Hammett Unwritten by Owen Fitzstephen

In the book and the John Huston’s movie version (there were two others made earlier) of The Maltese Falcon, nothing who is he says he is and nothing is what it appears. In Hammett Unwritten, what is true and what is imagined? This book continues that style.

A note: Owen Fitzstephan is the name of a character in Hammett’s The Dain Curse. McAlpine sensed that this character was autobiographical, that this character was Hammett himself.

McAlpine reports that he discovered the text, Hammett Unwritten by Owen Fitzstephen, at the bottom of a cardboard box of the Harry Ransom Center at The University of Texas at Austin (my alma mater). Thus McAlpine suggests that Hammett wrote this book, using a pseudonym from another novel, slightly altering the spelling.

Of course, McAlpine claims that this is not his real name, either, although it is.

Hammett Unwritten’s intent is to unmask the reasons of the 30-year block suffered by Dashiell Hammett. As far as we know, his last publication was The Thin Man in 1934; he died in 1961. It is generally acknowledged that Poe invented the detective story; it evolved with Doyle. Christie, Sayers, Marsh, Chesterton, Carr, and other British authors who wrote during the Golden Age of detective stories gave us outstanding mysteries and characters. But these were British detectives with sophistication and sleuthing acumen. Hammett was an American and had been a Pinkerton man.

Hammett brought his experience and background to the genre. He created a new kind of pulp fiction detective who knew how to take a punch and when and how to throw one. He worked for money; he was no amateur, no dilettante .

Sam Spade (BTW, Hammett’s first name was Samuel), Nick Charles, and the Continental Op had the intense integrity to put his own obstinate moral code and sense of justice before self-preservation or even the law. We don’t read Hammett’s stories to be dazzled by feats of deduction. We keep reading Hammett because his works because his detectives accept the violence of the world and are than more willing to get their hands dirty as they oppose it.
Raymond Chandler (I personally prefer him to Hammett) reflected on the genre Hammett invented in his essay “The Simple Art of Murder.” According to Chandler, Hammett “… took murder out of the Venetian vase and dropped it into the alley. Hammett gave murder back to the kind of people who commit it for reasons, not just to provide a corpse.”

In Hammett Unwritten, a worthless bird statuette –the focus of Dashiell Hammett’s The Maltese Falcon sits on Hammett’s desk. As Dashiell Hammett closes his final case as a private eye, had acquired the black bird at a police auction. For a decade it bears witness to his literary rise. When the novel opens on New Year’s Eve 1959, an aging Hammett is studying his own obituary, taken from a journalist who wrote it up when Hammett had a heart attack, but recovered unexpectedly. Then a flashback takes us back to 1933, when Moira O’Shea, aka Brigid O’Shaughnessy, appears at his door to collect the Maltese Falcon.

Now, in 1959, suffering from writer’s block, the famous author begins to wonder about rumors of the falcon’s “metaphysical qualities,” hinted at by Moira, which link it to a powerful, wish-fulfilling black stone cited in legends from around the world. He recognizes that when he possessed the statuette he wrote one acclaimed book after another, and that without it his fortunes have changed. As his block stretches from months to years, he becomes entangled again with the scam artists from the old case, each still fascinated by the “real” black bird and its alleged magical powers. A maze of events takes Hammett from 1930s San Francisco to the glamorous Hollywood of the 1940s, a federal penitentiary at the time of the McCarthy hearings, and finally to a fateful meeting on New Year’s Eve, 1959, at a Long Island estate. There the dying Hammett confronts a woman from his past who proves to be his most formidable rival. And his last hope.

This book asks a simple question: why did Dashiell Hammett stop writing? After a brilliant 12-year run that included The Maltese Falcon and ended with The Thin Man, the master of hard-boiled detection turned from the typewriter. Did he do so because he lost the falcon statue he picked up in a 1922 caper? Cutting back and forth through Hammett’s life, McAlpine may get some details wrong, but the overall portrait feels accurate. The story shines in scenes with real people such as Lillian Hellman, though encounters with people who supposedly inspired characters in The Maltese Falcon are less successful. Fans of Hammett and noir ought to enjoy requisite shocks of recognition.

In Hammett Unwritten, Hammett is drawn into a mystery far stranger than he ever could have imagined, and the ending had me engrossed. It could have been the Maltese Falcon that signaled the onset of Hammett’s writer’s block; after all, it is the belief in an object, rather than the actual object that can create fear and loathing. I was ready to believe the author’s theory.  What Hammett fans still wonder, though, is what made Hammett so willing to let go of Sam Spade, the Continental Op, Nick and Nora Charles and his other evocative characters? In the end, many issues explain Hammett’s blocked last decades, and they all probably tell part of the story. We really can only guess what laid waste to Hammett’s genius.

In the late 1930s he began to turn his attention to politics—civil rights and workers’ rights, in particular—often using his celebrity as leverage, and that his commitment to the causes he embraced proved absolute and unwavering.

Hammett Unwritten achievement is that it accomplishes the next-best thing to writing the unwritten—it satisfies the unappeasable longing for another Dashiell Hammett novel. It picks up precisely where Hammett left off. What’s notable about Hammett Unwritten is McAlpine’s intuitive knowledge of what fans of Hammett most want. Hammett Unwritten gives his life the hard-boiled second act it most certainly deserved.


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