Dashiell Hammett's granddaughter talks about her new Hammett collection
The Hunter and Other Stories
By Dashiell Hammett
Edited by Richard Layman and Julie M. Rivett
Reviewed by Peter Rozovsky
Julie M. Rivett, coeditor of The Hunter and Other Stories, a new volume of previously uncollected and/or unpublished writing by Dashiell Hammett, drove up from Orange County for a chat about the book, about Hammett, about Hammett on film, and other subjects - including some of her favorites among current crime writers.
She's more than a coeditor of the great writer's work - she's also his granddaughter.
The Hunter and Other Stories collects previously unknown stories, obscurely published ones, fragments, and screen treatments, including two that were filmed, one as 1931's City Streets and another as 1935's Mr. Dynamite.
Rivett, the daughter of Hammett's daughter Jo (she met her grandfather once, when she was 3 years old), says, "What I want to come from this is that people will read [Hammett's work] as literature. I want to make him a rounder character."
Rivett and I met for tea and a wine chaser at Musso & Frank Grill on Hollywood Boulevard, close to stars on the Walk of Fame that honor figures prominently connected with Hammett's life, career, and interests. Stars for Mary Astor (who played Brigid O'Shaughnessy in the 1941 film of The Maltese Falcon), Myrna Loy (Nora Charles in the Thin Man flicks), and Fatty Arbuckle (in whose defense a young Hammett, then a Pinkerton agent, gathered evidence) lie within two blocks of the restaurant. Later I found Peter Lorre's and Humphrey Bogart's.
The Hunter and Other Stories highlights at least two aspects of Hammett's crime writing. One side is the hard-boiled, and the other the existential. "The Hunter," the title story for this collection, is as hard-boiled as The Glass Key, though without the violence and despair. As for the existential, that's the side that marvels at the inexplicable things some men do (as in "The Flitcraft Parable" from The Maltese Falcon). "An Inch and a Half of Glory" combines the hard-boiled and the existential with a ruefully comic ending.
Each of the book's four sections ("Crime," "Men," "Men and Women," and "Screen Stories") has an introduction of its own, which means the reader gets a good, well-rounded picture of what Hammett was up to as a writer. The book also includes a fragment from a Sam Spade story.
Lorre and Sydney Greenstreet were perfect for their roles in John Huston's celebrated film of The Maltese Falcon, Rivett said, and Bogart, while not physically perfect for his role as Sam Spade, did marvelous things with the character.
Rivett invokes The Maltese Falcon also in discussing "The Secret Emperor," one of several pieces included as extras in e-book editions of The Hunter and Other Stories. But this fragment, which consists of chapters from an unfinished novel, reminded me more of The Glass Key. Like that harrowing 1931 novel of friendship and betrayal, "The Secret Emperor" feels as if it could have been written today. Had Hammett completed it as well as the chapters included here, it's entirely possible that, as well as a father of hard-boiled crime writing, he'd be considered an ancestor of modern political thrillers, including those of alienation and paranoia. As well as the progenitor of Chandler, Hammett might thus be regarded as a forerunner to John le Carré, Jean-Patrick Manchette, Alan Glynn, and 1970s paranoia thriller movies. And consider this: Hammett worked on "The Secret Emperor" in 1925, four years before his first novel, Red Harvest, appeared. He was an ambitious artist from the beginning.
So, whom does Rivett like among contemporary crime writers? Her list includes Declan Hughes, Dennis Lehane, Michael Koryta, and George Pelecanos, and if I were a crime writer favored by a descendant and scholar of the greatest of all crime writers, my sinews would come unstrung and my tongue would cleave to the roof of my mouth for a few minutes before I could get back to work.
Rivett says the combination of her personal contacts and coeditor Richard Layman's professional ones strengthens their partnership. They also worked together on Return of the Thin Man, which brought together two previously unpublished stories about Nick and Nora Charles. Asked about the portrayals of Hammett as a communist, a drunk, or a bad family man, Rivett rebuts some of the stories, concedes others, and says: "It's always a difficult thing for me when people co-opt my actual grandfather."
Peter Rozovsky writes about international crime fiction at Detectives Beyond Borders, www.detectivesbeyondborders.blogspot.com. He is an Inquirer copy editor.