Hammett: More Book Reviewing

And Terry Zobeck is back, with more on Hammett’s history as a book reviewer:

A couple of weeks back I told you about a new web site containing scans of the book reviews Hammett wrote for The Forum and the Saturday Review of Literature in the 1920s. That exercise reminded me of a site — FultonHistory — that our friend John D.
Squires
brought to our attention a few months ago — providing thousands of
scans of New York newspapers, several of which contain reprints of Hammett’s
short stories.

I finally got around to checking the site to see whether it contained scans of The New York Evening Post from 1930—the year that Hammett produced a regular review column called The Crime Wave. Lo and behold, it does!

These reviews are far more uncommon than his earlier efforts, since they appeared in disposable newspapers rather than the more durable journals. A few years ago I tried locating the Evening Post at the Library of Congress, and while they had some of them, the microfilm copies were of such poor quality, they were essentially unreadable.

The Evening Post’s Saturday edition carried a few pages of book reviews. Hammett’s first appearance in these pages was on April 5, 1930, but it was not under the Crime Wave heading. Rather it was simply a guest review of Mary Roberts Rinehart’s The Door. The
following week Hammett was added to the paper’s “Literary Review” with this
announcement: “Dashiell Hammett — Author of The Maltese Falcon and Red Harvest and regular reviewer of mystery stories for the Literary Review beginning with this
Issue.” Over the next 7 months Hammett contributed 13 Crime Wave columns, reviewing 84 books, mostly novels, but including some story collections and true crime volumes.

A few excerpts of the column have been reprinted: Richard Layman’s Discovering the Maltese Falcon and Sam Spade contains seven of the reviews and the Library of America’s Crime Stories & Other Writings presents “Suggestions to Detective Story Writers,” excerpts from the June 7 and July 5 issues. In introducing the suggestions Hammett notes:

 A fellow who takes detective stories seriously, I am annoyed by the stupid recurrence of these same blunders in book after book. It would be silly to insist that nobody who has not been a detective should write detective stories, but it is certainly not unreasonable to ask any one who is going to write a book of any sort to make some effort at least to learn something about his subject.

To this day, many writers continue to ignore his practical advice. One of my favorites is: “When an automatic pistol is fired the empty cartridge-shell flies out the right-hand side. The empty cartridge-case remains in a revolver until ejected by hand.” I still come across this error repeatedly in books by even top-notch, experienced writers.

Very little of the fiction Hammett reviewed was of the hardboiled style; rather his reviews were dominated by Golden Age amateur sleuths and British detectives. A notable exception was Green Ice, by his friend and Black Mask colleague, Raoul Whitfield: “two hundred and eighty pages of naked action pounded into tough compactness by staccato hammerlike writing.”

Hammett obviously didn’t take the reviewer’s job too seriously. Many of the books are dismissed with a sentence or two (e.g., “The Mystery at Newton Ferry is a naive
fable of murder, abduction, imprisonment, pursuit and all that in rural England. There does not seem to be anything to say about it”). In one case, he admits he lost one of the three books he was to review either in a taxicab or on the train between New York and Baltimore. He requests the “finder please read and review, or at least review”. One gets the impression he frequently did the latter rather than read some of the more awful books assigned to him.

Many of his reviews were of books by the leading authors of the day, including Philip MacDonald, Edgar Wallace, the extraordinarily prolific J. S. Fletcher, E. Phillips Oppenheim, Sax Rohmer, Sydney Horler, Van Wyck Mason, and Earl Derr Biggers, but most are of books and authors that are long forgotten. Somewhat surprisingly, Hammett
liked several of these traditional mysteries.

Of MacDonald’s The Noose he wrote: “[it] has the neatest plot I have seen in months. It is logical, it is simple and it is baffling.” He found William Almon Wolff’s Manhattan
Night
to be “a reasonable mystery story, planned and committed with due
exercise of the author’s — and respect for the reader’s — intelligence.” Sven
Eivestad’s The Case of Robert Robertson “is a nicely contrived unorthodox melodrama . . . [p]leasantly cold-blooded, smoothly written, it is easily one of the season’s best.” J. J. Connington’s Two Ticket Puzzle “is an excellent straight detective story, empty of love interest or other matters extraneous to the plot.” F. Van de Water was a “Literary Review” colleague, often appearing on the same page as Hammett’s column. Of his novel Alibi, Hammett wrote it “is an excellent tale of murder and associated deviltries in upper New York State, with a village copper doing most of the work and the famed State Troopers proving themselves not so good.”

