Just before shutting off the writer’s cave lights before heading to bed last night, I paused for a moment to browse one particular shelf on one of too many bookcases. Spines out, there were my Dashiell Hammett books lined up, a fancy hardcover Chatham River Press novel omnibus edition, a couple frail vintage paperbacks, and various Vintage Crime/Black Lizard trade paperbacks, the handsomest of the bunch in my opinion.
When it comes to the granddaddies of hard-boiled private-eye/crime fiction, I’ll concede here that I’m more Chandler than Hammett, more Marlowe than Spade. Still, yesterday was the anniversary of the day Dashiell Hammett passed away from lung cancer back in 1961. A moment of reverence seemed in order.
Pinkerton Agency operative, US Army vet in both WWI and WWII, staunch anti-fascist, Hammett was blacklisted and even served time in federal prison for contempt during the 1950’s communist witch hunts. He published over 100 short stories, story collections and novels, created The Continental Op, Nick and Nora Charles and of course, Sam Spade, and wrote for the silver screen as well, such as the screenplay for his long-time partner Lillian Hellman’s play Watch On The Rhine (a particular favorite film of mine). And yet, he wrote his final novel at age 40, more or less turning his back on fiction decades before his death, his novel and short fiction output penned primarily in the late 1920’s and early 1930’s. It was a puzzlingly brief career, but one that obviously influenced the mystery/crime fiction genre far beyond its duration.
My to-be-read pile is disturbingly tall at the moment. No, I don’t plan to squeeze in a re-read of The Maltese Falcon right now. But then I am reading Loren D. Estleman’s new When Old Midnight Comes Along, an Amos Walker mystery, and can feel the echoes of Dashiell Hammett’s work from eighty and ninety years ago in even that beloved private eye’s story.