Friday, February 7, 2014

Dashiell Hammett’s “The Hunter and Other Stories”

I first met Dashiell Hammett (1894-1961) at the movies, specifically, the movies that were later run on television. I don’t know how old I was when I first watched William Powell and Myrna Loy in The Thin Man, but I do know I loved the movie. And then I saw Humphrey Bogart as Sam Spade in The Maltese Falcon.

I probably saw Hammett’s name in the movies’ credits (“based on the novel by”), but it likely didn’t mean anything. My understanding of who Dashiell Hammett was and his writing had to wad until the mid-1970s, when a number of his books were republished. I read The Maltese Falcon, The Thin Man, The Dain Curse, The Glass Key, and Red Harvest (the Library of America has assembled all of them in one volume). I learned that all of his novels except The thin Man had been first published in serial form in various magazines of the hardboiled mystery and suspense genre that were common well into the 1950s (about the only survivors of the genre are Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine and Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine). I learned that he wrote numerous stories and several screenplays.

And I learned about the man and his life – his work as a Pinkerton detective, his battle with tuberculosis, how he started writing, his family his relationship with writer Lillian Hellman (part of the story in the movie Julia; Jason Robards played a credible Hammett); and how he was caught up in the communist scare of the late 1940s and early 1950s. He refused to testify before the House Un-American Activities Committee, was sent to prison for that refusal, and was blacklisted by both publishers and movie studios.

I still enjoy reading his stories and novels His prose is lean, spare and power-packed. He was the best of the hardboiled detective school writers, and even today he’s recognized for being among the finest of American writers.

I have another reason for enjoying his writing. My father was a fan. He read Hammett in the 1930s and 1940s, in all those mystery magazines. In fact, my father was the “target demographic” of many of those magazines, although the term wasn’t used back then. Reading Hammett is a connection to my father, and a connection to a very different time in American history and culture.

Hammett’s stories have been collected and published over the years, and now comes The Hunter and Other Stories, published by The Mysterious Press and edited with very helpful commentary by Richard Layman and Julie Rivett. It includes 18 stories and three “screen stories,” or plot summaries for movies. Most of the stories, including the title story, have never been previously published.

Not all of the stories are crime or detective stories; Hammett often reached beyond the mystery and suspense magazines to reach a broader audience. But they are all recognizably Hammeett, with their tough, lean prose, action-filled scenes and often surprising twists and turns.

In “The Hunter,” a detective investigates a fraudulent check, and it’s all in a day’s work. “The Diamond Wager” concerns a bet – whether a valuable necklace could be stolen from a jewelry store in Paris. “Magic” has a magician delivering what will cause himself personal pain. “Faith” is about the tragedy that dogs a man’s life, and what he does to avoid something worse. “The Cure” is also about a bet – that one man’s fear of swimming can be cured by another man (and the consequences are completely unexpected).

The three screen stories – “The Kiss-Off,” “Devil’s Playground,” and “On the Make” – are recognizably noir.”The Kiss-Off” eventually became the 1931 movie City Streets, starring Gary Cooper and Sylvia Sydney. “On the Make” was filmed and released as “Mr. Dynamite” in 1935. “The Devil’s Playground” was created, the editors say in their commentary, as part of the deep interest in all-things-China in the 1920s and 1930s (remember Charlie Chan?) but was never filmed.

It’s a fascinating volume. The stories are generally all period – they wouldn’t quite fit, or fit very well, with contemporary sensibilities. But they are stories by Dashiell Hammett, they bear his trademark and imprint. And that means they are and will continue to be entertaining.

My father would have enjoyed them.


Maureen said...

I always thought Hellman and Hammett made a fascinating pair. I've read all of her work but very little of his.

Martha J. M. Orlando said...

You've made me want to read Hammett now, Glynn. Off to the library!

nance.mdr said...

Dashiell Hammett: A MemoirLillian Hellman