Sunday, January 23, 2011

More of Hammett's life

A few thoughts on Shadow Man, Richard Layman's 1981 biography of Dashiell Hammett:

  • Chapter 13 ends with Hammett's assessment of The Thin Man. That novel is the last of the work for which most readers know Hammett today, yet the chapter comes barely halfway through Layman's book. Conclusion: Hammett led an an interesting life beyond his writing.
  • Layman's judgment is sound on his rankings of Hammett's novels and short stories, and he's unafraid to call a story "very bad." But he sometimes fails to acknowledge the strengths of the weaker stories. Hammett may indeed be "too subtle in his characterization of Inez, the most dangerous criminal" in "The Whosis Kid," but the characterization of the kid in the stories opening segment is is superb. Layman calls the story one of Hammett's best attempts, but I'd have liked him to discuss, however briefly, what makes the story's opening so compulsively readable. I think I'll go back and reread some of the stories in light of Layman's assessment.
  • One could compile an illustrious Who's Who of Hammett's drinking companions and visitors, William Faulkner and S.J. Perelman among them.
  • Layman is efficient. The book checks in under 300 pages, including introductory material, index and appendices.
Now for Part 3, "Movies, Politics and the Army."

© Peter Rozovsky 2011

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27 Comments:

Anonymous kathy d. said...

Wow! More on Dashiell Hammett. I thought I was auditing this course, but now I see I must do the reading in order to get the full measure of the writer.

I'd like to read Hammett's assessment of "The Thin Man," which I just read and liked.

I'll have to track down this book.

In a nutshell, what did he think of it?

January 23, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Well, this post is at least as much a comment on biography and the biographer's task as it is on Hammett. Here's how the chapter ends:

"When the novel was published in London by Arthur Barker Ltd. in May 1934, The Times Literary Supplement judged the book more harshly than American reviewers. ... Hammett rather agreed with the TLS reviewer. In a 1957 interview, he looked back at his book: `I was never too enthusiastic about the detective stories. The Thin Man always bored me.'"

How much one ought to believe him, I don't know.

January 23, 2011  
Anonymous kathy d. said...

Oh, no! Well, "The Thin Man" doesn't bore me, and I think many agree on that.

It wouldn't have been made into a movie if it bored producers, directors and investors. However, I do agree that the movie and the book are dissimilar in many respects.

And the performances of William Powell and Myrna Loy add a different ambiance and charm to the movie, although the basic humor and lightheartedness are in parts of the book. (All has been noted on DBB in other posts.)

January 23, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I felt a twinge of conscience about offering you Hammett's own assessment of a book you enjoyed so much. Layman also says that The Thin Man wound up making Hammett a million dollars (I think he was associated in some way with the first two movies).

January 24, 2011  
Blogger Andrew Nette said...

Been meaning to drop you a line for a while. I really like your site. I have a link to you on my site, which is dedicated to crime fiction and film from Asia and Australia, and was wondering whether you would put a link to mine on yours?

If you get a chance, please check it out and see what you think. The link is http://pulpcurry.wordpress.com/

Regards,
Andrew

January 24, 2011  
Blogger michael said...

Peter, have you read Hammett's "Tulip"? I think he always wanted to write literary fiction.

As I understand it, Hammett wrote an earlier draft of the second Thin Man movie. Hammett's version of "After the Thin Man" is available to read in the hard to find "The New Black Mask" #5 and #6. Reportedly he wrote some episodes of the radio version of "The Thin Man" (a very hit or miss series).

I am going to have to get this book if only to see the author's take on Hammett's Hollywood years. His film and radio days are too often ignored.

Oh, Peter, a recent story about Raymond Chandler in Los Angeles appeared at Hollywood Patch (1/22/11).

http://hollywood.patch.com/articles/do-you-know-your-raymond-chandler

January 24, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Andrew: Thanks for the note. I’ve just added a link to Pulp Curry. Cool title!

Do you work with Cameron Ashley? I met him at Philadelphia’s Noircon in November.

January 24, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Michael, I haven’t read “Tulip,” though I think I have it in a collection somewhere at home. I’m not sure he always wanted to write literary fiction as much as he had high literary aspiration for detective stories.

Layman appears to have devoted a fair amount of attention to Hammett’s post-crime-fiction years. For one thing, I’ve learned that he liked to carouse. One would guess the social milieu at the beginning of The Thin Man is based at least in part on Hammett’s own experience.

January 24, 2011  
Anonymous Elisabeth said...

"One would guess the social milieu at the beginning of The Thin Man is based at least in part on Hammett’s own experience."

Yes, his and Hellman's time in NYC is pretty much how biographers have seen the source for Nick and Nora and their activities. Hellman said she preened when Hammett said she was the source for the character of Nora. That "it was nice to be Nora, married to Nick Charles, maybe one of the few marriages in modern literature where the man and woman like each other and have a fine time together. But I was soon put back in place—Hammett said I was also the silly girl in the book and the villainess."

If Hammett didn't much care for his novel, he didn't much care for the movie either. In a 1937 letter to Hellman he told her the screenplay he was writing was a "charming fable of how Nick loved Nora and Nora loved Nick and everything was just one big laugh in the midst of other people’s trials and tribulations…"

January 24, 2011  
Anonymous Elisabeth said...

A propos of nothing other than crime fiction...

Anybody else as disappointed in the Penzler/Ellroy-edited new book The Best American Noir of the Century?

Picky, picky: Where is the "of the" on the dust jacket's front cover?

Personally picky: why are most of the stories from the 1990s on???

