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Onyx reviews: Nightmare Town by Dashiell Hammett

Dashiell Hammett's fictional detective, Sam Spade, played by Humphrey Bogart in the film version of The Maltese Falcon, is probably better-known than his creator. Even so, Hammett, along with Raymond Chandler, forever changed the face of detective fiction. His hard-boiled style inspired a sub-class of the mystery genre that is alive and well even today.

Hammett's approach to the detective story was unlike any other up to that point. The hero is not an effete intellectual who uses obscure clues to conjure up the identity of the criminal while playing the violin or having tea. His detectives work hard for their clues, fight hard for them and sometimes have their cases solved for them by the sudden confession of the perpetrator. They work within the law—sometimes just barely—and follow a rigorous, self-defined code of moral behavior that is their highest authority.

Nightmare Town is a collection of twenty short stories published in pulp magazines in the 1920's and 1930's. Many of them have not been available since their original appearances. Three of them feature Sam Spade, stories written to satisfy demands for more about the likable, tougher-than-nails private investigator, the model for many detectives to follow.

Hammett's other recurring character was the Continental Op, an unnamed journeyman operative who worked for the Continental Detective Agency. The Op appeared in numerous short stories as well as several of Hammett's early novels. Over a third of the stories in this collection feature the Op, who was likely Hammett's alter ego. The author was himself a detective, working off and on for the Pinkerton Agency. The characters Hammett uses to populate his stories owe their reality to the fact that many of them were drawn from his experiences on the job. Many of the plots, too, are fictionalized accounts of Hammett's cases.

Hammett's leading men are not dashing or debonair. The protagonist of "The Assistant Murder" is described repeatedly as being an ugly man, and the Continental Op is short and obese. Sam Spade is not Humphrey Bogart but rather a man whose face is made up of V-shapes, giving him the air of a pleasant blond demon.

A few of the stories in Nightmare Town are not detective stories, but they all feature the criminal element. The title character in "The Man Who Killed Dan Odams" is fleeing from the law, escaping after committing what he considered a justifiable homicide. He comes to realize that there is no such thing when an outsider kills a local in a small town.

The final "story" in the collection is the beginning of a novel that would eventually become the The Thin Man. The final version was adapted into the classic movie series featuring Nick and Nora Charles, the heavy drinking bickering detective couple and their dog Asta. Nick and Nora do not appear in this version of the story, but the basic elements of the mystery are the same, so readers are given an unusual opportunity to see how a writer can take the germ of a story and turn it into something completely different.

Written over seventy years ago, these stories are dated in style and detail. Some of the phraseology is strange and unfamiliar to modern readers. Men wear fedoras and roll their own cigarettes. Violence is a way of life in the San Francisco of the 20's. None of the stories have the polished style of The Maltese Falcon but many are fine examples of Hammett's special skill creating crisp, realistic dialog and portraying the dark, violent times in which he lived.

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