Monday, May 6, 2024

Dashiell Hammett gets extra pulpy in his short stories

Ernest Hemingway is largely credited with moving popular U.S. fiction out of the flourishing Henry James/Victorian style of writing into a leaner, more conversational one. And that is certainly true, but Dashiell Hammett doesn't get enough credit in this department.

His pulpy detective stories began their string of popular publication in 1923, while Hemingway's first book In Our Time was published in Europe in 1924 and not in the U.S. until late 1925. Hemingway may not have ever admited it, but he was under the influence of Hammett. 

While The Maltese Falcon and The Thin Man are well-known Hammett novels, I wanted to explore his lesser-known short stories a bit.

"The Creeping Siamese" (1926): In the Continental Detective Agency's San Francisco branch, a tall, leathery man named Rounds, in town from New York, walks in and collapses dead from a fresh knife wound. The employees can't find anything amiss in their hallway or the rest of their building. The wound has a sarong stuffed into it, which leads the detective on a hunt for the killer. He ends up at the apartment of a local movie-theater owner and a woman he claims to be his wife. Through a very sharp eye for detail, the detective determines the woman had actually been married to the dead man and had accidentally stabbed him after he had located her lover. The story gets its name because the guilty and racist couple had tried to blame everything on a mysterious "siamese" who had supposedly broken into their apartment and shot her beau's leg. A minor story but a good glimpse into Hammett's world of crime, and a nice semi-subtle dig against racism. 3.5 out of 5 stars

"Faith" (appeared for the first time in 2007's compilation The Black Lizard Big Book of Pulps): This is the tale of a homeless encampment of people in Maryland, A nomad named Feach tells everyone there that everywhere he's gone, something has gone tremendously wrong. He is a religious fellow and thinks it's God's will for him. But when a block of houses burns nearby, it's discovered that Feach was the one who set the fire, leading the reader to believe it's not God but Feach that is the evil one. Interesting conceptually, and thankfully short, but far from essential.  And being overly wordy, it's not very Hemingway-like. 2 out of 5 stars

“The Girl with the Silver Eyes” (1924): This is a bit of a the sequel to another popular Hammett short story published earlier in that year called “The House in Turk Street,” which I would like to read as well. The author practically invented the feline-like, cold-bloody temptress that would be a feature of just about every pulp story by every pulp author to follow. A “fat little” P.I. from the Continental Detective Agency in San Francisco - a running enterprise of much Hammett fiction - is called upon to check on a poet who has given his girlfriend $20,000 right before she had left temporarily and suddenly for Baltimore, writes letters back and forth to him for several days, and then seems to vanish completely. Turns out the money had been stolen from the poet’s wealthy brother-in-law, who tells the detective to find the poet and the money discreetly, without his wife finding out. The poet soon also disappears and the detective tracks him and the girl to a bootlegging operation in Half Moon Bay. Bloodshed follows and, although the woman seems to nearly be working her attraction magic on him, in the end, he deposits her to the Redwood City jail. Before she is locked up for likely a very long time (she had a streak of other killings and also had been disguised as a dangerous redhead in the previous story), she whispers “the vilest epithet of which the English language is capable” into the detective’s ear. It's a very fun, and very pulpy, read. 4.5 out of 5 stars

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