Egregious historical error: the Introduction to James M. Cain's "Pastorale" says that Raymond Chandler wrote the screenplay for the 1946 film version of "The Postman Always Rings Twice." Of course, they mean RC wrote the screenplay for "Double Indemnity."

January 24, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Elisabeth, have you read Donald Westlake's admiring comments about The Thin Man, which I put up as part of my Hammett birthday post? I wonder what Hammett would have thought of Westlake conclusion that "It was a sad, lonely, lost book, that pretended to be cheerful and aware and full of good fellowship."

It's easy to imagine, piecing together fragments of my slowly increasing Hammett knowledge, that Hammett might have loved the high life even as he suffered from a surfeit of it. That's no daringly original guess, of course.

January 24, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Elisabeth, introductions to Paul Cain's stories always suggest that he was an elusive character. Elusive, without necessarily being mysterious. No wonder his Wikipedia entry is so short -- too short to contain too many major errors, I bet, though I would check a reliable source before accepting its count of Cain's short stories.

January 24, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

"Anybody else as disappointed in the Penzler/Ellroy-edited new book The Best American Noir of the Century?"

Is it appropriate to judge a book by its cover in this case?

January 24, 2011  
Anonymous Elisabeth said...

I'd agree with Westlake. I think The Thin Man has a darker undercurrent than many people see in it. I think that's partly the power of the popular first film in MGM's Thin Man series. The end of Prohibition, the Great Depression, and war in Europe are the background to that cocktail-swilling pair. And those creepy secondary characters! Surely Hammett's letters reflect his self-knowledge that TTM was not very important for any purpose other than money to keep the party going.

See the Hammett quote at the beginning of Chap. 13 in Shadow Man for another of Hammett's thoughts on Nick and Nora.

For a Hammett quote to introduce the section on "Celebrity" in the Selected Letters volume, Layman chose: "I hope you like it when you get it"--from Ned Beaumont to Janet Henry in The Glass Key. Perfect.

January 24, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Thirteen is the chapter I've read most recently, but I don't have the book here.

I'm impressed that you're impressed with Westlake. That buttresses my opinion that the man had brains.

January 24, 2011  
Anonymous Elisabeth said...

"Is it appropriate to judge a book by its cover in this case?"

Well, let's just say things didn't go uphill from there.

January 24, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

That's nice. Sounds a bit like Dorothy Parker when she wasn't going out of her way straining to be thought cute. (You'll remember that Shadow Man contains excerpts of her reviews of Hammett. Much of her style, to put it mildly, has not dated well.)

January 24, 2011  
Anonymous Elisabeth said...

And from all accounts, Hammett loathed Parker. I don't blame him. I think she was just trying to get into his pants with her gushing reviews of his work. That phony New York hipper-than-thou stance of hers grates on my nerves, too.

I'll bet the funny lines in Hitchcock's "Saboteur" are hers, however.

January 25, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I was astonished that Parker's nauseating, arch, faux-simpering prose style endured so long. Good god, did she invent it?

January 25, 2011  
Anonymous Elisabeth said...

Part of the sad irony is that the early-writing Hammett longed to be part of "the Smart Set" (both as a contributor to the mag of that name and as a member of the New York crowd, including Parker, that self-appointed itself "smart") and then "didn't like it when he got it."

Parker's prose? Don't know if it was hers and hers alone. The only other member of the Algonquin Round Table I'm familiar with is Robert Benchley (I think Parker did succeed in getting into his pants) and I love his dry, drole prose.

January 25, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Yes, Layman makes it clear that Hammett aspired to that set at the start. I'd always assumed that his non-hard-boiled pieces dated from later in his career. This might not be the case.

January 25, 2011  
Blogger Andrew Nette said...

Peter,

Yes, I contribute regularly to Crime Factory and know Cam. Indeed, I'm having a drink with him tomorrow night!

I'll say hi to him for you, shall I?

Thanks for the link.

Andrew

January 26, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Yes, send my regards, and ask him what it felt like to be fatally smothered by Christa Faust's thighs.

January 26, 2011  
Anonymous kathy d. said...

Bulletin: New York Times of Jan. 31, page C3, in a short piece entitled, "Unknown Hammett Story Sees the Light of Day," says that Strand Magazine will print an unpublished story by Dashiell Hammett next month.

Also, that 15 unpublished stories by Hammett were found at U. of Texas archives by Andrew F. Gulli.

February 01, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Thanks. I'd seen references to that in recent days. This demonstrates that even newspapers will eventually get the news.

February 01, 2011  
Anonymous Elisabeth said...

Re reference to the Dashiell Hammett story in the "New York Times": "[Andrew F. Gulli] who found 15 unpublished Hammett stories in the archives of the Harry Ransom Center at the University of Texas, Austin."

I think the record should be set straight. I don't know whether Andrew Gulli himself is claiming to have found these Hammett stories or whether he is disinclined to disabuse anyone of the notion that he found them but Mr. Gulli did not "find" "So I Shot Him" and other Hammett unpublished/uncollected stories. These stories are not "unknown"--they have periodically been mentioned by several researchers including Richard Layman, Vince Emory, and, in particular William Marling in their published research on Hammett. The Hammett archives, of which these short stories are part, are available to most readers at the Harry Ransom Center.

An inventory of these and the other items in the Hammett archives may be seen here.

Mr. Gulli is doing us Hammett fans a terrific service by publishing "So I Shot Him" but this story is accessible to any researcher to "find."

February 01, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Thanks. It's easy to fear that newspapers, unfamiliar with the subject, will say Gulli "discovered" the stories.

February 01, 2011  

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