Hammett: That White-Hot Burst in 1925

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Image at top: holding down a table at the Mechanics’ Library talk while Nathan Ward merrily signs a copy of his new bio of Hammett.

Image at bottom: before we start the proceedings (clew: my wine glass is loaded) we gear up for some fun; left to right, longtime Frisco cicerone Don Herron, longtime Frisco detective David Fechheimer, visiting writer Nathan Ward.

One point of disagreement I have with Nathan in his The Lost Detective is that while he likes the Op stories by Hammett that were hitting print in Black Mask in 1925, he thinks they build up to a little masterpiece in the November issue with the appearance of “Dead Yellow Women.” Me, I think what you have that year was a run of little masterpieces. One after another. Hammett at white heat.

I have said, so, too, in the intro titled “Hard-Boiled in Texas” that I did for Steve Harrison’s Casebook by Robert E. Howard back in 2010. To quote myself:

In San Francisco in 1922 and 1923 an ex-Pinkerton’s detective named Dashiell Hammett began writing crime fiction for the pulp Black Mask, soon centered on the casework of a short fat nameless operative for the Continental Detective Agency. By 1924 average enough outings featuring the Continental Op such as “One Hour” published in the April 1924 issue of the Mask were followed by a full-fledged masterpiece titled “The Girl with the Silver Eyes” in June. In 1925 Hammett’s talent reached white-heat as he saw into print “The Whosis Kid,” “The Scorched Face,” “Corkscrew,” “Dead Yellow Women,” and “The Gutting of Couffignal” one after the other, a series run that would be hard to equal in the history of pulp fiction — to get close, you would have to cherry-pick five of the best Conan stories and pretend they appeared back-to-back, say, “The Tower of the Elephant,” “Queen of the Black Coast,” “Rogues in the House,” “Beyond the Black River,” and “Red Nails.” In that year Hammett raced ahead of his fellow contributors to Black Mask and became the modern master of the detective story, with his Continental Op series the Gold Standard of pulp sleuthing action.

Need I say more? It took Hammett less than two years to figure out how to punch it.

Robert E. Howard knew how to punch it, too (he hit it several times before creating Conan, but that series unleashed him).

Which is why we read and reread their fiction today, while stories by the guys who never achieved white-heat are hard to plug — yeah, sure, they’re good enough sometimes. But they’re not great.

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