Current reviews
  Reviews by title
  Reviews by author

  Contact Onyx

  Discussion forum


Onyx reviews: The Hunter and Other Stories by Dashiell Hammett

The editors of this book of previously uncollected stories—many of them previously unpublished—from Hammett state that this will be the last to contain new material. They have mined the depths of his archives, and there is no more. None of the works here are newly discovered, but until recently the rights to publish them had been restricted by Hammett's long-time partner, Lillian Hellman, who preferred to focus on the works for which he was most famous.

This doesn't mean they are scraping the bottom of the barrel. For people who are familiar with Hammett as only the creator of Sam Spade or the Continental Op, there are some real gems here, along with a few curiosities, that span Hammett's entire writing career. 

Rather than presenting the works chronologically, the editors (Hammett's granddaughter, a Hammett scholar and a biographer) have grouped them into four broad categories: Crime; Men; Men and Women; and Screen Stories . Within these categories, the stories are presented in order insofar as they can deduce when they were written, based on the return addresses on the manuscripts or because of certain details in the stories themselves.

The opening title story features the ultimate in noir detectives, a man who cares nothing for what lives are destroyed in the course of his investigations. "The Sign of the Potent Pills," on the other hand, is either a parody of the genre or a farce. It involves a novice detective who arrives at the scene of a home invasion/extortion without being briefed about the reasons he has been summoned. The story is random and chaotic, something an early 20th century Douglas Adams might have created. "The Diamond Wager" is a caper-type story told by a detective who is smug about his feats. In stark contrast, "Action and the Quiz Kid," possibly Hammett's last-ever story, is more literary in tone, focusing on character more than plot.

Some of the tales are collections of vignettes rather than stories. "Fragments of Justice," for example, contains sketches of three men selected to appear on a jury. One is so deaf he can't hear the testimony but has learned how to game the selection process, one is a bigot and one has determined the accused's guilt before the trial begins. "Seven Pages" is a group of autobiographical paragraphs that seem like an artist's sketches in preparation for a longer work, as does "The Breech Born." Described as an "interlude," the story "On the Way" is longer but does, indeed, feel like something extracted from the middle of another work.

"A Throne for the Worm" is about a harangued man who can only find a sense of power in the barber's chair, where he gets to give the orders. "Magic" is an odd, supernatural story about a magician and his apprentice. The magician freely admits to being a charlatan; however, events of the tale suggest otherwise. He ends up sacrificing much for one of his clients. "The Cure," about a man's cruel remedy for another man's fear of the water, has a suitably ironic conclusion.

Several of the stories involve fires. "Faith" is about a man who has little faith in anything other than himself and his ability to bring about self-fulfilling prophecies. "An Inch and a Half of Glory" is about a man who performs a minor act of heroism, revels in the accolades and then struggles to recreate that sense of elevated self-esteem. "Nelson Redline" takes a different tack, accusing a man of cowardice for being the first to flee a burning building. However, the real reasons for his manic sense of self-preservation are intriguing. 

"Week-End" was probably risqué at the time, the story of a woman who travels all night on the train to spend the weekend with her lover. Even though the weekend is something of a disappointed, she puts on a brave face to her disapproving mother.

The "Screen Stories" section contains three movie treatments. "The Kiss-Off" is a ten-page synopsis that was eventually turned in to the Gary Cooper movie City Streets, and "Devil's Playground" is a seven-page synopsis for an adventure story set in China and Mongolia. Of more interest is "On the Make," a novella-length treatment that is drafted like prose. It was meant to be a follow-up to The Maltese Falcon. When Hammett and the studio couldn't come to terms over the project, the story rights returned to Hammett, who replaced Sam Spade with a private eye named Gene Richmond who ends up moving from city to city after his less-than ethical business practices catch up with him. Unlike the surly but charming Spade, Richmond is a thoroughly unlikable and un-charismatic man who uses and cheats everyone he meets to line his pockets, regardless of the potential repercussions. The story was eventually filmed as Mister Dynamite.

The book's appending contains "A Knife Will Cut For Anybody," the first six pages of an abandoned Sam Spade story. The eBook edition contains bonus material featuring several other unfinished short stories that might satisfy completists or scholars, but that will probably have little appeal for the average reader, especially "The Secret Emperor," which is littered with "illegible" annotations and [sic]-typos. The story, if completed, might have been interesting. It seems to be in the Hitchcock vein of a man who is falsely accused of a crime who then must struggle to extract himself from the situation. Two fragments called "My Brother Felix," may come from the same work, but lack any narrative thrust or resolution.

In general, this collection is more rewarding than The Return of the Thin Man, which consisted of movie treatments in the same vein as "On the Make." Here, a broader picture of Hammett's styles and his evolution as a writer can be seen. Though at times he churned out stories to pay the bills, it's clear that he didn't always write for the pulp market and had different aspirations. The story notes provide interesting details about where Hammett was when individual pieces were written, as well as the deductive reasoning the editors used to determine their likely dates.

Web site and all contents © Copyright Bev Vincent 2013. All rights reserved