Hammett: Thoughts on “House Burglary”

Wrapped in its art deco cover, the lost interview with Hammett from 1929 that Terry Zobeck located — “House Burglary Poor Trade” — is the author at a peak. Still writing for Black Mask. Not yet Hollywood. Charming, and willing to answer questions in detail.

I’ve talked with people who knew him only a decade later, where the answers were at best cryptic or not answers at all. Jerome Weidman, who didn’t believe Hammett’s story about why he included the Alfred Packer bit in The Thin Man (tour book, page 119). Or the guy who met Hammett in Anchorage during the Second World War and wanted to talk about the fiction and got nothing — and left with the impression that Hammett was just a bitter drunk.

But in 1929 Helen Herbert Foster spoke with Hammett when he was fresh. And it is obvious to me she was one sharp reporter. In connection with the tour I’ve been interviewed at least a couple of hundred times, so I trust my sense of what is a hot interview vs. something that is routine and boring, who has the reporter’s nose (the late, great John Jacobs had that nose sniffing every current of air) and who never will.

My favorite moment comes when she notes, “He’s cynically funny though one of the most genial people you’d want to meet.”

There is an entire era of writing about Hammett where it is obvious the commentators don’t recognise that Hammett is funny. Most of the biographies. Most of the litcrit. Yeah, sure, The Thin Man has nice one-liners, everyone will acknowledge that, but then it is The Last Novel, by which time Hammett Had Lost It — Thin Man is no Red Harvest, no Maltese Falcon. Hammett — he did penetrating sociological analysis of a hard-bitten America in the 1920s — he wasn’t funny!

From my first readings of the Op stories, I knew Hammett was funny — and for thirty-five years on the tour have made sure people hearing about those stories know it, too. The big breakthrough came when Jo Hammett began appearing before groups such as The Maltese Falcon Society, selecting passages from Op tales that echo Hammett’s cynical humor — where she could hear her father’s voice saying that kind of line.

Finally, biographers and such like figured out that Hammett was funny — I expect the next wave of biographies to reflect this fact.

(I have a standard for what makes an Op story one of the greats — somewhere in the action there must be a side-splitting moment of humor — more than one is okay, too, but it’s not a non-stop Vaudeville routine — and if it doesn’t have that, it isn’t Hammett writing at full-tilt.)

And in his last story “Death and Company” — an Op story  — for Black Mask, the November 1930 issue, Hammett describes himself as the perp and echoes Foster by noting that he has a “very agreeable personality.” (Terribly interesting for the biographical angles, “Death and Company” isn’t top flight Op — no hilarious moments.)

My next favorite bit of info coming out of the interview is Hammett saying, “I was attached to a national agency as an operative, before and after the war, in the East, Northwest and on the Pacific Coast.”

When I covered the photo of Hammett and the head-breaking crew, I encompassed that area and guessed wider, writing that he worked as a Pink “all across America, from Baltimore and points east to Butte, Montana and Spokane, Washington and points west. And, for all we know, points south, and anywhere in between.” Part of the background for guessing wider is the litany of streets the Op hunts through at the beginning of The Seventeenth Murder, chapter 21 of Red Harvest — including streets in Baltimore, Boston, New York, but also “Aetna Road and St. Clair Avenue in Cleveland, McKinney Avenue in Dallas” — “Berry Boulevard in Louisville” — “Victoria Street in Jacksonville” — “the street that runs past the Federal Building in El Paso as in Detroit’s Grand Circus Park.”

Not long ago a guy on the tour asked about these streets, suspecting the list indicated Hammett had been through those places — he figured that the street names were obscure enough that you wouldn’t know them unless you’d been there, you wouldn’t pick them off a map at secondhand.

Since many people insist on separating strict biography from litcrit angles, purist types now have these three geographical areas — areas we have known about for years now — but nothing new. The only slightly rogue location also “confirmed” by an interview appears in The Bookman profile in 1932 by Eve Sanderson, which reports that “disguised as an ardent I.W.W. he was sent to Minnesota.” But The Bookman piece has several errors, including saying that Hammett fought in World War I — and my inclination would be to think that Hammett told that interviewer that he was sent undercover to Montana and the transcription went wrong.

Finally, Terry Zobeck tells me that when Hammett biographer Richard Layman looked over the interview, he noticed that “it includes some of the most famous language from Raymond Chandler’s ‘The Simple Art of Murder.'”

Well, not word for word, but certainly thought for thought. Hammett predates Chandler’s defense of the Black Mask school of crime writing — the When in Doubt, Have a Guy Come into the Room with Gun Drawn riff — with his bit about writing “a story about a detective rather than a detective story. Keeping the reader fooled until the last possible moment is a good trick and I usually try to play it, but I can’t attach more than secondary importance to it.” In terms of mystery litcrit, that’s the most important moment — knowing that Hammett, who almost always provided clews and played fair, still knew that he was going beyond the basic puzzle format into something bigger and better.

The entire riff about the Op going forward presages Chandler’s classic down these mean streets statement quite effectively. I very much doubt that Chandler would have seen this interview, so he’s not copying Hammett’s ideas — he has the same ideas, the same intent.

And the reference to Manuel — how seldom do we get much of Hammett’s Catholic background. An icing-on-the-cake biographical moment. I’m no Biblical scholar, but a quick web search handed me the idea of “Be true to who you are, knowing the cost.”

The Op as Manuel. Yeah, you get beat up, you go on.

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