Criminal Openings … Dashiell Hammett

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A recent retweet by writer Megan Abbott took me back to the opening sentences of Dashiell Hammett’s first novel, Red Harvest, published in 1929 …

I first heard Personville called Poisonville by a red-haired mucker named Hickey Dewey in the Big Ship in Butte. He also called his shirt a shoit.

It’s all there: the directness, the way it buttonholes you instantly, a hand taking hold of the lapel of your jacket while the voice speaks confidently, not over-loudly, into your ear. And the poetry, the poetry of the vernacular, the rhythm of real speech.

The first sentence in his first novel. I wonder how many times he rolled the sheet of paper out of the typewriter, read it through, tossed in over his shoulder, lit another cigarette, set a fresh sheet in place and tried again? I wonder if he’d been testing it in his head at a little after four, four-thirty, those mornings it was impossible to get back to sleep? I wonder if he had it all pat from the start?

Hammett’s first novel, thirty-five years old. He’d been an operative for the Pinkerton National Detective Agency, a private detective working for an vast organisation with government connections. He had twice enlisted in the army, WW1 & WW2, and it was during the first of these periods that he was diagnosed with the tuberculosis that would seriously affect his well-being for years. When he was no longer with the Pinkertons, realising, perhaps, that henceforth he would be physically less active, he enrolled at a Business College and set about learning the business of writing. The timing was right. A new pulp magazine called The Black Mask printed his first story, “The Road Home”, in 1922 and a year later the first of a number of stories featuring his nameless hero, the Continental Op. It is the Op around whom the action centres in Red Harvest and its successor, The Dain Curse, a bluff and largely unforgiving figure who would be to some degree romaticised as Sam Spade in Hammett’s best known novel, The Maltese Falcon. Sam Spade, private eye:  shamus, a private dick.

For just twelve years, from 1922 to 1934, he wrote stories set firmly in a world he knew.  Then it was over. Whatever had drawn him, driven him to writing had gone. Perhaps it was simply that there was no longer any financial need. Perhaps, for a while, Hollywood fame following the success of John Huston’s version of The Maltese Falcon starring Humphrey Bogart as Sam Spade, seduced him. Perhaps his on-again, off-again, alcohol-ridden relationship with the playwright Lillian Hellman, in some creative way, emasculated him. He tried to write ‘straight’ novels, but they faltered into failure,unfinished; he set out to write plays but only succeeded in assisting Hellman in shaping hers. Or was it, more simply, that he had done all he could as a crime writer, all that interested him, and after five novels and over a hundred stories there was no place for him to go?

 

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April Reading

 

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  • The Fever : Megan Abbott
  • Hold the Dark : William Giraldi
  • The Wolf Border : Sarah Hall
  • Rebels, Beats & Poets : Jim Burns
  • Selected Poems : Tomas Transtromer

+ yet more of David Kynaston’s book about family (and other) life in Britain in the 50s.

 

LA Crime Books of 2014

The Los Angeles Review of Books critic and commentator Woody Haut saw fit to include Darkness, Darkness in his list of favourite crime novels published in 2014.

Here’s the list, as Haut says, in no particular order :

  • A Man Lies Dreaming by Lavie Tidhar (Hodder & Stoughton)
  • The Fever by Megan Abbott (Little Brown/Picador)
  • Perfidia by James Ellroy (Knopf)
  • The Death Instinct by Jacques Mesrine (Tam Tam)
  • Brainquake by Samuel Fuller (Hard Case Crime)
  • Half World by Scott O’Connor (Simon & Schuster)
  • There Ain’t No Justice by James Curtis (Jonathan Cape)
  • A Spy Among Friends by Ben Macintyre (Crown)
  • Of Cops and Robbers by Mike Nicol (Old Street)
  • Darkness, Darkness by John Harvey (Pegasus)
  • Goodis: A Life in Black and White by Philippe Garnier (Black Pool Productions)
  • The Mad and the Bad by Jean-Patrick Manchette (NYRB Classics)
  • Futures by John Barker (PM Press)

And here’s what he has to say about Darkness, Darkness

The world-weary, jazz-loving Nottingham copper Charlie Resnick is back, tracking down a case with origins in the UK’s 1980s miners’ strike. This is one of the always-interesting Harvey’s best, mixing, as it does, the personal and the political. If, as advertised, this really is Resnick’s final appearance, he goes out, after some three decades traipsing across the mean streets of Nottingham, in style. Harvey’s Darkness, Darkness, like Nicol’s novel, switches between the present — Thatcher has only recently keeled over at the Ritz — and the past. A heartfelt portrait of the East Midlands then and now, it’s further evidence of not only how the past affects the present, but how the present demands a revision of the past.

I should point out that Woody Haut is a good friend – we often pass one another taking our early morning exercise on Hampstead Heath, he’s the one running, I’m walking, and meet for coffee every so often to talk books and movies and bemoan the latest inconsistencies in the Tottenham Hotspur soccer team – but, to the best of my knowledge, this is the first time one of my 20 or so crime novels has made its way onto one of his lists of favourite books. Might just be something to it, then. Other than cronyism, that is.