Hammett Unwritten

Written by Owen Fitzstephen — Samuel Dashiell Hammett was the author of five novels and many short stories and is one of the most famous authors of hardboiled detective fiction. Born in 1894, Hammett left school when he was only 13 and eventually went to work for the Pinkerton National Detective Agency from 1915 to 1922. His first novel, Red Harvest, was published in 1929, and he later served in WWII.

One of his most famous novels, however, is The Maltese Falcon, and this is the story that Hammett Unwritten is built around. When the novel opens on New Year’s Eve 1959, an aging Hammett is examining his own obituary, taken from a journalist who wrote it up when Hammett had a heart attack, but recovered unexpectedly. It sets things up for you to constantly think about Hammett’s mortality as the story unfolds. We head back to 1933, when Moira O’Shea, a sexy redhead from his Maltese Falcon days, shows up at his door. At first, Hammett thinks that she’s there to declare her love for him, but that’s not the case. She’s bitter and worn, but it’s not love she’s after. In fact, it’s a statue she wants – the statue sitting on his desk, and the one he wrote about in The Maltese Falcon.

He believes it’s a fake though, so after a bit of discussion he hands it over to her. There are quite a few people who think the statue is real and that it has special powers. They’ll do anything to get their hands on it. Then, after giving the statue away, Hammett begins to suffer from writer’s block and begins to wonder if there is something to it after all. Before he knows it, some pretty tough customers from the old case start to seek him out, and they want the Falcon for themselves.

The novel hits on quite a few actual events in Hammett’s life, and fans of his novels will get quite a kick out of seeing so many familiar characters. After all, Hammett said that all of his characters and stories were based on actual people and events. After the opening, the novel starts back in 1933 but comes full circle all the way back to New Year’s Eve 1959, and his inevitable collision with fate.

The author has a particular gift for dialogue – the sort that was around before movies were all about special effects and had to rely on the interplay between actors – and it’s not hard to picture things unfolding in black and white on the big screen. Hammett is, and always will be, larger than life, but Fitzstephen also brings him down to Earth, with all of his flaws on display. His drinking and smoking is legendary, his writer’s block is crippling and he can’t seem to help himself when it comes to women. Still, his longtime partner, the famous playwright Lillian Hellman, stays with him through  his many indiscretions.

In Hammett Unwritten, Hammett is slowly drawn into a mystery far stranger than he ever could have imagined, and the clever ending had me riveted. The Maltese Falcon is one of the best Hammett stories out there, and the author couldn’t have created a more fun ode to one of the fathers of hardboiled mystery. The main trouble with the book is that at 160 pages, it’s very short. Fans of noir and of course, Dashiell Hammett, will devour this in one sitting and be left wanting a bit more. It’s released on 12 February.

Seventh Street Books
Print
£8.02

CFL Rating: 4 Stars

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