Hammett: Birthday 121


Shot above, Lillian Hellman and Dashiell Hammett — who get stacks of their old mail officially donated to the University of South Carolina today, the 121st anniversary of Hammett’s birth.

Terry “Mr. Pure Texts” Zobeck and I had a little present for Hammett in the works to celebrate the birthday, but decided to hold it back for a few days and give the new library donation pride of place. This trove will become a mecca for Hammett and Hellman scholars, like the Ransom Center in Austin did, after Hellman donated literary papers from her and Hammett.

The bulk of the papers and photos seem to be coming from Jo Hammett, daughter of Dashiell Hammett — basis for her book Dashiell Hammett: A Daughter Remembers, but she also had a large stack of letters from Hellman that to the best of my knowledge hasn’t been explored by people interested in that sort of thing. And it must be Hammett biographer and bibliographer Rick Layman’s connections in South Carolina that landed the collection there — he is donating his personal collection of Hammett books and magazine appearances to bulk it up even more.

Based on the blurb, I can’t tell if two areas of potential research will be covered by the donated materials.

One is — and this comes up quite often as a question on the tour — how did Hammett’s wife handle the question of their “divorce” (divorce in quotes, since the papers filed in Mexico apparently did not legally result in a divorce). I’ve seen various of the papers Jo had in house, and it seemed to me that sometimes her mother would fill out a school paper (say for a field trip or the like)  saying that she and Hammett were still married, and that other times they would be “divorced.” Be nice to have all the papers in one place, lay them out on a table, and see if the data jumped back and forth or if after a certain point the data stayed the same. At best a minor point, but something that having access to the right set of papers probably could answer. That’s the sort of thing library collections really come in handy for. . . .

The other thing that I can see someone having real fun researching would be: How did Hellman pay out the royalties from Hammett’s writing in the era when she was handling the estate? Did she give his two daughters a fair and square share of the monies? Did she send along merely some token amount? Apparently Jo’s husband kept track of the payments when he was alive, so if that kind of info is at USC someone could juggle it against royalty statements from, oh, Random House, and figure things out (if said scholar can get access to the publishers’ record books).

People who like Hellman can prove her a just warden of the property — or people who don’t like her can show she took more than she gave, as the case may be.

If enough background data exists to make the case either way.

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Tour: Sons and Daughters

li'l tom

On the tour for May 17 Angela Crider Neary introduced herself, specifically as the daughter of Texas writer Bill Crider, who gets mentioned here from time to time. Crider and I agreed that the John Carter of Mars movie was great, and I usually dip into his blog to keep up with obscure subjects — archaeology, who died, vast sprawling libraries and whatnot. I’m not quite as interested in alligators as Crider seems to be, but then who can ignore a nearby gator? With impunity, anyway. . . .

Also, Angela qualifies for the extensive list of Writers Who Have Walked the Walk with her recent book about cat detective Li’l Tom — also a San Francisco Mystery, for those of you into that collecting game. With Telegraph Hill, the wild parrots of Telegraph Hill, and other archly local features.

Angela describes it as a “cozy animal mystery,” which begs the question: Is it a mystery with cozy animals or a cozy mystery with animals?

(And that reminded me of a vaguely similar — birds are the heroes — book I read once, about lab pigeons in Berkeley undergoing smoking experiments, with Bogart movies constantly on the TV screen and a handler who reads The Maltese Falcon to them. Something like that. The pigeons escape and get to San Francisco, trying to work a Sam Spade vibe as they scour the gutters for ditched butts. Frisco Pigeon Mambo by C.D. Payne. I gave that one to Hammett’s daughter, pretty sure she’d like it, and she did. Said “it was cute.”)

And then partway through the tour a guy joined in while I was expounding on the history of pulp magazines. At the end he told me that his dad was a writer, too — Avram Davidson.

“I knew Avram!” I told Ethan Davidson.

More accurately, I met Avram, author of a few mysteries but mostly science fiction and fantasy. He was one of the writers I thought about profiling back when I was doing articles for Firsts: The Book Collectors Magazine. Pretty sure I have a complete collection of his first editions, up until recent years. Not for everyone, but if you read fantasy I’d plug as his two best books The Phoenix and the Mirror and The Enquiries of Dr. Eszterhazy.

I also really liked as a teenager the novel The Island Under the Earth, first book of a series, of which Davidson didn’t write any more. Which partly explains why he never took off, as many other writers of his era did. A crusty old guy. I’m glad I met him.

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Frisco Beat: A Big New Wrinkle in Mapback Thinking

Got another note from Nathan Ward — which as an aside, reminds me that maybe when his new bio of Hammett hits the stands later this year, I could do another Biography Month celebration here on Up and Down These Mean Streets, like I did after reading the bio of Jim Tully back in 2012.

