time you’re done with my course.

MIKE: Speaking of your course, talk a little about your Verbal Judo seminar.

DOC:  Well, it’s the only tactical communication course in America, the only course that came from cops.  See, I’m a unique guy in the sense that I was the first PhD cop to drive a patrol car.  I taught  English Lit for ten years at the university level.  I was trained in rhetoric and persuasion.  Shakespeare.  Milton.  From the moment I became a policeman, I noticed that the great cops, the ones who could get compliance just with a word or two, who often had no formal education, used very, very complicated rhetorical techniques.  They didn’t know that.  They were "unconsciously competent," if you will.  Because I have this academic background. I was able to say:  “Here’s what they do.  Here’s how they do it.”  I could then pass it on to someone else.  That’s where the course came from.

MIKE:  How did you go from college professor to street cop?

DOC:  It was by chance.  I was quite successful as a teacher, and was therefore put on every committee.  And I was promoted.  In academic circles, the less you teach, the more important you are.  But, see,  I went into it to teach students, and all of a sudden I wasn’t happy.  I mean, this isn’t what I came here to do.  I hate committee meetings.  I hate politics.  Why am I doing this?

So, about that same time, I’m lifting weights with a friend of mine who was a cop—he just happened to be a policeman—in the city where I was working.  And he said:  “You know, you ought to become a reserve.”  

I said: “What’s that?”  

He said: “Well, it’s a part-time cop.”  

So I tried it, and I loved it so much, I said: “I’m gonna go full time, because I’m learning something.”  So I applied for a sabbatical from the university.  And I said: “There’s something about what cops do that makes them great communicators.  They don’t know it.  They don’t need to know it.  But I want to study police rhetoric.”  That’s what I called it.  So they gave me a semester sabbatical, with full pay.  I went down to the cop and said: “Hire me.  I’ll cost you nothing for the first six months, because I’m already being paid.”  So I went on, first as an active reserve, than I went full time, and I liked it so much I never went back.  

MIKE:  Why did you leave law enforcement?

DOC: I’d still be a cop, except I wrote a little article in the FBI bulletin in ‘82, entitled “Police Rhetoric: An Important Tool for Cops.”  To my surprise, I got over six hundred letters back, saying: “this is neat that you do this kind of training.”

I said: “What kind of training?”  All I’d done was talk about how the great cops were good at it.  How did they operate?  And I’d defined it.  But I didn’t think that was anything.  

And they said: “Can you train others to do this?”

I thought:  “How would you do that?”

So one of the letters was from Texas.  Abilene.  It said:  “Would you come down and talk to 105 detectives, probation, parole and corrections officers?”

I said: “I can do that.  I have no manual, I have no book, but I can talk.”  

So I went down and talked about what I had seen: what the great cops do when they do what they do best.  I got a standing ovation.  They said: “You gotta go make a course out of this!”  So that’s how it started.  

MIKE:  How did Hammett become part of your academic career?

DOC: Came in by pure chance.  I was in my fourth year of graduate studies.  I worked full time as a graduate assistant, and taught two courses, and took two.  So it took me four years, working full time, to get all the requirements out for the PhD.  And then I decided: “Well, I’m gonna write on an English novelist by the name of George Meredith.”  Why?  Because nobody had done George Meredith.  He’s got a whole big canon of novels, and by the time I finished reading them, I was bored.  His prose was boring, uninteresting, cloying, you know, just yuck! I didn’t care about the predicaments the people in his novels got into—I could care less!  I was in my fifth year now, and I said to myself one night: “I’m not gonna do this.”  I took the hundred pages that I’d written in three months, threw it in the garbage, and went home to tell my poor wife (who is now ex).  I said: “I quit!  I’ll go in the FBI.  I’ll just take my MA.  I’ll teach in high school.  But I’m not gonna do this.”

And I grabbed a book off the shelf that I’d bought at a garage sale:  Dashiell Hammett.  Red Harvest. I had a hot tub.  I said: “I’m gonna take a hot tub, don’t bother me.”  And I grabbed this book and I went and sat in the hot tub.  And I started reading this.  It’s not a long book.  It was about a guy by the name of the Continental Op, who finds himself employed by a corrupt city to rid the city of corruption.  And in the process of trying to rid corruption, he becomes himself “blood simple” and corrupt.  And it’s very interesting: what do you do with a moral man in an immoral universe?  How does he handle that?  Can you ever stay virtuous in a corrupt world?  And here I am in the hot tub, thinking: “You know, Hamlet had the same problem.”

So I read this book in one sitting.  In the hot tub.  I was wrinkled when I got out.  I said to my wife: “This guy Hammett, whoever he is, is really interesting. It’s like reading a Jacobean tragedy.”

I went back to the university the next day.  And I said to Professor Irving Cummings, who was my director: “You know, I’ve stumbled onto this book I got at a garage sale.  Red Harvest.

He said: “Oh, you know Hammett!”

I said:  “Who?  This is the only book of his I’ve ever seen.”

“Oh, no,” he says.  “He’s got  five novels.  He’s a part of the hard-boiled tradition.”

I said: “I didn’t know that.  I think he’s very much like Hamlet and the Jacobean tragedies.”

He said:  “That’s very interesting.  I always thought there was a dissertation in the hard-boiled detective novels.”

I said: “Well, who are you talking about?”

He said: “Well, there’s Hammett, there’s Raymond Chandler in the ‘30s, there’s Ross Macdonald.  You need to read everybody.  Then you need to read all the criticism.”

I said: “And do a dissertation on the hard-boiled school and  its connection with the Jacobeans?”

