by Dashiell Hammett
Published by Vintage Books
208 pages, 2005
It's Hammett, Damn It!
Reviewed by Kevin Burton Smith
OK, true confession time. At first glance, I wasn't very impressed with Vintage Hammett. And somewhere beyond the pale, I was sure, Dashiell Hammett's ghost was going over this volume and coming to more or less the same conclusion: "Is this all there is?"
This new Vintage Books collection of excerpts and stories is being released in conjunction with the 75th-anniversary celebration of the publication of The Maltese Falcon, the classic private-detective novel and Hammett's most famous work. But somehow it just doesn't seem enough, even timed with the release of new matching editions of that novel, Red Harvest and The Thin Man.
I mean, 75 years! That's a big deal in a world where inane pop singers and talent-challenged "celebrities" barely out of their teens sign seven-figure deals for their autobiographies, and the third anniversary of some soon-to-be-forgotten reality show is considered newsworthy. Yet The Maltese Falcon remains as vital and vibrant and engrossing and provocative as when it was first published -- a literary milestone that, for once, is well worth making a fuss over.
What's more, Vintage is a subsidiary of Alfred A. Knopf, the company that first published him; a company that you can be sure has done very well indeed by Hammett's writings over the years.
Add to that the simple fact that Hammett is one of the most celebrated American authors of the 20th century, a man whose work has had a tremendous influence not just on crime fiction and literature, in general, but on American culture itself, and you would expect Knopf to pull out all the stops for this anniversary celebration.
But you'd be wrong.
What we have, instead, in Vintage Hammett is a slim paperback, priced to own, of assorted odds and ends, a handful of short tales and fragments selected from his five novels -- nine pieces in total -- adding up to fewer than 200 pages of actual story. It seems especially insufficient when the book's major (some would say "only") selling point for Hammett fans is the much-ballyhooed inclusion of a short story that hasn't seen the light of day for more than 60 years. But that story turns out to be a measly four pages long.
Nor is there an introduction here or any annotations, beyond a few copyright notices. No attempt is made to put anything in historical or cultural perspective. All of this gives the book a rushed-to-print feel, almost an afterthought. Hell, even the cover photo of Hammett is irritatingly familiar, just barely a step above stock photography, as though some bean counter with an eye on the bottom line picked the first picture he came across, right off the top of the Hammett file; as though the book was designed by the accounting department, not by anyone who ever had any passion for or even any interest in the man's work. My first impulse was obvious: the author deserves better.
But this is Hammett, man. It's not about the packaging, it's not about self-congratulatory navel-gazing, it's not about celebrating some arbitrary anniversary -- it's about The Work. And 200 pages of prime Hammett, no matter what the excuse for its existence, is as rich a literary feast as anything you'll read in this or any other year. Simply put, the man could write.
The man whom Raymond Chandler once described as giving "murder back to the kind of people that commit it for reasons" was born in St. Mary's County, Maryland, on May 27, 1894, and died of lung cancer on January 10, 1961, in Lenox Hill Hospital on Manhattan's Upper East Side. During those 67 years in between, he was many things: a drunk and a lover, a soldier and a private detective, a prisoner and a deadbeat dad, a husband and the kind of man who slept with friend's wives, a company man and a Communist, a rich man and a poor man, a hero and a villain. In short, he was as complicated as hell and as subject to "moral haziness," as crime writer Peter Spiegelman (Black Maps) put it, as any of us. Perhaps that's why his conflicted heroes fairly leap off the page and into our consciousness -- they're not just reflections of their creator; they're reflections of ourselves. But whatever else Hammett may have been, he was a writer, and ultimately that is what he will and should be remembered as, a writer whose influence on the crime-fiction genre -- and therefore on literature itself -- ranks right up there with Edgar Allan Poe and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. And he certainly had the greatest impact in creating American hard-boiled detective fiction -- even a quick read through what contemporary writers have to say about Hammett will confirm that. Almost everyone else in the genre worth reading, even the great Chandler, owes it all to Hammett.
Hammett is virtually synonymous with detective fiction -- he was there right at the beginning, at the ground zero of Black Mask, the seminal pulp magazine of the early 20th century with which his name will always be inexorably linked. It was there, in the Roaring 20s, under the steady editorial guidance of Joseph "Cap" Shaw, that the "Black Mask style" was born; a colloquial style that was taut and tart, cynical and hard. It produced a new, fresh sort of crime fiction that had no interest in discreet off-stage murder, bloodless violence or the intellectual gymnastics of the dilettante sleuths so often found in the (mostly European) mystery fiction of the time -- no, Hammett's world was one of deceit and treachery, sex and sin and almost casual violence; a world most readers recognized, because it was all around them, only as far away as their daily newspaper. American Prohibition, the original "war on drugs," was the law of the land during most of Hammett's writing career, and the corruption it spawned permeated every level of U.S. society. Hammett spoke of that world in a language his readers understood, a language that was common, honest and direct, with no time for pretense or bullshit -- an American language.
