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Dashiell Hammett: Lost Stories

(Twenty-One Long-Lost Stories from the Bestselling Creator of Sam Spade, The Maltese Falcon, and The Thin Man edited by Vince Emery, with an Introduction by Joe Gores)


Crescent Blues Book Views Vince Emery Productions (Hardcover), ISBN 0-9725898-1-3

Book: dashiel hammett, lost stories
A good claim can be made -- and Joe Gores and Vince Emery certainly make it in this book -- that Samuel Dashiell Hammett was one of the formative influences on 20th-century (and hence 21st-century) U.S. literature, bringing to fiction a new clarity and terseness of style, not to mention a whole new range of subject matter. Academic critics might point first to Ernest Hemingway in this role but, as Gores and Emery rightly point out, it seems clear that Hammett influenced Hemingway, not vice versa.

The 21 tales assembled here prove, as is usually the case with collections of this sort, something of a mixed bag. Some seem no more than squibs -- one clocks in at a little over 100 words long. In some other instances, one can easily see why the stories slipped through the net of previous anthologists. But some -- like "Laughing Masks" (1923) and "Ber-Bulu" (1925) -- offer far more substantial pleasures. The former is a hardboiled tale of the type for which Hammett is best known. The latter is equally hardboiled but set not in grimy streets but on a remote Philippine island. Future anthologists will have good cause to be grateful for Emery's detective work in unearthing these two -- as, of course, can readers today.

However, the tales only occupy about half of the book. The remainder, aside from Gores's longish and interesting introduction, comprises Emery's contextualizing text. I soon found that this, constituting as it does a biography of Hammett the writer -- with plenty also about Hammett the man -- even more interesting than the stories, which says rather a lot. Probably because Hammett's later communist activities encouraged U.S. literary historians to downplay the extent of his influence, we tend to under-appreciate how highly people regarded Hammett in his time. Further, we often undervalue Hammett's contributions to the Hammett-Hellman literary partnership because Lillian Hellman, in the eyes of today's literary elites, enjoyed the "respectability" of being a playwright whereas Hammett was, after all, "merely a thriller writer." Emery quite radically sets us right on both misconceptions, while at the same time being quite unflinching about Hammett's many flaws as a human being.

As if the content weren't enough on its own to make this book a necessary addition to your shelves, it's also quite beautifully produced, with excellent paper, carefully chosen typography, substantial boards covered in what seems to be real cloth, an old-fashioned square backing and so on. For the first time in my life, I felt impelled to go out and buy one of those stretchy cloth book protectors to keep my review copy pristine.

Lost Stories qualifies as essential reading for anyone interested in the development of the crime-fiction genre. As Emery points out, Hammett practically single-handedly invented the literary style that we now call noir. But even that underplays the importance of this book. Lost Stories offers a substantial insight into the development of American literature as a whole. Thank you, Vince Emery.

John Grant

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