He said: “Why not?”

I said: “Yeah.  Why not?”

So I read everything.  All of Chandler’s novels, all of Ross Macdonald’s novels.  Dashiell Hammett’s five novels, and all the criticism.  It took me like three months, four months to read everything.    So then I came back to Irving Cummings and said: “You know, Irving, Professor, sir, there’s enough material just on Dashiell Hammett.  I’ve read all five novels.  This guy has not been examined properly.”

And he said: “Well, no kidding!  I knew that from the start.  But you needed to learn about the tradition!”

That’s  where the thesis came from.  And when I defended it, a bunch of Shakespeare people sat it, and the skeptical people saying: “Awww, this isn’t real academia!”

And I said: “Really!  See, I think it is.  Number one, I think Hammett is unappreciated.  Number two, he’s a much better artist than most people know.  I can prove it, and I have in my study.  Thirdly, it’s the American tradition connected with the European tradition.  Very interesting.  See, nobody ever made that connection.  So I never took any crap from anybody.  

MIKE:  And then it came to be serialized in Armchair Detective?

DOC:  They got ahold of me and said: “would you consider publishing in our magazine?”  I’d never heard of them.  

MIKE:  How did they hear about you?

DOC:  I don’t know!  So I said: “Sure.”  So in five editions, they published my five chapters.   And as a result, I got a couple of letters requesting my presence at popular culture conferences, and I went, and gave some speeches, you know, some things on Hammett.  Then I got busy doing other things, and for twenty years I had nothing to do with Hammett.  Meanwhile, people are reading my work.  I didn’t know that.  Nobody told me that.  

MIKE:  I imagine you were surprised to find out that your dissertation had been receiving all that attention over the years.

DOC:  I was, frankly, floored.  I got a call from Vince Emery, and he said: “You know, you’re an expert.  People quote you.”

I said: “What are you talking about?”  I hadn’t heard anything about it.

So he said: “Would you consider allowing us to turn your dissertation into a book?”

I said: “I’d love it, but who’s interested?”

He said: “There’s a lot of people interested.”  So that’s how the book started.

MIKE:  A book comprised of  something you wrote thirty years earlier.

DOC: Oh, and hadn’t even thought of for fifteen! You know, there are a lot of Hammettesque people who are much more attuned  to his biography and so on.  See, I’m not really interested in those details.  I’m a real… I won’t say academic.  I’m a guy who looks at what he wrote and says: “What’s the importance of this?”  I don’t care about his life.  I find it interesting that his life mirrored his writing, but…

MIKE: So, 75 years later, why does Hammett still matter?

DOC:  I think he still matters because he’s one of the few authentic voices in literature.  I think he matters because he developed a series of novels that raise serious questions about how can you  live in this world with dignity and respect and survive?  And I think that is a question that is the most modern of all questions.  For example, if you look at politicians today, there are hardly any that you can respect.  The church is out of office, has no power.  The federal government lies to you.  Always has, but now it’s perfectly clear.  The schools are in chaos.  About the only people who are alive, well, and trying to set  a model of behavior, I think, are the police.  The good ones, not the bad ones.  But the Thin Blue Line is a real deal.

MIKE:  How would you say Hammett’s heroes evolved over the course of the novels?

DOC: The Continental Op became Sam Spade.  Found an authentic voice.  But even he got corrupted—not so much corrupted as tired—in the figure of Nick Charles, who, by and large, has given up, like so many others.  But Sam Spade did not.  And so, when you look back at the novels, The Op and Spade versus Nick Charles, it is the difference between the modern man, the ennui, the boredom, the cynicism of Nick Charles, and the kind of authentic guts of Sam Spade.  And you need, I think, a model.  You need someone you can look to.  Someone you can think about and say:  “Yeah.  He had the guts to stick it out.  So do I.”  

By the time you get to the last novel, the vision is very dark.  I’m not quite sure why it’s very dark.  I’ve never quite figured out why Hammett came to that conclusion, but Nick Charles is a pale imitation of everything that came before.

MIKE:  Some critics found the Spade character completely amoral, while others said he was a slave to his code of honor.  Why such widely divergent interpretations?

DOC:  I don’t think most people understand what it takes to survive on the streets.  See, I look at him from a policeman’s point of view.  His game playing, role playing, chameleon-like abilities are exactly what you need to do.  You take an academic looking at him, he looks like he’s manipulative and evil.  But, see, they don’t understand.  Machiavelli was quite right.  Man is part beast: the lion and the fox.  And you have to have both.  You have to be the lion, and sometimes wise like the fox.  You have to manipulate people.  You have to control the streets, or they will control you.  Spade understood the game, and had contempt for any who didn’t.  And most of the critics who don’t like Spade are people he wouldn’t have liked, either.

MIKE: Many people aren’t sure what to make of Spade’s story about the man who was almost hit by the falling beam.

DOC: The Flitcraft parable is really existential.  You know, you go along thinking everything is fine, then a beam falls from the building, narrowly missing you.  And Flitcraft at that point says: “Whoa!  Everything I’ve done up to this point is wrong!”  So he changes his way of doing business.  But then nothing happens.  No more beams fall.  What Spade really likes about the story is that Flitcraft doesn’t know that he’s gone back to being the same guy, with another family, in another suburb, you know?  But in Spade’s world, you gotta realize, the beams are always falling.  Spade knows that.  Flitcraft had the luxury of being a civilian.  He could just go back.  But, you know, those of us that are the Thin Blue Line, those of us that protect others, you don’t go back.

(This interview was conducted in 2007. Doc passed away June 7, 2011.)