by Dashiell Hammett
edited by Kirby McCauley, Martin H. Greenberg and Ed Gorman; introduction by William F. Nolan
Published by Alfred A. Knopf
396 pages, 1999
Buy it online
Dashiell Hammett A 75th-Anniversary Tribute
Hammett: Take It and Like It!
Reviewed by Kevin Burton Smith
The publication of Dashiell Hammett's Nightmare Town, an uneven but essential collection of short stories from the 1920s and 30s, is being hailed as a major event in the world of crime fiction. And rightly so. Many of these stories have been unavailable for decades, and some haven't been seen since their first printing. They may not all be prizewinners, but by almost any measurement, this collection rocks. For believers, it's a dream come true. Like it or not, Hammett remains one of this century's most pivotal and influential writers -- not just in the world of crime fiction, but in American literature in general.
Hammett took the boots to the lingering wisps of 19th-century romanticism. He made a play for some sort of 20th-century realism, which could reflect both the post-World War I loss of innocence and the corruption unleashed by Prohibition. It was Hammett -- as much as contemporaries like Sherwood Anderson, Frank Norris and even Ernest Hemingway -- who created a truly American voice in literature; a bold, unflinching hard-boiled tone that, as Raymond Chandler once put it, could be "made to say anything."
Unfortunately, Hammett nowadays is probably best known for writing the book from which director John Huston's 1941 private eye flick, The Maltese Falcon, was adapted (almost word for word, in fact). Filmgoers have spent half a century drinking in Humphrey Bogart's hard-as-nails portrayal of the morally ambiguous Sam Spade, as he wades through a swamp of lies and evil in pursuit of a fabled relic, and then coldly turns his client/lover over to the cops because he "won't play the sap for anyone."
That hard, uncompromising tone came naturally to Samuel Dashiell Hammett. He wasn't some scholarly bookworm imagining a cold, vicious world of betrayal and deceit from within the warm, safe confines of some ivory tower. He was the real deal -- a private detective himself. Hammett had worked for the fabled Pinkerton Agency, first in Baltimore, and later in San Francisco. (In between, he did a stint in World War I, but was discharged with tuberculosis.) Plagued by ill health, Hammett eventually left the Pinks and taught himself to write, publishing short stories in The Smart Set, Argosy, Action Stories, Colliers and a fledgling pulp magazine, Black Mask, which would help create what's now known as the "hard-boiled school" of detective fiction.
It was chiefly in the "pulps" that Hammett honed his craft, reworking his own experiences as a detective, developing a lean, mean prose style that was perfectly in sync with the tales he was trying to tell. Hammett pounded out stories at a steady pace for Black Mask and other magazines, almost all featuring hard-boiled men (and, sometimes, equally hardened women) doing dirty jobs in a dirty world, struggling to keep themselves clean, or at least safe.
These were stories about people living lives of often-violent desperation. And to tell them, Hammett needed the proper narrator -- someone equal to his tough, bold tales. Thus was born his greatest creation: an unassuming, nameless operative for the Continental Detective Agency, known only as the Continental Op. Probably the most influential fictional detective nobody's heard of, the Op was short, fat and coldly professional, a terse, tenacious investigator who can't be bought off by money or women. He appeared in most of Hammett's Black Mask submissions, and it was four linked stories about him that would form the basis of Hammett's first novel, Red Harvest (1929).
Between 1922 and 1930, Hammett cranked out more than 60 short stories and three more novels: The Dain Curse (another Op tale, also published in 1929), The Maltese Falcon (1930) and The Glass Key (1931), all first serialized in Black Mask. He enjoyed both critical and commercial success. When it came to hard-boiled detective fiction, he was The Man. Period.
But then the torrent dwindled to a mere trickle. In 1934 Hammett published his last significant work, The Thin Man, an often quite humorous novel about a former private detective who, no longer required to prove himself, is only too happy to live off his witty, vivacious (and wealthy) wife, drinking away his days. Anyone familiar with Hammett's life at that point -- the poor health, the alcoholism, the coasting on former glories and sporadic royalty checks, and his torrid relationship with younger, acerbic writer Lillian Hellman -- may be excused for thinking this book more than a little autobiographical. And then, of course, Hollywood swooped in and turned The Thin Man into a very successful string of frothy, screwball comedies, starring William Powell as Nick Charles and Myrna Loy as his lovely wife Nora. It was a far cry from the dark angst of Sam Spade, tenderly informing his lover, moments before he turns her over to the cops, that he hopes they won't hang her by that pretty neck of hers.
Nightmare Town is probably not the book to use as an introduction to Dashiell Hammett. It's not a greatest-hits package, but a rarities album, a collection of B-sides, obscurities and outtakes. Thus, for real fans, it is perhaps even more essential.
