In his New York Times obituary, Dashiell Hammett (1894-1961) was described as “the dean of the ‘hard-boiled’ school of detective fiction.” High praise indeed, yet there is only one way to truly appreciate Hammett, and that is by reading him. And the finest place to do this is with the new Dashiell Hammett Edition, from The Library of America. This two-volume box set is magnificent in every way, and the closest thing to a definitive Hammett set there is.
The first volume is The Complete Novels, which features Red Harvest (1929), The Dain Curse (1929), The Maltese Falcon (1930), The Glass Key (1931), and The Thin Man (1934). Two of these novels became classic films, The Maltese Falcon (1941), and The Thin Man (1934). As undeniably great as those movies are though, there is nothing that can replace the prose of Hammett. Because of those filmed adaptations, those two are Hammett’s best-known works. Despite this, his greatest novel may well be his first effort, Red Harvest.
Red Harvest was first published as a four-part serial in the Black Mask pulp magazine from November 1927 to February 1928. Hammett had been publishing short stories in the pulps since 1922, and had really hit his stride by the time of Red Harvest.
Hammett drew upon his own experience with the Pinkerton Detective Agency to create the Continental Op, a detective with the fictional Continental Detective Agency. The Op has been called to Personville, by one Donald Willson, who was murdered before the Op got a chance to meet him. He meets with Willson’s father, a wealthy man who controls the city, but is being threatened by local gangs. One of the ironies in the story is that the man had invited the hoodlums to town in the first place, as hired thugs to enforce his will against his workers.
One of the greatest things about Hammett’s writing are his flawed characters. He may not have invented the anti-hero, but they were central to his work. The Continental Op is certainly one. There are double-crosses galore in Red Harvest, and it sometimes seems as if the whole world is corrupt. Lovers, cops, criminals, and the Op himself are all guilty of one thing or another.
Hammett tells a rollicking story, in a style all his own. Red Harvest is an incredible book, and was named as one of Time magazine’s 100 Best English-language Novels from 1923 to 2005. It is said to be the inspiration for Akira Kurosawa’s Yojimbo (1961), which in turn inspired Sergio Leone’s A Fistful of Dollars (1964), among others.
The Dain Curse was also first serialized in the Black Mask before being published in book form, and stars the Continental Op again. The story takes place in his hometown of San Francisco this time around, and begins with his investigation of a theft of diamonds. As the story progresses, the Op uncovers a tangled web of murder, robberies, and lies all around the city.
Things get strange when the “curse” of the Dain family is explained. It seems that they have the ability to inflict sudden and violent deaths upon those in their vicinity. To make things even weirder, the young Gabrielle Leggett (a Dain) is addicted to drugs, and has joined a religious cult. The Dain Curse is the strangest of Hammett’s five novels, and was turned into a television mini-series in 1978.
The Maltese Falcon and The Glass Key were Hammett’s last novels to be serialized in the Black Mask magazine. It was a five-part serialization for The Maltese Falcon, from September of 1929 to January 1930. The Glass Key was serialized in the pulp from March to June of 1930.
The history of The Thin Man is a little more complicated. Hammett began the book in 1930, and wrote 65 pages. He then set it aside as Hollywood beckoned. He resumed work on it in 1933, but basically started over. An abridged version of the novel was published in Redbook in December of that year. The full novel was published the following month, in January 1934. The 65-page first draft would finally be published in its entirety by City Magazine in November 1975, 14 years after Hammett’s death, and 45 years after it was written.
Hammett’s legacy would be secure if he had just left behind the novels, but the 24 short stories in Crime Stories & Other Writings are fantastic as well. I am not certain what the criteria was for inclusion, as Hammett wrote more than 24 short stories in his lifetime, but editor Steven Marcus certainly chose well. Reading Hammett can be addictive, his style and the constant action keeps things going at a quick pace, and it is hard to put it down. I found this to be even more pronounced with the second volume of the set.
Since these stories were first published in magazines, it is little wonder that they move as rapidly as they do, and they remain as powerful as ever. The Black Mask magazine was definitely Hammett’s home for the first years of his career. Four of his five novels were published there, and 20 of the 24 short stories in the second volume in the set were first unveiled in the Black Mask.
The crime stories range from 13 to 56 pages in length, with the majority falling somewhere between 30 and 40. The short story was really Hammett’s milieu, as these show. He wrote in this fashion even with his novels, as they were broken down into four and five parts for serialization. He certainly knew how to keep a magazine reader’s attention.
The “Other Writings” portion of the book contains some intriguing items. The first of these is “The Thin Man: An Early Typescript,” which is the original 65-page version mentioned earlier, that Hammett wrote in 1930, but set aside. “From the Memoirs of a Private Detective” is a pretty fun piece, first published in The Smart Set in March 1923. In it Hammett mentions things that presumably happened to him during his time at Pinkerton. There are 29 bits, including one that simply reads “I knew a man who once stole a Ferris wheel.” Great stuff.
The final segment is “Suggestions to Detective Story Writers.” To explain this piece, I will quote from Marcus’ introduction: “[It was] assembled from two installments of “The Crime Wave,” a book review column Hammett contributed to the New York Evening Post between April and October of 1930.” This “assembled” three-page article is as advertised, and reveals what Hammett felt was important to know about for writers in the genre.
Both books contain a “Note on the Texts,” which are specific to each, and detail the first publication, or serialization of the pieces, plus other published appearances. Each book also contains a “Chronology.” They are identical, so I am not really sure why they appear in both volumes, but this is a timeline of Hammett’s life and work.
The chronology works as a mini-biography, and the man lived an extraordinary life. His adventures obviously influenced his writing, such as his time working with the Pinkerton detective agency, his time in the Army, his bouts with tuberculosis, and a heavy drinking habit.
As usual with the wonderful non-profit Library of America, the Dashiell Hammett Edition is about as superb a collection as one could ask for. He was a true original, who wrote about the darker side of life in a way that is absolutely compelling. The set houses the two volumes in a sturdy box that will look spectacular on your bookshelf. For fans, this is a must for the holiday season.