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Onyx reviews: Hammett Unwritten by Owen Fitzstephen

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 as 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.

Various 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. 

It's 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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