Spade shows up in this collection in "A Man Called Spade," "Too Many Have Lived" and "They Can Only Hang You Once" -- three short stories pumped out to cash in on the success of The Maltese Falcon. But they're not the most interesting works here. To tell the truth, they're rather disappointing, lacking the high drama and high stakes of the only Spade novel. Then again, noir never did make for good sequels.
The three Spade stories also suffer by comparison with some other selections in Nightmare Town. Together they span Hammett's career, and are pulled from various sources, not just Black Mask (though there are plenty of those here). They're detective stories for the most part, or at least involve crime in some form. There's a shaggy dog story or two, a few stabs at humor, a neo-Western of sorts and even a rough draft of The Thin Man.
The first story, from which this book draws its title, is definitely the weakest of the bunch: a hoary, corny yarn from a young writer still experimenting, still trying to define his style. All the stories here are, of course, somewhat dated (it's been 70 years or so since Hammett wrote them, after all), but "Nightmare Town" has not aged well, at all. Its hero is a young adventurer and ne'er-do-well with more money than brains, who has stumbled into a nasty little town with one big, nasty secret. His weapon of choice? A walking stick! And Hammett actually uses the sentence, "Thither he went." But he also offers a glimpse of the world, as the great, wrong place, that he would soon claim as his own. So, while this is a weak story, it provides a great title and starting point for the collection.
"Ruffian's Wife" (originally written for Sunset Magazine) is a better exercise in style. It's a neat trick, a deceptive piece of fluff that actually takes a wire brush to the sappy veneer of 19th-century romanticism. A woman who's spent her life romanticizing the crimes that her husband commits to keep her in the style to which she's become accustomed, comes face-to-face with the true nature of his world. It's a healthy slug of realism -- and a neat metaphor for what Hammett and his fellow wordsmiths were in the process of doing to American literature. Considering that a certain part of the appeal of Hammett's work is the "glamour" attached to crime, it's rather intriguing that he would suggest biting the hand he so desperately wanted to feed him.
Hammett was a fearless and hungry writer, often playing with style, voice and setting. We see that in several stories here. "His Brother's Keeper" is just a classic, a hard-boiled boxing tale, with a dose of deceit and brotherly love. It uses the timeless triangle of the clueless big lug of a boxer, the shady manager and the big fight coming up that could be someone's ticket out of Palookaville. "Two Sharp Knives" shows Hammett transposing his zigzags of treachery to hick towns, where the local sheriff -- who may not be a hick, after all -- has to look into the murder (or was it suicide?) of a man who died while in custody. "The Second Story Angel" is a rather sappy, but amusing yarn about a very smart writer and a very dumb burglar. "Afraid of a Gun," about a guy who has traveled all over the world, only to end up facing his greatest fear, is likewise tinged with humor, though of a somewhat blacker sort. Another interesting departure, for its use of a non-urban setting, is "The Man Who Killed Dan Odams." A tough little western saga of a hard-riding fugitive, with a nice O. Henry-ish twist at the end, it's like something that Elmore Leonard might have written in the 1950s.
A real treat for Hammett fans is "The Assistant Murderer," featuring Baltimore private eye Alexander Rush. An ex-cop with a bad rep and a mug described as "in no way lovely," Rush is the missing link between the business-as-usual deadpan of the Op and the later, more ethically slippery and in-your-face approach of Sam Spade. "I'll take your job," he tells a new client. "It sounds phony, but maybe it ain't. It'll cost you fifteen a day and expenses." In the end, though, Rush, like Spade and the Op, is an honorable man. When he's offered a bribe to throw his case, he turns it down with the caution: "Don't let my looks and my record kid you."
"A Man Named Thin" is an enjoyable piece of whimsy, date of origin unknown, but published posthumously, and titled to suggest connections to The Thin Man, or perhaps to "A Man Named Spade." It actually has nothing to do with either Sam Spade or Nick and Nora, though its light tone is similar to the adventures of those latter two sleuths. It's an offbeat exercise that recalls, of all things, the pseudonymous and oh-so-twee Ellery Queen. In fact, the story was published during the year of Hammett's death (1961) in, yep, Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine. Protagonist Robin Thin Jr. is a youngish man, at times insufferably pretentious, who works for his father's detective agency, but would much rather be writing poetry. In fact, he's preoccupied with coming up with le mot juste for a poem he's working on, even as he goes through the paces of investigating a jewelry store hold-up. This story is a hoot and a half, and Hammett tells it in a rather more formal manner than is his usual style.
