Because he was silenced by illness, debt, harassment, and writer's block for so many years before his death in 1961 at the age of 66, any fresh appearance of work by Dashiell Hammett
deserves to be treated with special attention and respect. The editors of this new collection of 20 of his best--and most representative--stories from pulp magazines such as Black Mask
in the 1920s and 30s remind us how much influence Hammett had on the mystery genre, both in print and on screen. The opening of the title story has all the impact of a long shot in a terrific noir film: "A Ford--whitened by desert travel until it was almost indistinguishable from the dust-clouds that swirled around it--came down Izzard's Main Street. Like the dust, it came swiftly, erratically, zigzagging the breadth of the roadway." Then, in a perfect jump cut, "a small woman--a girl of twenty in tan flannel--stepped into the street. The wavering Ford missed her by inches, missing her at all only because her backward jump was bird-quick." We know we'll see that woman again, that the driver of the Ford, "a large man in bleached khaki" who carries a thick, black walking stick will be somehow changed by the encounter.
Seven of the stories in this meaty collection are about Hammett's most autobiographical creation, the San Francisco agency detective called the Continental Op, a shorter, chunkier version of Hammett's own days as a Pinkerton agent. Sam Spade, now fixed indelibly in our minds as Humphrey Bogart, stars in three others. There are also two early versions of The Thin Man, Hammett's last detective, and both are more interesting and definitely rougher-edged than the slick Nick and Nora Charles versions, which made the author a bundle in Hollywood. Taken together, these stories will remind the forgetful how important a literary icon Hammett was and inspire first-timers to seek out such other treats as The Big Knockover, The Maltese Falcon, The Continental Op, and The Dain Curse --Dick Adler
From Publishers Weekly
Smart and tough is the formula for the art of Hammett (The Maltese Falcon; The Thin Man), widely acknowledged as the master innovator of the hard-boiled detective novel. These 20 previously uncollected novellas and short stories feature enigmatic plots of devilish intricacy, rife with fisticuffs and pistol shots, and populated by stiffs, laconic coppers, lowlifes and droll, world-weary detectives. Sam Spade shows up several times, as does the Continental Op, smoking his Fatimas and grilling coy, mendacious women. The delicate balance between extremes of brutality and cleverness makes most of these stories classic studies in suspense. Moods are set with smoky authenticity, and characters are powerful talkers and smooth operators, with dialogue unforgettable for its tough, blunt energy. In "His Brother's Keeper," a story of betrayal and redemption is told through the eyes of a dumb prize-fighter, so that the reader is always a step ahead of the narrator, but is sympathetic toward him. "Ruffian's Wife" is a fine literary exploration of a woman's disillusionment as she discovers her husband's true nature, even as she stands by him. "A Man Named Thin" is a detective, a suave narrator/protagonist whose father is both annoyed at his son's poetry writing and impressed by his creative case-solving. With an informative introduction by William Nolan briefly outlining Hammett's life, this volume offers a broad, exciting selection of seminal works by the robust, quintessentially American godfather of the genre. (Sept.)
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