This blog post incorporates ideas from an earlier piece written for the San Francisco Book Review.
“Flypaper” was the first Hammett story I ever read. It appeared as a featured classic in Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine and I just loved how it punched me in the gut. Its crisp, no-nonsense style opened up the noir side of detective fiction for me.
Since I adore so many authors, it’s taken me several years to absorb as much Hammett as I can find. I haven’t gone through every single word he has ever written, although it’s safe to say that I’m more than a casual fan. I freaked out with delight, for example, when I found a bootleg copy of Wim Wenders’s Hammett (1982) in the backwaters of Metrowalk. I had a similar moment of absolute bliss when I finally went on Don Herron’s amazing walking tour. When I first contemplated moving to the Bay Area, the idea of walking the same mean streets as one of my literary heroes tickled my fancy.
All these fangirl elements came into play when I picked up a book called Hammett Unwritten. This slim novel tackles one tantalizing mystery about this literary icon: why did Dashiell Hammett stop writing after 1934?
This novel has a fanciful hypothesis. Tracked down by the femme fatale who inspired Brigid O’Shaughnessy, Hammett finally gives up the one object that she desires. He hands over a counterfeit statue, a relic from the case that inspired The Maltese Falcon.
Unfortunately, as soon as he gives the souvenir away, his words dry up. People from Hammett’s life—real and fictional—emerge from the past to harass him. As his writer’s block worsens over the years, these people mock him for giving up the one item that had influenced his mercurial rise in society. Sometimes they feed him misleading clues regarding the statuette’s real origins and power. Verbally battered and growing old and insecure, even Hammett’s cynicism cracks under the pressure. He starts thinking there might be some truth in the lies.
Hammett Unwritten is full of brilliant one-liners and twists. Even a hardcore fan who’s read a biography or two might be surprised by all the details. Facts are cleverly sandwiched among a dozen falsehoods, and by the end a reader almost buys the half-truth that Owen Fitzstephen wrote this novel. Mystery lovers, especially hardboiled fans, should appreciate this satisfying con and double-cross perpetuated by Gordon McAlphine.
If I seem to be tossing roses in McAlphine’s path, it’s because I’ve read some cringe-inducing pieces that feature Hammett as a character. Not all fictional versions of Hammett ring true. He’s a complex man, and some attempts I’ve read just feel reductive. He played a lot of roles in his life, and not all of them are pleasant: private detective, communist, womanizer, absentee father, Hollywood scribe. So far, Hammett Unwritten is the only book that does justice to his complexity. It deserves the honor of sharing shelf space with Hammett’s own masterpieces.