For many, a bigger draw will be "The First Thin Man," a previously hard-to-find -- and, unfortunately, incomplete -- first draft of what would eventually be Hammett's last novel. This isn't the polished story of slick, martini-slurping, wisecracking lovebirds Nick and Nora. Instead, it's the rough, enticing first 10 chapters of a much more somber work, starring private eye John Guild, an operative for the Associated Detective Bureaus of San Francisco. Sent to the mountains to investigate a bad check, Guild is soon involved in a murder investigation. There are several points in common between these unfinished chapters and the eventual novel, but the detective isn't one of them. Guild is hard and determined, tight-lipped. His stoicism makes the taciturn Op look like a chatterbox. There's a sense of unsettling danger about Guild, and Hammett's constant references to him as "dark" hint that the original vision for The Thin Man was far bleaker than the final result.
Make no mistake about it, though: the real star of this collection is the Continental Op. He appears in seven stories here, and some of them are as good as they get. It's in these works that Hammett's voice, blunt and direct, really comes alive. For instance, the first Op story, the aptly named "House Dick," kicks off with this explanation of why the Op has been sent to work as a hotel detective for a few days:
The Montgomery Hotel's regular detective had taken his last week's rake-off from the hotel bootlegger in merchandise, instead of cash, had drunk it down, had fallen asleep in the lobby, and had been fired.
Hammett's voice resonates in the matter-of-fact tone with which the Op acknowledges corruption and human weakness. In "Zigzags of Treachery," the Op just as bluntly states his own limitations:
I'm not what you'd call a brilliant thinker -- such results as I get are usually the fruits of patience, industry, and unimaginative plugging, helped out now and then, maybe, by a little luck...
A little physical coercion may prove useful at times, too. It's a pretty hard world in which the Op works, and violence is just part of his job:
I worked him into a corner. Jammed him back... with his legs cramped under him -- which didn't give him much leverage to hit from. I got my left arm around his body, holding him where I wanted him and I began to throw my right fist into him.
But there's as much variety in the Op stories as there is among the other tales in Nightmare Town. "Night Shots" is nothing less than Hammett's take on the traditional country house murder, at times almost bordering on the precious. If Dame Agatha had ever allowed her detective to be a hard-eyed, professional working joe, instead of some Belgian fop or a nosy, elderly small-town gossip, her stories might have been similar to this one. Meanwhile, "One Hour" is a fast-paced tale that starts with a stolen car and a drunk-driving rap, and ends with the Op facing a ruthless gang of criminals. The time it takes for all of the action in this story to unroll? Check the title.
"Who Killed Bob Teal?" is also notable. It originally appeared in the November 1924 issue of True Detective, under the byline "Dashiell Hammett of the Continental Detective Agency." Again narrated by the Op, it deals with the death of one of his equally fictional fellow operatives. But Hammett causes readers to wonder how much of this adventure was fictional, noting that "those who remember this affair will know that the city, the detective agency and the people involved all had names different from the ones I have given them." According to Murder Plus, a 1992 collection of stories from the non-fiction pulps, "records at True Detective's Manhattan offices make no mention of the fact that this story was fiction, something they normally acknowledged privately, if not always to the magazine's readership."
So, the bottom line: Are these stories, some of them quite dated and many sounding like stylistic exercises rather than the polished gems that represent Hammett's best work, really worth reading?
Yes. There are good, even great stories in Nightmare Town. Hammett's range here is truly impressive, as is the ease with which he seems to attack different themes and styles. Dedicated fans of the genre will find much to mull over in this collection, and less experienced fans will get a crash course in one of the undisputed masters of crime fiction. It's also interesting to see how Hammett's style continues to affect modern detective stories. As Ross Macdonald once admitted, "We all came out from under Hammett's black mask."
Raymond Chandler, in his essay "The Simple Art of Murder," suggested that Hammett "gave murder back to the people who committed it for reasons, not just to provide a corpse" (no doubt a dig at the artificiality of writers such as Christie). That Hammett's fictional world could be, at times, just as mannered and as stilted as Christie's wasn't the point -- it felt more real, and because it seemed right, and because Hammett made it so believable, he taught us a new way to look at ourselves.
Dashiell Hammett always claimed he wanted to raise mystery fiction to the level of art. It's pretty safe to say he succeeded. Or, to paraphrase the Op himself, in "Tom, Dick or Harry," the genius of Hammett was that he didn't have any words we hadn't heard before, but he fitted them together in combinations that were new to us.
Or, to borrow Spade's words, he "was good. Very good." | December 1999
KEVIN BURTON SMITH is the creator and editor of The Thrilling Detective Web Site, which is devoted to the appreciation of fictional private eyes -- hard-boiled and otherwise -- in literature, film, television and other media. He's also been known to refuse to play the sap for anyone.