More often than not, however, Hammett found the books he reviewed to be sub-par entertainments. His most common criticisms were that the plots were not exciting, the characters uninteresting, and the dialog stilted. His negative comments could provide
quite the stinger, as when he wrote of Ernest Souza’s Blue Rum: “The identity of ‘Ernest Souza’ seems to be no longer a secret. That is too bad. She was well advised when she put a pseudonym on Blue Rum’s title page.” (Ernest Souza was the pseudonym of Evelyn Scott.) Kay Cleaver Strahan’s Death Traps “would have been a pretty good short story. It attains book length by dint of a tedious opening, many irrelevancies and the rambling volubility of
the retired Yakima grocer through whom it is told.”  And how Basil King must have cringed if he read Hammett’s review of King’s The Break of Day. Hammett wrote that it

 . . . comes unluckily into my hands. In the first pace, Mr. King always succeeds in annoying me before I am two chapters into him. His primness annoys me. The priggishness of his characters annoys me. His too obviously soldered plot-incidents annoy me. And, most of all, his manner of always addressing himself to a spinster who has never in the sixty years of her life been out of Newton Abbot annoys me.

His greatest ire, however, is reserved for F-L-A-S-H D.13 by Victor K. Kaledin. As
he read the book Hammett noticed something odd about it:

My chief interest in the book lay in comparing certain of its sentences with certain sentences from my own opera. For instance, I had written in The Maltese Falcon: “Where Bush Street roofed Stockton before slipping downhill to Chinatown . . . night-fog, thin, clammy and penetrant, blurred the street . . .an automobile popped out of the tunnel beneath him with a roaring swish . . . His clothes had the limp unfreshness of too many hours’ consecutive wear.” Mr. Kaledin has written: “where Nijny Avenue joins Tchechov Street before slipping down hill to Nevsky Prospect” (page 59); “night fog, thin, clammy, penetrant, blurring the streets” (page 54); “popped out of the garage with a roaring swish” (page 59), and “his clothes had the limp unfreshness of too many consecutive hours of wear” (page
56).

Of particular interest, given Hammett’s experiences as a detective, are his reviews of a couple of true crime volumes. He provides some corrections to “facts” reported in Eng Ying Gong’s and Bruce Grants’ Tong War! about San Francisco’s Chinese gangs, including the fact that Fung Jing Doy (aka “Little Pete”) had organized a gang of “highbinders and was running a string of gambling clubs five or six years before” the authors claim he came to prominence. He praised Arthur A. Carey’s Memoirs of a Murder Man — the author was the Deputy Inspector in charge of the NYPD’s Homicide Bureau — as “an excellent picture of the American police-detective at work.”

The FultonHistory site is rather difficult to search and navigate. I have saved you the trouble of getting to the pages for The Evening Post. This link takes you to thousands of pages of scans of the paper. Each web page has about 300 individual scans of a page of the paper; each scan has a unique number.

The listing below presents the date of Hammett’s columns and the books he reviewed.
The numbers in parentheses are the web page number/scan number. At the top of
each web page are a set of arrows to navigate from page to page. The scans are not perfect — there are about a half dozen that contain some words that are illegible, but for the most part they can be made out. Hammett’s reviews are well worth the effort.

 

The New York Evening Post

April 5                                    “The
Door Won’t Shut Till Ended”—Review of The
Door
by Mary Roberts Rinehart (12/2250)

April 12                                  The Noose. By Philip MacDonald, Blue Rum, By Ernest Souza, The Black Door. By
Virgil Markham, and Following Footsteps. By J. Jefferson Farjeon
(12/2452)

April 26                                  The Wychford Poisoning Case. By Anthony
Berkeley, Death Traps. By Kay Cleaver
Strahan, Through the Eyes of the Judge.
By Bruce Graeme, Why Murder the Judge?
By Claude Stuart Hammock, Marked
‘Cancelled’
. By Natalie Summer Lincoln, Who
Moved the Stone?
By Frank Morrison, and Murder
in the State Department
. By “Diplomat.” (14/2852)