This time Nathan pops in a link to crime maps of San Francisco, which do “elevations” of parts of town where various crimes occur. Yeah, The Tenderloin is pretty flat in real life, but when it comes to crime, it is Everest compared to Nob or Russian Hills.

“These crime maps appeared in Fast Company in 2010,” Nathan writes, “but I did not see them then. It makes mountain ranges of areas where crimes occur in town, category by category.

“What’s funny is how The Tenderloin is its own mountain range throughout, which shows you didn’t need a 3-D map to tell you that.”

Yeah, the TL has its rep, and that rep isn’t just based on anecdotal word-of-mouth about muggings and drug sales, it has stats behind it, too. Check out the site for entirely different views of mountainous San Francisco.

Nathan adds, “It would be cool, however, to use this technology to map out the Op stories and their crime locales. Like the Mapbacks, but 3-D.”

I wonder how a “Hammett fiction elevation” would fit in over or next to the real life stats? I’m thinking it would match reality pretty well.

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Tour: Back in May 1994

1994 tour shotIn the history of the tour, Steven Meikle from Edinburgh is pretty damn famous — he saved for something like five or six years so he could haul in to San Francisco and take the Hammett Tour that fell closest to the 100th anniversary of Hammett’s birth. Hammett was born May 27, 1894, so in May 1994 Steven was merrily prowling the mean streets.

And he had a camera along to prove it. If you want to see what things looked like 21 years ago, Steven has opened a Flickr page documenting the experience. Put your cursor over the images to get an ID tag. “The descriptions in quotation marks,” Steven tells me, “are what I had written on the reverse of the photographs.”

You know, back when people printed up photos.

The inset shot of me above is from the Steven session — standing under the street sign (just out of frame) for Dashiell Hammett Street, top of the block at the corner of Pine.

At that point, Monroe Street had been renamed Dashiell Hammett Street for only six years.

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Tour: Sunday May 17 and Sunday June 7

012412 tour16

Okay, the requests for walks have rolled in, so if you’re ready and able on either Sunday May 17 or Sunday June 7, you can just show up at noon clutching $20, with four hours available to kill gumshoeing up and down the mean streets.

In the shot above, the tour pauses in front of 891 Post Street and fingerprints the plaque next to the door. This thrill and others await the intrepid.

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Hammett: It’s Raining Dashiells in Gotham City


Next week Gotham begins airing the last set of new episodes heading to the first season finale. It’s already been renewed, so no need to worry about an unresolved cliff-hanger — if they do have a cliff-hanger they leave unresolved next season, hey, that’s part of the peril of watching a TV show these days.

I wasn’t planning to watch Gotham. One of my major pet peeves for many years now is the “origin story” that seems to have infiltrated modern pop culture through comic books — and, yes, Dumas did it earlier, Edgar Rice Burroughs made sure we knew how John Carter got to Mars and that Tarzan was raised by a pack of apes. But I think comics pushed it over to the point where many people think you have to explain background which doesn’t need explaining. Robert E. Howard tossed Conan the Cimmerian out into the pages of Weird Tales willy-nilly, jumping from one part of his life to another on whim, but John Milius with his Conan the Barbarian movie presented a ponderous “origin” that ruined his film — it would have been better if the barbarian had just been bitten by a radioactive spider, and have done with it. And I definitely did not need an “origin” for Darth Vader — killed Star Wars for me, after the Ewoks had dealt it a cute, crippling blow.

Sam Spade in The Maltese Falcon doesn’t need any more background than exactly what you get reading the novel.

But somehow I got talked into giving Gotham a chance, and mostly like it. The cop plot is good enough, but the sicko twisted angles that haunt the Batman universe are strong pluses, and I really like the fact that the butler Alfred is an asskicker. I even like the kid playing young Bruce Wayne, and the casting on Penguin and the Riddler is perfect. So, I’m getting an “origin story” I didn’t want, and enjoying it. I guess as with anything, it all depends on how well something is executed.

Plus in the last new episode before the break — “Everyone Has a Cobblepot,” S1E18 — Gotham gave me something I realize I never expected to see. I wasn’t even thinking it could occur. But suddenly, there in the opening credits, two actors in the same episode named Dashiell.

You may or may not know someone who has named a kid Dashiell, but doing the tour I have met many over the years. I don’t write them down or anything, just make a mental note — when I first became aware of the practice in the late 1970s I would tell people that the kids who got tagged with the name probably would do what Hammett was doing up to the point he became a writer and decided a fancy moniker would look good on the page: use your other name. Until he started using the byline, Hammett was known as Sam Hammett or Samuel Hammett or Samuel D. Hammett.

