Tuesday, November 20, 2007

By Dashiell Hammett

This collection pulls together a variety of Hammett stories, few of which have ever been anthologized and none recently. Consequently the collection focuses on early, minor work. That’s not to say it’s bad, it is surprising to see what a good craftsman Hammett was right from the start. However, by and large this is not his top-drawer work.

The collection includes some non-crime stories such as “Holiday”, a piece of naturalism that is very much in the vein popularized by Hemingway. The story concerns a tuberculosis sufferer on a spree in Tijuana. Tuberculosis was a subject very close to Hammett’s heart: he suffered from TB and lived hand-to-mouth for years on small disability checks.

Some of Hammett’s sense of humor and irony shines in tales of low-life crooks in “Itchy” and “The Green Elephant”. Both concern crooks who try to be something different, still crooks, but different kinds of crooks, and find that change brings a terrible price.

“The Road Home” and “Ber-Bulu” show a rarely seen side of Hammett’s fiction: stories with exotic settings and adventure motifs. Hammett later reversed the adventure story trappings in “The Ruffian’s Wife” and “The Maltese Falcon”, bringing the exotic into hard-boiled crime stories set in American cities.

One recurring theme is comic deflation. Stories such as “The Crusader”, “The Barber and his Wife”, and “Ber-Bulu” depict men with a greatly inflated senses of self-worth and physical power, suddenly brought down to earth.

While many of the stories are short, in fact some qualify as micro-fiction, editor Vince Emery includes a great deal of biographical material and critical analysis. The criticism is insightful and written in a bullet format intended for casual readers rather than scholars. The biographical data is likewise valuable, but would benefit from more focus. Maybe some folks need to be reminded that Hitler came to power in the 1930s, but is it really relevant here? Matters that lie much closer to an understanding of Hammett’s life and times need a little more detail. Emery’s assertion that Communist infiltration of Hollywood was directed from Moscow really needs to have footnotes to support it. While Hammett’s shifts in viewpoint to support the party line are unpleasant to read about, more detail on his Communist associations might help a reader sort out what Hammett truly believed.

Lost Stories has some fine Hammett fiction in it. However, this is a collection for a completist or someone trying to build a deeper picture the greatest crime-fiction writer of the 20th century. Beginners should start with The Big Knockover, The Thin Man, The Maltese Falcon, The Glass Key, or Red Harvest. Read any of them, you’ll read the rest and a yearning for Lost Stories won’t be far behind.

-Dave Hardy


Charles Gramlich said...

I saw a few critical comments on Hammett from Raymond Chandler and thought that was kind of rich. Chandler was all right but nearly as good as Hammett. I'm reading "Woman in the Dark" now.

Dave Hardy said...

I was unaware of that. Chandler spoke highly of Hammett in "The Simple Art of Murder". That's one of the best manifestos of popular fiction to be found.

I think Chandler was a lot tighter in short fiction. He tended to re-use his shorts to make novels. But his bridging wasn't always adequate. It's sort of like a house with magnificent bricks, but so-so cement.