Between 1922 and 1930, Black Mask published 50-odd short stories of Hammett's, almost his entire body of work. Four of his five published novels -- Red Harvest, The Dain Curse, The Glass Key and, of course, The Maltese Falcon -- were first serialized in that magazine. Most of the stories featured the short, fat, middle-aged detective known only as the Continental Op. His employer, the Continental Detective Agency, was supposedly based on the well-known Pinkerton National Detective Agency, which operated out of the Continental Building in Baltimore, and for which Hammett himself worked off and on for several years. The "Op" was based on James Wright, an older employee whom Hammett idealized. The Op is tough, thorough and professional, sometimes ruthlessly so -- a company man willing to do what it takes to get the job done.
Vintage Hammett kicks off with two interconnected Continental Op stories. "The House in Turk Street" was recently made into a muddled and rather silly movie starring Samuel L. Jackson, which I hope wasn't the reason for including it here. Because this is simply a great -- if atypical -- yarn, with the Op stumbling, almost literally, upon a den of thieves. It's hard and nasty, and clearly shows the stuff the Op is made of. And it introduces what is surely one of this genre's first femme fatales, "The Girl with the Silver Eyes," who receives top billing in the next story. Her final confrontation with the Op, whom she sneeringly calls the "little fat detective whose name I don't know" before finally calling him "the vilest epithet of which the English language is capable," should be required reading for anyone hoping to make a career of mystery-writing. At one point, the Op worms some trivial information out of his stubborn client, summing it up with "I finally got it, but it cost more words than I like to spend on an incidental." That's the Op's -- and Hammett's -- style in a nutshell: cut the fat and keep on moving.
The Op then shows up here in a couple of novel excerpts -- the frequently quoted opening chapter of Red Harvest ("I first heard Personville called Poisonville by a red-haired mucker named Hickey Dewey in the Big Ship in Butte") and a chapter from about a third of the way into The Dain Curse, where the Op comes a-calling on the troubled Leggett family.
The Op makes one final appearance in this collection, in "Fly Paper," a 1929 short story that begins with the terse professional nonchalance for which the Op stories were renowned. "It was a wandering daughter job," is all the first paragraph says, and all the reader needs to know -- the Op is back in the game. And talk about hitting the ground running! Here the Op sums up the case so far: "Babe liked Sue. Vassos liked Sue. Sue liked Babe. Vassos didn't like that."
There's more tough talk in the three consecutive chapters pulled from The Maltese Falcon, scenes that fans of the genre know by heart, either from the book or director John Huston's masterful 1941 adaptation starring Humphrey Bogart.
"And I'll tell you right out that I'm a man who likes talking to a man who likes to talk," the eternally obsequious Casper Gutman offers to Sam Spade. But of course, Mrs. Spade's boy Sammy doesn't actually like to talk, unless he can get something for his efforts. So it's a treat seeing him verbally work the fat man over, just as it's a delight to see Spade once more tangle with Gutman's hapless companion, Wilmer ("Keep that gunsel away from me ...," he warns, and the contempt fairly crackles on the page); trade banter with Effie Perine, the loyal secretary; finally learn the history of "the black bird" and get slipped a Mickey. This is, indeed, the stuff private-eye dreams are made of.
Not that Hammett wrote only about detectives. There are many who consider The Glass Key, not the Falcon, his true masterpiece. It's a tour de force, a rich, complex novel of friendship and politics, romance and murder, and a stinging indictment of corruption even more cutting than Red Harvest. Even Hammett, a notoriously harsh critic of his own work, considered it "not so bad," and it was definitely his most well-received book. The "hero" of The Glass Key, Ned Beaumont, is not a detective; yet he's still a man who lives by his own code, and he doesn't give a damn if you understand it or not. Beaumont is the right-hand man and troubleshooter for Paul Madvig, a mob boss with considerable political clout. But Madvig stands to lose it all, if he can't get out from under a murder rap. He turns to Beaumont for help, but events, including a pivotal election and a senator's beautiful daughter, threaten to destroy their friendship. The novel's opening pages, featured in Vintage Hammett, pin down, with Hammett's usual succinctness, the characters of Beaumont and Madvig, as well as their relationship, their world and, oh yes, a body "dead in the gutter up the street."
