Hammett: Reviewer Remorse

padded rocker

Now Terry Zobeck is worried that his review of the new Hammett bio by Nathan Ward — because of a few quibbles he throws in — might not have given a fair account of how much he liked it:

I hope my review didn’t come off as negative. I was very impressed with the book — very well-written and argued. Given my bibliographic bent I had to note those couple of problems. They are minor distractions from an otherwise outstanding book.

I’ve mentioned before that a big part of my job as the research director at my agency is being responsible for the quality control of all of our public communications, from speeches, to blogs, to op-eds, to talking points, to research reports. I’m constantly telling them no secondary sources, primary sources only. Secondary sources are fine for leads, but lay your eyes on the original source.

Me, I’m a little looser than Terry on some of these angles — just because something is in print doesn’t mean that it is true, just because someone relates an anecdote doesn’t mean it has much if anything to do with reality.

Courtesy the Hammett Tour I have been written up dozens, maybe even hundreds, of times — there are file boxes filled with the articles I actually laid hands on. Some of the quotes attributed to me are stunning. Never in a million years would I have said anything of the sort, thirty years ago or today. Or tomorrow.

But like Terry, I don’t let minor gripes derail me, if the main thrust of a book works its magic.

As I was reading through the Nathan narrative I spotted yet another instance of the odd bibliographic wording that put Terry off: “‘The Cleansing of Poisonville’ began appearing serially in Black Mask in November 1927.” Maybe we can call that a Wardism, or maybe it is an obscure bookish usage that somehow Terry and I have never encountered before. I’d phrase it more like: Red Harvest, under its original title Poisonville, began appearing serially in Black Mask in November 1927 with a first installment titled “The Cleansing of Poisonville.” Or, The serial began in the November 1927 Black Mask with “The Cleansing of Poisonville.”

The way Nathan uses serially offends us here in the Shaolin Temple, that’s all I’m saying. We’ll still teach him Kung Fu, but he’s going to have to carry lots of extra buckets of water up the steps.

And a recurring source — for me, probably for no one else on the planet — of pausing to try to figure out what is going on happens as Nathan grabbles with when Hammett lived in which apartment in San Francisco, doing his own interpretation of the available info — and nudging just enough away from what I have figured that I stopped for awhile each time, to meditate on what could have led him to such an idea.

One moment related to that subject occurs with the info: “he had been sleeping alone, as advised due to his TB, in a Murphy bed in the hallway of their Eddy Street apartment. . . . ” While I could be completely wrong, from my experience of Murphy beds in San Francisco I cannot imagine one folding down out of a wall in a hallway. You could drag some kind of cot into a hall, but the spatial angle just doesn’t make sense to me. (And this moment reminded me of Ace Atkins in his excellent Hammett/Fatty Arbuckle novel The Devil’s Garden also describing a Murphy bed, where I realized he didn’t quite understand what a Murphy bed was. . . .)

Another favorite moment came as Nathan grabbles with the dynamics of the action inside room 401 of 891 Post, the Sam Spade apartment, and gets confused over Bill Arney’s descriptions in a little brochure he made up in the years when he tenanted the place. (Plus I imagine some imput from the Bogie film also influenced the results, where you had Gutman seated in a large armchair.) Nathan puts the fat man on the couch at one point, and later describes “the Levantine treasure hunter Joel Cairo worrying in his rocker, and Casper Gutman pontificating on a padded chair.” Here’s the deal: there is a couch (where Wilmer Cook lies unconscious for much of the time) and there is a padded rocker, where Gutman sits and reads. And a chair at the desk, and a straight-back chair (mentioned only once, if memory serves).

Bill Arney was ecstatic when he landed an authentic late 1920s padded rocker for the apartment, but it doesn’t look anything like the Gutman seat in the movie, or anything you might casually imagine it to look like. More like a regular rocking chair, but with thicker arms and legs, and padded leather cushions on the seat and back. In fact, let’s make this easy — you can see Bill’s padded rocker inside Spade’s living room at the top of this post.

All minor stuff, nothing worth worrying much about (except for fun) — but I tossed them out so Terry won’t feel all alone. In his review now up at the Washington Post, Art Taylor makes with a few quibbles of his own before stating:

Nevertheless, the merits of Ward’s work far outweigh such missteps. As brisk and conversational as a magazine feature, “The Lost Detective” invites readers not just to explore Hammett’s early years in more detail and consider how those formative experiences helped shape his writing career. . . .

That’s the deal — inspiring readers to think over the life and writings again, which is what Terry keeps doing. He tells me,

The other thing was when Fecheimer asks Jose how she felt about having a husband who was a private detective. For us Hammett’s employment as a real life PI is very romantic and essential to our appreciation of his writing and enhancing his credibility as a writer of realistic crime fiction. Jose response is so matter of fact and not colored by the intervening years and Hammett’s literary reputation: “I didn’t think anything about it in a way.”

For her it was a job to put food on the table and a roof over their head.

The same when Fecheimer asked whether Hammett carried a gun: “Oh no. I don’t think he ever did unless he got it down at the office.”

I also like her response when asked whether she had read all his stories: “Oh, yes”.  Despite Hammett’s poor treatment of her and all the intervening years, the pride seemed to still be there.

No one knows you better than your parents or your wife. It’s a shame she never gave any of Hammett’s biographers a more detailed interview.

In short, Nathan’s book has Terry thinking even more Hammett than usual, so it did its job.

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