While my memory may be faulty after all this time, I believe the first guy I personally knew with a kid named Dashiell was Stephen Talbot — son of actor Lyle Talbot (who, as it happens, played Commissioner Gordon in the 1949 serial Batman and Robin) — as a kid actor himself Steve played the neighbor Gilbert on Leave It to Beaver, and in 1982 as a producer with PBS did the first documentary on Hammett, The Case of Dashiell Hammett, with dad Lyle doing some voiceover for it. (Alas, all the scenes I shot for that doc were left on the cutting room floor, though they did use bits of them for the commercial promos at the time. And all these years later, the Hammett Tour is still standing.)

Here and there over the decades I have heard of other Dashiells — the guy who currently rents the Spade apartment in 891 Post apparently has an offspring of that name. Since I don’t keep track, I’m not sure if it is a fad that comes and goes in waves, if a TV movie or a new bio might kick in a few baffled children trying to get the spelling down — or what inspires the phenom.

My sense is that the kids who got named back in the era when the tour started had parents with leftist political bents, who liked Hammett because he stood up to McCarthy — but I’ve seen the political interest subside and more attention now paid to Hammett purely as a writer. Each cycle will recede, and then come back around.

“Everyone Has a Cobblepot” features Dash Mihok — my pal Leo Grin pointed out to me that he was named after Hammett a few years ago — an actor I’ve seen in quite a few things. He did what people in Hollywood were doing with Hammett’s name by the 1930s, cutting it down to a nice simple and effective Dash. Dashiell Eaves, also in the cast as a doomed confederate of Fish Mooney, is new to me — interesting that both actors were born in 1974.

Obviously, by 1974 naming a kid Dashiell was in the air. And now it is raining Dashiells in Gotham City.


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Tour: Almost/Accidental April Fooled

Time Out San Francisco just popped up an article on tours in this grey noir city, featuring the Hammett tour and several others. Check it out if you want to know the current walking around scene.

The first version stated that my tours are “offered most Sundays” — no, they’re not. Years and years ago I did the walks every Sunday in the year, for many years, but that was a longgggggg time ago.

Now I might hike the Sunday streets one or two Sundays a month, or no Sundays at all, depending on demand.

I shot in a correction, which I hope goes up pronto. But the fact remains, if you want to know the Real Authentic Honest Tour Schedule you come to this site and check out the Current Walks page. Anything else you read anywhere, from the New York Times onward, is not my schedule.

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Hammett: Dell Mapback Backs

As part and parcel of his ongoing Op mania, today Evan Lewis put up nice large images of the various back covers for the Dell Mapbacks containing Continental Op tales by Hammett — and if you don’t know, yes, they feature maps. Scene of the crime stuff.

As I’ve said before, I don’t think you can get much cooler than the Dell Mapbacks.

Plus Evan does a plug for the good old/most recent edition of The Dashiell Hammett Tour book. He tells me he is on for more Op-ish posts until at least the end of the week, if you want to check in for more.

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Rediscovered: Going Op Crazy

Op MapbackIf you want to see a bunch of covers from issues of Black Mask where Op yarns appeared, plus covers from various editions of Op books foreign and domestic, Old School and more recent, then surf over to Evan Lewis’s blog that announces his EQMM story “The Continental Opposite” and click through for the next few days until Evan pulls out of Op mania and moves on to the next thing.

I was interested to see that Evan agrees with me that
“Death and Company” feels like an early Op story, although it would be the last one published in Black Mask — but puzzled that he thinks “The Farewell Murder” (Hammett’s next-to-last Op tale in BM) also was written early on, when all the stylistic touches are what would turn out to be Late Hammett.

Evan opines that “Farewell” “was clearly written far earlier — most likely in 1923.” Me, I’m sticking with a creation date at the end of Hammett’s amazing run of fiction for The Mask.

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Hammett: Trouble on Wall Street

Sam Spade said, “I don’t mind a reasonable amount of trouble.”

And that’s what he’s got. Nathan Ward — whose upcoming new biography of Hammett is being proofread and copyedited and put through the hoops right now — just popped me a note:

“Don’t know if you are following the controversy, but Erik Larson is bravely curating the Wall St Journal’s book of the month online discussion of The Maltese Falcon. While a lot of readers are getting something out of it, it has been amazing how many readers can’t get past their dumbfoundedness that Spade is a . . . sexist.

“They seem disappointed in him, as if he were a prospect on Match.com.

“When it comes to old movies, you don’t hear these complaints as much: I fear people are more sophisticated now about video than its literary inspiration.

“Anyway, it’s pretty nervy for readers from the era of Mr. Grey and his bondage tie collection to talk down to the 1920s.”

So reports Nathan Ward from the mean streets of New York, and the meanest street of them all, Wall Street.

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