Monday, February 07, 2011

Malcolm X and Dashiell Hammett

Malcolm X used to relate an exchange he had with a black academic that went something like this:

"`Do you know what white people call a black man with a Ph.D.?'

"He said something like, `I do not believe I happen to be aware of the term in question.'


"`Then I laid the word down on him as brutally as I had ever done: Nigger.'"
Dashiell Hammett's 1933 short story "Night Shade" ends with a similar confrontation (though the tone is more rueful than harsh), and it had some influential readers. Twenty years after the story appeared, according to Hammett's Lost Stories (published in 2005 and not to be confused with the new batch of lost stories), Roy Cohn quizzed Hammett about it. Yes, the infamous lawyer's questions included "When you wrote this short story, `Night Shade,' were you a member of the Communist Party?"

"Night Shade" demonstrates Hammett's skill at imagining and executing a surprise twist, and that's a double accomplishment. He wrote a short, atmospheric tale, recognizably of the nocturnal, criminal Hammett milieu, about a pressing social problem, and he carried it off without a hint of the sanctimonious, the didactic or the preachy. And the ending, contrived as it seems, works. The man could have been O. Henry had he wanted to.

© Peter Rozovsky 2011

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2 Comments:

Blogger Yvette said...

Speaking of Dashiell Hammett, Peter. Guess what I just found on my books shelves? A book containing all of Hammett's novels. Who knew I had this? Not me. It happens sometimes when you have bookcases in ever room, not to mention that a few years ago, I used to work for a bookstore. I just forget what's on my shelves sometimes. Nice surprise. I found two Brian Jacques books and the Dashiell Hammett today. Who knows what tomorrow will bring.

Don't think I've read RED HARVEST or THE GLASS KEY. Yet.

P.S. This is how I discovered Michael Innes' work. Somehow, five of his books showed up on my shelves. Mystery to me how they got there. But I read 'em and I now I love Michael Innes as well.
Go figure.

February 07, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

That's a rich find. I read The Glass Key for the first time in December. That was an astonishing experience. One scene in particular reads as if could have been written in 2010 rather than 1930.

February 07, 2011  

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