The final excerpt consists of the first five brief chapters of The Thin Man, Hammett's other most famous book, thanks to a very successful string of movies that starred William Powell and Myrna Loy as, respectively, retired private dick Nick Charles and his attractive, wealthy wife, Nora. If, as some have suggested, Ned Beaumont, the tall, thin, hard-drinking gambler, was a thinly disguised self-portrait of the author, then here's more of the same. Nick Charles is a tall, thin, hard-drinking, affable philanderer, a little past his prime, no longer a working detective (or, in Hammett's case, detective story writer), living off a beautiful younger woman whom he adores, with Nora Charles standing in for attractive, young, aspiring playwright Lillian Hellman, whom Hammett had taken up with around the time that he wrote this novel. Hellman and Hammett would engage in an on-again, off-again relationship for the rest of his life, one marked by both great passions and great pain, one fueled by love, lust, literature, politics and alcohol. The fictional Charles marriage, on the other hand, was all about good times, witty banter and sleuthing work, and The Thin Man was a good-hearted romp, as evidenced in the selection here. In five short chapters, we are introduced to Nick, who's suffering from a hangover by the fourth page; Nora, "a lanky brunette with a wicked jaw"; and their dog Asta, who's already had "a swell afternoon" in New York City, according to Nora. "She's knocked over a table of toys at Lord & Taylor's, scared a fat woman silly by licking her leg in Saks, and's been patted by three policemen."
Yet this lighthearted thriller features an intriguingly complex mystery and also a far darker undercurrent, one that reflects Hammett's increasingly bitter disillusionment with both society and himself. So perhaps it's no surprise that The Thin Man was Hammett's last novel and major work of fiction, and that he never wrote much of anything else, as far as fiction goes, save for a handful of short stories, the continuity for the Secret Agent X-9 comic strip and a few uncompleted scraps of novels.
Which leaves us with "Nightshade," the much-trumpeted rara-avis of this collection. Appearing originally in the October 1, 1933, issue of Mystery League Magazine and only reprinted once, way back in 1944, it was one of the very last pieces of short fiction of his that Hammett would see published. Just four pages long, it quickly conjures up a dark night with the threat of rain in the air, a lonely road, a damsel in distress and a good Samaritan who may or may not be all that good. Nothing much happens; in fact, nothing at all. Except that in those four pages Hammett creates a hard, tough world of danger and honor, salvation and sin, love and hate, and hurt and pain. It's a province of casual violence and ignorance, where hard words and equally hard lives are tossed out with neither apology nor excuse, and knife scars draw little comment. Hammett creates that whole world in this throw-down piece of a story, and then turns it upside down. I'm not kidding -- it really is a nothing little story, just a literary sleight of hand, but in another way, it's everything, and says just as much about us now as it did then. More than 70 years old, and it could have been written last week.
And that's the real beauty and the strength of Dashiell Hammett's writing, and why he still matters. Tart, taut, terse, in-your-face -- an attitude and a voice as American as a cowboy. More than anyone, he heard that voice, recognized it for what is was, and gave it back to Americans -- and the world.
But the question remains: Is this the best Vintage could do?
Certainly, I can't bitch about the writing in these pages. After all, it's Hammett, damn it. It's good to see him acknowledged and honored by his publisher with this entry in its "Vintage Readers" series, an honor already bestowed on such other literary heavyweights as John Cheever, Alice Munro, Martin Amis and James Baldwin.
And anything that gets Hammett into the hands of readers is definitely a good thing. As an introduction to his work, Vintage Hammett is a brilliant collection, breathtaking in its range, a sort of Greatest Hits that can't be denied.
Most Hammett fans, though, will already own everything here except for "Nightshade." This one, then, is for completists or folks who are new to Hammett and are still wondering what all the fuss is about. Longtime followers should probably cross their fingers and hope for the imminent release of the long-promised Lost Stories, from Vince Emery Books, which is supposed to include 21 long-out-of-print Hammett tales.
But, as I said before, ultimately it's not about the packaging or promotional tie-ins or marketing or any of that crap -- it's about The Work itself. And The Work stands up. With patter that was never gaudy, and a gaze that was unflinching and straight-up and undeniably and unapologetically American, Hammett etched his fiction into our consciousness, and slapped us awake. And as any true Hammett fan can tell you, when you're slapped, you'll take it and like it. | February 2005
Kevin Burton Smith is a contributing editor of January Magazine, a Mystery Scene columnist, and the founder and editor of The Thrilling Detective Web Site. An errant Canadian, he lives in California's high desert with mystery writer D.L. Browne, who can verify that he's a man who likes to talk with a man who likes to talk to a man who likes to talk.