Monday, November 25, 2013

Dashiell Hammett, father to John le Carré?

Did Donald Westlake spend much time in Texas, in particular browsing the Dashiell Hammett archive at the Harry Ransom Center at the University of Texas in Austin? (If the good folks at The Violent World of Parker know the answer, feel free to weigh in.)

I ask because a passage from "The Secret Emperor," a fragment included with e-book editions of the new Hunter and Other Stories by Hammett, contains a scene that reads just like a favorite bit from The Score, one of my favorite of the Parker novels — and Hammett wrote his fragment in 1925. Westlake has said of his own precursors that "For early influences we have to start, and almost end, with Hammett." Even if he never read "The Secret Emperor," I like to think Westlake would smile at the thought that he captured a bit of its style.

The Hunter and Other Stories contains twenty stories uncollected or unpublished during Hammett's lifetime, plus a tantalizing fragment of an uncompleted Sam Spade story. E-book editions include three additional pieces of what Hammett hoped would turn into political novels, according to Julie M. Rivett, Hammett's granddaughter and, with Hammett scholar Richard Layman, a co-editor of the new volume.  Rivett invokes The Maltese Falcon in discussing "The Secret Emperor," but I'm reminded of The Glass Key.

Like that novel, which appeared in 1931, "The Secret Emperor" feels like it could have been written decades later, even today.  Had he completed "The Secret Emperor," and if the result were as good as the opening chapters included here, it's entirely possible that, as well as a father of hard-boiled crime writing, Hammett would be considered an ancestor of modern political thrillers, including those of alienation and paranoia. As well as the progenitor of Raymond Chandler, Hammett might thus be regarded as a forerunner to John le Carré, Jean-Patrick Manchette, Alan Glynn, and all the 1970s paranoia thriller movies Glynn likes so much.

Yep, the man was that good.

© Peter Rozovsky 2013

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