Saturday, March 30, 2013

Hammett Unwritten: Review

What if the Maltese Falcon were real?  What if Dashiell Hammett, who said that all of the characters
he wrote about were based on people he'd actually known or knew about and who was himself a Pinkerton operative before becoming an author, really had an adventure similar to the events he made so famous in The Maltese Falcon?

According to "Owen Fitzstephen" (Gordon McAlpine) in Hammett Unwritten, that's precisely what happened.  Following in the footsteps of many an author who has unearthed various Holmes stories in a "battered tin dispatch box," McAlpine found a type-written manuscript buried in the Lillian Hellman collection of the Harry Ransom Center at the University of Texas.  What he had found was a manuscript with the byline "Owen Fitzstephen."  The name sounded familiar and when he did a search, he discovered that Fitzstephen was the name of a mystery writer in Hammett's The Dain Curse.  The description of the writer in the story is very Hammett-like and it would seem that McAlpine had found a long-lost Hammett novel written under a pseudonym.

And in a nutshell, what the story tells us is that in Hammett's last case as a Pinkerton man he ran into a crowd of treasure-hunters that would eventually give him the idea for one of his most famous books.  Only the story wasn't over when Moira, the girl upon which Brigid O'Shaughessy was based, was taken away to jail.  Hammett winds up keeping the worthless "Black Falcon" as a reminder of the case and the bird sits on his desk as he starts turning out story after story. Years later, when Moira is released from her imprisonment at an insane asylum, she comes back into Hammett's life and asks him for the fake Falcon.  She spins a story so fantastic that his pride forces him to tell her to take it.  she claims that the bird holds mystical powers and the only reason he's been a successful writer is because it has been in his possession.  To prove her wrong, he hands it over.  That will be the last year he publishes a novel.  Throughout the rest of his life, various characters from his own real-life Falcon adventure keep popping up--and all seem intent on finding the "fake" Falcon.  And each has a slightly different tale of the origins of the bird.  But wherever it came from; whatever story is true--and they say one of them must be; they all reaffirm that the bird is powerful and carries good fortune to whomever possesses it. Was Hammett "a sap" (to quote from his famous novel) to have given it up?  The story follows Hammett from 1930s San Francisco to Hollywood and from New York to a federal penitentiary where he's imprisoned during the Red Scare.  It all leads to a fateful meeting on New Year's Eve where Hammett will find the bird once more and finally learn the truth.  Or will he?

This is a fun book.  Fun for those of us who love The Maltese Falcon, for Hammett fans and hard-boiled fans alike.  It is an incredibly good pastiche of Falcon and Fitzstephen/McAlpine manages to get the characters playing characters exactly right.  It is also the most elaborate explanation of writer's block I've ever heard and it explores the superstitious nature that many writers (and other) have (needing a certain routine, having to wear a certain sweater, etc) in order to be successful in their field.  Is the power in the object itself--or does it only become powerful if we believe in it.  Excellent take on a beloved story.  Four stars.

1 comment:

J F Norris said...

I'll have to look for this one. Sounds very intriguing.