Hammett: Zobeck Takes on The Hunter and Other Stories

Harper's Bazaar March 1932

 

And in celebration of Birthday 120 for Hammett, how about the thoughts of a long-time Hammett fan and collector on the most recent collection of his stories?

Ladies and Gentlemen, here’s Terry Zobeck:

Back in October Don reviewed The Hunter and Other Stories, a new collection of previously unpublished or uncollected Hammett stories, for Publisher’s Weekly. He wrote, “I know fans of crime writer Dashiell Hammett who have been waiting decades to read the stories collected in this book.”

Yeah, that would be me, all right.

About 20 years ago a kindly book dealer put me in touch with Bill Pronzini, creator of the Nameless Detective and author of many other books. Over the course of the next couple of years we exchanged several letters. In one he told me that a couple of years previously Jack Adrian, British author and anthologist, had sold Oxford University Press on a Hammett collection to commemorate his centenary that would include uncollected stories and six unpublished ones.

During a visit to Adrian, Bill read three of the stories and found that “one is quite good and the others are worthy of publication.” He added, however, that the project collapsed due to a dispute over ownership of the stories between the Hammett family and Lillian Hellman — there’s a surprise. Most importantly, Bill replied to a question from me that none of the stories featured the Op — hey, even then I had my priorities straight.

I’m sure I knew of these stories before receiving Bill’s information, but I don’t recall quite when it was. But, they certainly have haunted me for years. You may have concluded from my pure text blogs on These Mean Streets that I’m somewhat obsessed with Hammett’s work. Knowing these stories existed but that I couldn’t read them was incredibly annoying. Now, thanks to Rick Layman and Julie Rivett (and Otto Penzler, of course), the wait is over, and it was very much worth it.

The book contains 15 stories not published during Hammett’s lifetime, two previously uncollected stories, three unpublished screen stories, and an unpublished fragment of a Sam Spade story. Layman provides an introduction and commentaries to each section of the book: Crime, Men, Men and Woman, and Screen Stories; and Rivett provides an afterword.

Pulp Fiction-The Villians

Of the former group of stories, three were published in recent years: “Faith” appeared in the Otto Penzler collection, Pulp Fiction: The Villains (2007); “The Cure” (as “So I Shot Him”) in the 2011 Winter/Spring issue of The Strand Magazine; and “An Inch and a Half of Glory” in the June 10 & 17, 2013 issue of The New Yorker. (The editors do not acknowledge the prior publication of this last story; it may have been sold to The New Yorker following printing of the book).

Hammett was no pack rat; very few of his manuscripts survive. However, he thought enough of these stories to carry them along as he changed residences and moved across the country. Some were accepted for publication, but the magazines failed before they could be printed. Others were submitted, but for some reason rejected. Others may never have been submitted.

It’s curious that once he found widespread fame he did not re-submit them. By that time most magazine editors would have jumped at the chance to publish a story by the author of The Maltese Falcon and The Thin Man. Hammett could have extended the impression he was still writing publishable fiction for several years beyond 1934. Perhaps it is further evidence of the extent to which he had become uninterested in the whole game by this point.

None of these stories will make you forget the best of the Continental Op stories, but several are exceptionally good and are worthy additions to Hammett’s bibliography. The standouts include “The Hunter,” a hard-boiled detective story, “The Cure,” a story of psychological suspense, “Faith,” a dark character study, and the boxing story “Monk and Johnny Foxx.” These all show Hammett experimenting to good effect.

The two previously uncollected stories are the outstanding “On the Way,” first published in the March 1932 issue of Harper’s Bazaar, and the far less interesting “The Diamond Wager,” first published in the October 19, 1929 issue of Detective Fiction Weekly.

“On the Way” is among Hammett’s last published fiction; it gives us a hint of where he could have taken his writing had he continued to publish (and in that respect, shares some attributes with the best of the unpublished stories collected here). It is a character study set among the Hollywood crowd that Hammett knew well. Kipper is on the way down the ladder, while Gladys is on the way up. He knows that soon there will be no room in her life for him, so he’s looking for the way out.

“The Diamond Wager” is among Hammett’s most forgettable stories; presumably, he too thought little of it since he published it under the none-too-subtle pseudonym Samuel Dashiell. It is written in the Golden Age style that Hammett did so much to make obsolete; it’s curious, then, why he chose to try his hand at it. Nothing exciting occurs and there is little reason to spend much time with it.

The three screen stories are The Kiss-Off (filmed as City Streets), On the Make (filmed as Mr. Dynamite), and Devil’s Playground (never produced). Of these, On the Make is the most interesting. According to Hammett’s affidavit in his 1948 lawsuit with Warner Bros. over the rights to the Sam Spade character, the story started out as a sequel to The Maltese Falcon. As exhaustively demonstrated by Warners in their response, Hammett’s claim was pretty much hooey.

However, one can imagine that the character of the sleazy private eye in On the Make, Gene Richmond, is what many of the characters in The Maltese Falcon presumed Spade to be, much to their regret. In On the Make, Hammett creates a private eye that is perhaps unique in the genre. He is every bit as corrupt and dishonest as cops and the public often suspect private detectives to be. Gone is the lone detective with his own code of honor pitted against corruption and greed. Richmond wholeheartedly embraces corruption and greed, along with dishonesty and just about every other vice. Gutman would have loved Richmond.

It is an interesting concept fleshed out with strong characters and snappy dialog. I especially liked Richmond’s gal Friday, Miss Crane; she’s no Effie Perine. Unfortunately, the climax is weak and contrived. With a little more effort from Hammett and a stronger cast it could have been a terrific movie.

I was especially pleased to find that the editors included all that remains of Hammett’s attempt at another Sam Spade story, “A Knife Will Cut for Anybody.” I saw this fragment for sale in 1993 at a rare book show in Washington, D.C. (the other highlight of this show was meeting, for the first time, special guest James Crumley). Biblioctopus, the L.A. rare book dealer, had it for sale along with what appeared to be the draft of a section of Tulip, Hammett’s never completed mainstream novel. I was able to read the opening page and had been tantalized by it ever since. The eventual owner made it available to the editors for inclusion in The Hunter. Many thanks to whomever you are.

The last couple of years have been good ones for Hammett fans. We’ve had Otto Penzler’s reprinting of the original text of The Maltese Falcon as it appeared in Black Mask and two volumes of rare Hammett from Layman and Rivett. But it looks like the well may be dry. About the only thing left is to issue the definitive collection of Hammett’s stories — all the stories in their pure text forms, including the serialized versions of the other three novels first published in Black Mask.

It is the stuff dreams are made of.

An Inch and a Half of Glory

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