May 10                                    The Man of a Hundred Faces. By Gaston Leroux, The Yorkshire Moorland Murder. By J.S.
Fletcher, Ladies’ Man. By Rupert
Hughes, The Case of the Marsden Rubies.
By Leonard B. Gribble, and The Forgotten
Clue
. By H. Ashton-Wolfe (15/3262)

May 24                                    The Scarab Murder Case. By S. S. Van Dine,
Manhattan Night. By William Almon
Wolff, The Man Who Was There. By N.A.
Temple-Ellis, The Death of Cosmo Revere.
By Christopher Bush, What Happened to
Forester
. By E. Phillips Oppenheim, and F-L-A-S-H  D.13. By Victor K. Kaledin (16/3665)

June 7                                      The Other Bullet. By Nancy Barr Mavity, The Valley of Creeping Men. By Rayburn Crawley, The Voice in the Closet. By Herman
Landon, and The Thirty-first Bullfinch.
By Helen Neilly (18/4033)

June 21                                    Tong War! By Eng Ying Gong and Bruce Grant, The Case of Robert Robertson. By Sven
Eivestad, The Rhododendron Man. By J.
Aubrey Tyson, The Square Mark. By
Grace M. White and H. L. Deakin, The
Owner Lies Dead
. By Tyline Perry, The
Green Ribbon
. By Edgar Wallace, The
Avenging Ray
. By Austin J. Small, One
of Us Is a Murderer
. By Alan LeMay, The
Stranglehold
. By Mrs. Baillie Reynolds, The
Hammersmith Murders
. By David Frome, and Memoirs of a Murder Man. By Arthur A. Carey in collaboration with
Howard McLellan (19/4423)

July 5                                      The Hand of Power. By Edgar Wallace and The Yellow Crystal. By Anthony Wynne (20/4758)

July 19                                    Green Ice. By Raoul Whitfield, Murder on the Bridge. By Lynn Brock, The Murder of Cecily Thayne. By H. Ashbrook, and The Break of Day. By Basil King
(21/5092)

August 2                                 The Link. By Philip MacDonald, The Day the World Ended. By Sax Rohmer, The Affair of the Gallows Tree. By Stephen Chelmers, Lady of the Night. By Sydney Horler, Seeds of Murder. By Van Wyck Mason, The House of Strange Victims. By Bertram
Atkey, Murder Through the Window. By
Francis Everton, The Mystery at Newton
Ferry
. By Lawrence Meynell (22/5412)

August 23                               The Marston Murder Case. By William Averill
Stowell, Is No One Innocent? By
Milton Herbert Gropper and Edna Sherry, The
Two Ticket Puzzle
. By J. J. Connington, The
Four Armourers
. By Francis Beeding, The
Actress
. By Arthur Applin, The Curse
of Doone
. By Sydney Horler, The
Silver King Mystery
. By Ian Grieg, Scalps.
By Murray Leinster, The Opium Murders.
By Peter Baron, The Redman Cave Murder.
By Elsa Barker, The Trial of Scotland
Yard
. By Stewart Martin, The Lion and
the Lamb
. By E. Phillips Oppenheimer, and The Thrill of Evil. By H. Ashton-Wolf (24/5894)

September 6                            The Strangler Fig. By John Stephen Strange, The Secret of the Bungalow. By Robert J.
Casey, Alibi. By F. Van de Water, Did She Fall? By Thorne Smith, The Back Bay Murder. By Roger Scarlett, The Man in the Red Hat. By Richard
Keverne, and I Like a Good Murder. By
Marcus Magill (25/6202)

September 20                          Private Life. By Paul Seiver, The Case of Anne Bickerton. By S. Fowler Wright, The Backstage Murder. By Octavus Roy
Cohen, The Blue Door. By Vincent
Starrett, The Saranoff Murder. By
Mark Lee Luther and Lillian C. Ford, The
South Foreland Murder
. By J. S. Fletcher, and The Splendid Crime. By George Goodchild (26/6547)

October 11                                The Garston Murder Case. By H. C. Bailey, The Swan Island Murders. By Victoria
Lincoln, The Murderer Returns. By
Edwin Dial Torgerson, I Met Murder.
By Selwyn Jepson, The Ghosts’ High Noon.
By Carolyn Wells, and Charlie Chan
Carries On
. By Earl Derr Biggers (28/7141)

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