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Dashiell Hammett's "Nightmare Town"

By Ann Peterpaul

NOVEMBER 8, 1999:  Dashiell Hammett is credited with having invented the hard-boiled, edgy, steely-nerved detective -- forever immortal -- of crime fiction. This character, familiar to everyone as Sam Spade -- played by Humphrey Bogart in the movie The Maltese Falcon, which was based on Hammett's book -- appears in various forms throughout his work. Although the detectives are different, their personalities are very similar. They are the quintessential machos: They dodge bullets, show little emotion, feel no pain, speak in slangy rhythms, and catch murderers who are involved in crimes with about as many twists, turns and complications as a daytime soap opera.

Most of the detectives emerging from this collection of 20 short stories, written from 1922-1934, come from the "Continental Detective Agency" of San Francisco -- based on the Pinkerton Agency where Hammett himself worked as a detective for approximately seven years before he turned to writing. His firsthand knowledge of and experience with this world are evident as we watch the parade of swindlers, smugglers, ruffians, thieves, blackmailers, murderers and thugs march across the pages. Not all of the stories feature a detective, but Sam Spade himself is the central character in the last three.

The pervasive elements throughout the collection are a dizzying array of events, simple dialogues, punches, bullets flying and surprise abrupt endings. Women occupy a very minor role and often appear as onlookers in a dark world where white men fight and kill each other in a gray urban landscape. The smartest and most cunning (the detective) always wins. Foreigners are ridiculed and middle-aged women are only good for opening the door to let the detective in when he comes inquiring. And the only African American mentioned is a chauffeur.

Political correctness aside, this one-dimensional detective world, where the only players occupying center stage are Anglo supermen heroes and super crafty villains, is a world devoid of nuance and the rich and tangled complexities that fill the spectrum of human interaction. It is in this cinematic arena where lightning action, shallow characters and daring deeds play out in all their boyish glory.

Readers are likely to discover that because of the frenetic pace, the stories themselves should be read unhurriedly in order to keep track of what is going on. There are some exceptions. A small handful have a refreshing dual combination of simple, original plots with interesting characters. In the "Ruffian's Wife," a woman whose life centers around her husband is able to see, in one dramatic episode, what really lies beneath his alluring facade. Hammett shows his artistry in "Night Shots," where the suspense runs high to the very end. It's a grand story and easy to imagine as a screenplay for a Hitchcock film. In "The Assistant Murderer," that special breed of bewitching and beautiful but dangerous person comes along. This character's ultimate downfall or redemption, depending on how you look at it, is falling in love. Ironically, the most poignant piece in this collection is "His Brother's Keeper," a story about that epitome of macho worlds, boxing. It has its share of seamy types, crooked deals and archetypal victims, all thrown together in an unsavory stew. But even here love can be transcendent, as Hammett so deftly proves. Why didn't he write more stories like this one, with its capacity to move?

Dashiell Hammett, born in 1894, was a complex and multifaceted individual. During his stint as a detective, he was shot at, clubbed and knifed but always maintained, "I was never bored." He had a long-time turbulent love affair with Lillian Hellman and collaborated with her on almost all of her plays. Hammett was a leftist who deplored the ills of capitalism. He was also an enlisted soldier in two world wars. In 1951, during McCarthyism, the creator of Sam Spade refused to name names before a federal judge in New York and was sentenced to five months in prison. After his release, he was blacklisted; he died of lung cancer at the age of 66 in 1961, a political pariah.

The title story, "Nightmare Town," is the first to appear in this collection. The site of this dark tale is a rural town where nothing is as it appears to be. The evocation is that of a desolate landscape replete with haunted figures. The air is thick with conspiracy. In his way, Hammett prophesied an atmosphere that permeated the era of political witch hunts and paranoia that would eventually claim him. (Alfred A. Knopf, hardcover, $25)


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