Thursday, March 24, 2005

Dashiell Hammett's Nightmare Town Review

In 1999 fans of hard boiled detective stories got a fresh treat, from writings at least 70 years old. That was the year a collection of Dashiell Hammett’s short stories were combined and released in Nightmare Town. Many of the stories had been unavailable in decades, and several had not been released since the date of their first publication in pulp magazines such as Black Mask. It is a mostly hodgepodge collection filled with some real classics and some failed duds. It’s more of a rarities boxed set than a greatest hits package. But for fans of Hammett it is a real gem.

The stories run the gamut of Hammett’s writing. There is a small collection of Continental Op stories, Hammett’s nameless tougher guy private detective seen in his first two novels Red Harvest and The Dain Curse. We get a couple of short sequels of the Maltese Falcon starring Sam Spade. There’s plenty of murders, bad guys, and even an early draft of The Thin Man, minus any appearance of Nick and Nora Charles.

Many of the stories suffer from what is a shorter length than his novels. It is a difficult feat to devise a tense, terse plot, find a crime, create interesting characters and solve the mystery within 20 odd pages. On several occasions Hammett misses. He takes short cuts with the plots, or explains away the mystery without giving sufficient evidence within the preceding pages.

My favorite Hammett character, the Continental Op, makes several appearances. He is a quiet, tough, private detective who works by his own set of morals. Some of his stories work like gold, while others seem rushed, or as if Hammett was still working out his craft. Too often the Op repeats the details of the case to himself (and the reader) and wonders who too trust, what to believe. It is an unbelievable detail, and one that thankfully Hammett gave up as a writer.

There are a few real gems in the collection Ruffians Wife, His Brothers Keeper, and the Thin Man among them. Ruffians Wife is the story of a tough guy’s wife who spends her days romanticizing her husbands work. When that work is brought home and the violence made real her, instincts change and she sees just how awful those things are. It is written in a sparse, bleak style, giving every gritty detail the right color to feel reality rushing in. His Brother’s Keeper is minus the murders and plus on wayward kids trying to get their one shot at being a contender. The Thin Man has nothing to do with the novel of the same name but may be the best story of the bunch. It is a breezy tale about an insurance man more in love with poetry than trying to find a swindler. There actually is a bit of Nick Charles in him in that he is light hearted and bent more on romanticism than fighting crime. The detectives seem to follow him around and kid him more than try to do their own jobs. The story unfolds in a light easy flow.

The real thrill of Nightmare Town is an unfinished early draft of The Thin Man. While some of the plot details are similar this is a completely different novel in terms of tone. Nowhere are the cocktail drinking, wise cracking Nick and Nora Charles. Instead we get the silent, tougher than nails detective John Guild. He is sent to investigate a bad check and winds up for a long twisted ride helping a young District Attorney on his first murder case. This is only the first ten chapters, but it leaves me wishing for more. A wish I’ll never get granted. Much the same can be said about all of Hammett’s writing.

Nightmare Town is probably not the best place for a Hammett newbie to begin. Any of his full length novels would serve a better starting place. But for those of us who have read ever other published word he has written, this is a great way to see some of his early work and unfinished texts. A welcome addition to your mystery bookshelf.

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