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Onyx reviews: Hammett Unwritten by
Reviewed by Bev Vincent, 01/18/2014
Dashiell Hammett is regarded as one of the original practitioners of the noir or hardboiled crime fiction genre. He created Sam Spade (made famous
by Humphrey Bogart), Nick and Nora Charles, and the unnamed detective known only
the Continental Op. Hammett had, himself, been a detective with the Pinkerton
agency prior to becoming a writer.
His publishing career lasted from 1922 to
1934. He wrote only five novels and fifty-some short stories. Though he
lived nearly 40 years after the appearance of his final novel, The Thin Man,
his writing career ground to a halt. He wrote screenplays and treatments for Hollywood
(including those recently published in Return of
the Thin Man, and was
politically active, but no new fiction appeared in the final half of his life.
Why did he stop writing?
Owen Fitzstephen (or Gordon McAlpine) has a theory
that he presents in this clever novel. When Hammett wrote The Maltese Falcon,
it was (Fitzstephen claims) a thinly disguised retelling of a case Hammett handled
as a detective. Sam Spade was, in fact, Samuel Dashiell Hammett, and the
characters and events in that story were based on real people. Hammett still has
the worthless "black bird," the so-called "dingus," the McGuffin that
was the focus of his third novel, having purchased it at a police auction.
A woman from his past shows up—Moira
O'Shea, the inspiration for the fictional Bridget O'Shaughnessy—freshly
released from the mental institute where she spent the last 11 years after
Spade/Hammett turned her into the cops for her part in the Maltese falcon caper.
Like many of her other fictional counterparts, she's not terribly pleased by the
way she was depicted in the novel, but she's willing to overlook the slight. She
wants to start up with "Sam" again, but Hammett is involved with
Lillian Hellman, so he puts her off. She asks to see the falcon statuette and
Hammett agrees to give it to her just to make her go away.
As it turns out,
the dingus might not have been a fake after all. The truth may be far stranger—there's
even speculation that the statuette might be the Holy Grail—and Hammett's
success as a writer may well have relied on his possession of it. Once he gives
it up, he is struck by a profound case of writer's block. He can still come up
with ideas, but he can't put pen (or typewriter keys) to paper, no matter how
great the incentive. His drinking continues and his health declines. He gets
caught up in the McCarthy hearings and is imprisoned and blacklisted.
other characters from The Maltese Falcon stroll into the book, further
muddling the story with wild tales and legends, until Hammett begins to suspect
the reason for his inability to write. However, when you're dealing with a man
who lies for a living (Hammett) and a woman who'd lie about the color of the sky
(O'Shea), it's hard to fathom where the truth lies. Plot reversals beget plot
reversals, enough to make any reader's head swim.
At first glance, Hammett
Unwritten seems like it might be a gimmick, but it turns out to be a clever
piece of storytelling / meta-fiction / fictionalized biography / mash-up. The
book is a testament to the power of the written and spoken word. McAlpine (Fitzstephen
is the name of a character from The Dain Curse) has clearly done his
research and nails his depiction of Hammett, the larger-than-life character, and
others in his circle, including a couple of colorful meetings with John Huston.
When Cletus Gaspereaux (aka Kasper Gutman) enters the story, readers will hear
Sydney Greenstreet's voice, rhythm and diction. The Peter Lorre analog in the
"real story" is named Emil Madrid instead of Joel Cairo.
a relatively brief book, padded with extracts from Time magazine to place
the story in a historical context, and with real (honestly, real) quotes from
Hammett about the art of writing, but fans of the genre, of Hammett or of the
Bogart film, will enjoy this topsy-turvy, inside-out alternate history of a
great writer, a mysterious statuette, and the people who coveted it.
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