Dashiell Hammett, revisited

What could be better for a fan of hard-boiled detective stories than a novel about the daddy of them all: Dashiell Hammett? Bob Moyer writes that the book itself is a bit of a mystery.

By Robert Moyer

HAMMETT UNWRITTEN. By Owen Fitzstephen. Notes and Afterword by Gordon McAlpine. Seventh Street Books. 176 pages. $13.95.

Books about Dashiell Hammett, author of THE MALTESE FALCON and other hard-boiled classics, lionize, criticize, idolize, even demonize the man who created the genre. Few books do what this charming, tight little novel does – humanize him. The premise here is that this book by “Owen Fitzstephen” was found in Lillian Hellman’s papers (she was Hammett’s paramour for many years). According to Gordon McAlpine, Owen Fitzstephen was the name of a writer/character in Hammett’s The Dain Curse, and, quite possibly a doppelganger for Hammett. He suggests we take this book as (possibly) autobiographical.

The book’s title is most fitting – most of Hammett is unwritten. He quit writing novels in the 1930s. According to the conceit of the book, he quit writing after he gave away the Maltese Falcon.

The book opens as a terminally ill Hammett sets out in 1959 to burgle a bourgeois household on Long Island. It turns out to be the home of none other than the “real” Brigid O’Shaughnessy, the femme fatale of The Maltese Falcon. Hammett had modeled the novel after a real case involving the “falcon,” and he had purportedly kept the “fake” falcon that was the object of everyone’s desire both in the case and the book. Now, 27 bookless years later, he’s come for the falcon.

Before he gets it, however, we jump back all those years to the day he gives it to “Brigid,” at the height of his success. She confronts him with the story that the “fake” falcon was the real one, that it contains a force that gives power to whoever has it. Hammett wants her out of his hotel room, out of his life. He gives it to her.

And never writes another book. The convening narrative covers the poignant agony of massive writer’s block, and a series of events that seem to verify “Brigid’s” version of the falcon’s value. A passel of period detail and dashing dialogue bring us through the years, right up to the end of Hammett’s life, and of the book. With a couple of nice twists in the final confrontation back on Long Island, the conclusion leaves room for the reader to wonder: Was it true??

 

 

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