Category Archives: Dashiell Hammett

An Interesting Neutrality

In the Wall Street Journal, Lee Sandlin discusses two hard-boiled crime authors whose work has recently been anthologized, Paul Cain and David Goodis. I’m pretty familiar with Goodis, but Cain (no relation to James M.) is new to me. Sandlin assures me I haven’t missed much—Cain was tasked with writing Dashiell Hammett-esque stories for Black Mask in the 30s after Hammett himself struck out for Hollywood, and falls short in comparison. Indeed, the best part of the review is a bit on what made Hammett’s prose work so well. Hammett, Sandlin writes, had a

freakish knack for making neutrality interesting. Every object in a Hammett novel registers with unnerving clarity, even when it doesn’t appear to signify anything at all—as in this aria to an office desk:

Ragged gray flakes of cigarette-ash dotted the yellow top of the desk and the green blotter and the papers that were there. A buff-curtained window, eight or ten inches open, let in from the court a current of air faintly scented with ammonia. The ashes on the desk twitched and crawled in the current.

It’s as radiant as an Edward Hopper painting, and as eerie. It means nothing in particular, and yet it seems to hold within it the silence of the entire American landscape. Hammett’s deadpan brutality inspired generations of truculent, thuggish, bullying private eyes; because of his influence, the average hard-boiled novel is like the world’s surliest Internet comment thread. But his more enduring legacy is in the way he was able to infuse the flatness of the American vernacular with this strange visionary cool.

Links: Last Words

You likely don’t need to hear one more commentary about the Huckleberry Finn foofaraw, but consider reading Jon Clinch‘s, as somebody who spent a lot of time attempting to inhabit Twain’s world in his 2007 novel, Finn.

What happened to the literary prodigy Barbara Follett? (via)

Granta‘s 1983 “Dirty Realism” issue, which featured stories by Raymond Carver, Bobbie Ann Mason, Jayne Anne Phillips, Angela Carter, and many more, is claimed as the best single issue of a literary magazine ever. (via)

Two editors discuss their discovery of three previously undocumented Zora Neale Hurston stories.

Toward a complete guide to Dashiell Hammett‘s Baltimore haunts.

On the growth of David Foster Wallace studies.

Richard Ford on his home state, where he’s returning to teach: “I think the state, in the hands and eyes of its writers, has a lot that needs to be explained. Writers are imaginative explainers. There’s a lot of received wisdom, history, a lot of drama in the fabric that is Mississippi that could be seen not to make a whole lot of sense.”

Why Paul Theroux will not be writing an autobiography.

The National Book Critics Circle gathers up some recommendations for books that should be back in print; I put in for Renata Adler’s Speedboat, a novel I wrote about here last spring.

“[T]he relation of literary production to social inequality has changed, and it is that relation, or was that relation, and that relation only, that constituted African American Literature.”

Paul Auster is a potato, not a tropical flower. Allow him to explain:

Links: Ain’t That America

The Nobel Prize’s literature judge says that American writers are too “insular.” But what does some dumb foreigner know?

Hubris alert: Big-name venture capitalist Tom Perkins has built a 289-foot yacht called The Maltese Falcon.

In related news, Tom Perrotta dreams of being Sam Spade: “Who wouldn’t want to be a tough-talking private eye?”

Olsson’s, the leading independent bookstore chain in the Washington, D.C. area, closed all five of its stores yesterday after filing for Chapter 7 bankruptcy protection. A memorial page is up and running.

Junot Diaz is deeply impressed with Richard Price‘s handball skills.

Nicholas Sparks is just pretty darned pleased with everything.

Denver, Noir City

Dashiell Hammett‘s The Thin Man is the latest selection in Denver’s “One Book, One Denver” initiative. The novel was personally chosen by mayor John Hickenlooper—who, on the evidence, has completely lost the angry local-TV-news-station-Web-site commenter vote. As some have noted, there’s nothing especially Colorado-like about a New York-set detective novel by a writer who spent most of his life in San Francisco. But Westword‘s Michael Roberts does locate one small connection involving gold-rush-era cannibal Alfred Packer:

Packer allegedly dined on some of his traveling companions in 1874 — and after Thomas S. Duke retold the story in a book called Celebrated Criminal Cases of North America circa 1910, the tale became a fixture in the young century’s popular culture. Just over twenty years later, Hammett quoted from Duke’s account in The Thin Man, where screenwriter Ted Griffin eventually stumbled upon it — an act that is responsible for giving shlock-cinema lovers the gift that is 1999′s Ravenous.

The Hot 200

I don’t envy the task that David Madden has before him: The California State University, Sacramento English professor is spending the rest of the year finishing the Encyclopedia of 20th Century American Fiction, which is set to be published in 2010. Not only are there going to be plenty of ingrates who’ll get similar info cheap and easy, he has to limit the book’s contents to about 200 authors. He bemoans his fate a little in the Sacramento Bee:

Who goes in? Who gets left out? “When you make selections, you are also deleting somebody,” Madden said. For example, Tom Disch won’t make it, even though his New York Times obituary this month quoted the chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts as saying his work was “important” and “Swiftian.”… [But] he included authors like Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler. They’re writers sometimes put in the pulp genre but who were hugely influential. Lesser-knowns like Paul West and Thomas Berger, author of “Little Big Man,” made it, too.

Roundup: You May Have the Falcon…

Stephanie Salter tries to get her head around Dashiell Hammett‘s The Maltese Falcon. My old place in San Francisco was just a couple of blocks from the apartment where Hammett wrote that novel; back in 2001 I wrote a story about the guy who lived (lives?) there.

Nicholson Baker writing “Wikipedia is just an incredible thing” is like Rick James saying “Cocaine is a hell of a drug”–the dude’s found the thing that’s going to reshape his life for years, for better or for worse. As he points out: “All big Internet successes—e-mail, AOL chat, Facebook, Gawker, Second Life, YouTube, Daily Kos, World of Warcraft—have a more or less addictive component—they hook you because they are solitary ways to be social: you keep checking in, peeking in, as you would to some noisy party going on downstairs in a house while you’re trying to sleep.”

A couple of DoSP notes. I have a brief review of Adrian Tomine‘s Shortcomings in Washington City Paper; Tomine is at Politics and Prose on Wednesday. My review of Richard Price‘s excellent new novel, Lush Life, is in today’s Minneapolis Star-Tribune. At the National Book Critics Circle blog, Critical Mass, I’ve been gathering up various materials related to Price’s Clockers; an extended version of the interview with Price that first appeared on City Paper’s Web site is running in three parts. Parts of that interview dedicated specifically to Lush Life are now up at the Chicago Sun-Times Web site. Many thanks to NBCC president John Freeman for proposing the idea, and to Price for giving up so much of his time to weather a fusillade of questions about something he did three books ago.

Sunday Miscellany

Richard Krawiec responds to the foofaraw regarding Gordon Lish‘s editing of Raymond Carver, making the case for a strong-willed editor.

Curtis Sittenfeld‘s Prep, like every popular novel that’s about adolescents and speaks to adolescents about the things that concern adolescents, is deemed unfit for adolescents.

The Millions compiles a list of favorite short-story collections. Good stuff, but: No Faulkner? No Hammett? This guy deserves a slot on the list too.

My brief review of Samantha Hunt‘s historical novel about the last days of Nikola Tesla, The Invention of Everything Else, is online at the Chicago Sun-Times site. I had high hopes for the book, but