Dashiell Hammett
Created (well, fictionalized, anyway) by Joe Gores and others

"I want two things. One, I want my story back, it's not much but its what I do. And two, I want to be left alone."
Dashiell Hammett, in the film Hammett

Joe Gores' fictional, but affectionate, take on ex-P.I. DASHIELL HAMMETT has the creator of Sam Spade and The Continental Op pushing aside the typewriter and getting "back on the game", as a favor for a pal. Set in San Francisco in 1928, it's part biography and part novel.

In fact, it's quite an enjoyable book, and went on to become (eventually) an arguably enjoyable film. Production problems, a screenplay reportedly written by a cast of thousands, and a less-than-clear sense of direction by Wim Wenders, hindered the film, but it's still worth a look. It's fun to watch for "quotes" from other movies and Hammett's own work, not to mention somne intriguing cameos (notably those of crimewriter Ross Thomas and Elisha Cook Jr.), and it's not a bad PI flick, either. Sure, both the book, and the subsequent film deal with an "entirely imaginary story", yes, but there's far more "truth" in them than in the recent disappointing A&E TV biopic Dash and Lilly.

By the way, Frederic Forest, who played Hammett in the film, reprised the role several years later, in a scene in Citizen Cohn where Cohn and Senator McCarthy are badgering Hammett to give up some Communist Party names. Hammett replies by quoting Lewis Carroll. It's a short scene, but good.

Gores, of course, knows something about real-life San Francisco private eyes who become writers. He's the creator of the DKA series, and a handful of other quality work in the genre. And, of course, Dashiell Hammett was a real guy.

* * * * *

But Joe Gores isn't the only one to take a stab at fictionalizing Hammett. Just like Raymond Chandler, Hammett has been dragged into all sorts of fictional shenanigans. William Nolan even had a series, appropriately titled The Black Mask Boys, featuring pulp writers Erle Stanley Gardner, Raymond Chandler and Hammett getting into all kinds of mischief as amateur sleuths. The first book in the series, The Black Mask Murders (1994), appropiately enough featured Hammett, and he appeared in the two subsequent novels as a major supporting player.

One of the more entertaining romps featuring the Hammett that might have been is Mike Doogan's 2002 short story, "War Can Be Murder," wherein the no-longer-young "Sam" Hammett stationed in Alaska during World War II, plays amateur sleuth (and shows up drunk at a party, offering a few politically-incorrect -- and still timely -- words on war). For those familiar with Hammett's biography, it's a lot of fun. Certainly, the Mystery Writers of America thought so -- they bestowed the 2002 Robert L. Fish Memorial Award upon Doogan for the story.

And Hammett continued to be a prescence in crime fiction. In 2009, Ace Atkins, best known at the time for his series of books about crime-solving blues historian Nick Travers, imagines young Pinkerton agent Dashiell Hammett hired to on behalf on behalf of silent film star “Fatty” Arbuckle, whose been charged with murder, following the unfortunate death of an actress at one of his wild parties. Based on true incidents (Hammett was involved in the case), Devil's Garden is a flawed but intriguing look not just at one of the more overlooked periods of Hammett's life, but also one of the most notorious, star-studded scandals of the twentieth century -- and one of the few Max Allan Collins' Nate Heller seems to have missed.

In 2011, Hammett was back, as a major character in Bradley Denton's emotionally stoked "The Adakian Eagle," in the "urban fantasy" anthology Down These Strange Streets. The short story is narrated by a young soldier stationed in the Aleutians who is dispatched, along with Dashiell "Pop" Hammett, the editor of the base newspaper, to investigate the strange mutilation of an eagle on a desolate moutainside. Even if you know nothing about Hammett's life -- but especially if you do -- the ending will rock you.

And finally (so far), we have Hammett Unwritten (2013) by Owen Fitzstephem, with notes and illustrations by Gordon McAlpine, which posits that Hammett's last case as a Pinkerton agent involved the "real" Maltese Falcon, and that it was possession of the statuette, which he kept as a memento, that was responsible for his subsequent literary success. When the statuette is lost, Hammett's decades-long writer's block begins, as well as Hammett's life-long search for the missing black bird.




  • HAMMETT.. Buy this video.... Buy this DVD
    (1983, Orion Pictures/Warner Brothers)
    Based on the novel by Joe Gores
    95 minutes
    Adaptation by Thomas Pope
    Screenplay by Ross Thomas and Dennis O'Flaherty
    Directed by Wim Wenders
    Executive Producer Francis Ford Coppola
    A Zoetrope Studios Production
    Frederick Forrest as DASHIELL HAMMETT
    Also starring
    Peter Boyle, Marilu Henner, Elisha Cook, Jr., Roy Kinnear, Lydia Lei, R.G. Armstrong, Richard Bradford, Michael Chow, David Patrick Kelly, Sylvia Sidney, Jack Nance, Elmer L. Kline, Royal Dano, Samuel Fuller
    Cameos by Ross Thomas


Report respectfully submitted by Kevin Burton Smith.

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