Hammett Unwritten by Gordon McAlpine (as Owen Fitzstephen)

Man in the Dark

Books Reviews
Hammett Unwritten by Gordon McAlpine (as Owen Fitzstephen)

Before this book, the cleverest take on the amorphous affliction known as “writer’s block” came from the movies. In the dark-comic Hitchcock homage Throw Momma From the Train (1987), Billy Crystal plays an author and writing teacher who hasn’t been able to write a sentence since his ex-wife stole his novel. In one scene, he rebuffs his girlfriend’s romantic overtures, insisting, “I’ve got writer’s block.” She replies, “Everywhere?”

It’s tempting to describe Gordon McAlpine’s new novel, the captivating Hammett Unwritten, as a meta-meditation on writer’s block. Hammett Unwritten purports to unmask the true causes of a 30-year block suffered by Dashiell Hammett, the hard-boiled detective fiction master whose work defines the genre.

Hammett wasn’t just a writer of detective stories. He created a new kind of pulp fiction detective, who lacked the sophistication and sleuthing acumen of a Sherlock Holmes or Hercule Poirot, but brought other qualifications to the job. The Hammett detective knew how to take a punch and knew when to throw one. He worked for money, not the thrill of the hunt. He had the fierce integrity to put his own uncompromising moral code and sense of justice before self-preservation or even the law. We don’t read Hammett’s stories to be dazzled by feats of deduction beyond our ken. We marvel at Hammett’s detectives only because they accept the violence of the world and prove more willing than we are to get their hands dirty as they contend with it.

Though it has its reflective moments, Hammett Unwritten has far too much Hammett in it to read like a meditation on anything, including the coming and going of Hammett’s genius. McAlpine mostly assembles interlocking pieces of fact and fiction to pose a plausible solution to the puzzle of Hammett’s sudden loss of writing mojo. It turns out to be almost too tantalizing not to believe, not least because it encompasses so many things a lot of Hammett fans wish were true.

Hammett Unwritten presents an abundance of irresistible “what if”s as matter-of-fact facts. What if Hammett had, in fact, worked the case described in his signature novel, The Maltese Falcon, during his years as a Pinkerton operative? What if Falcon were the last case Hammett closed before he turned in his gumshoe license and became a writer? What if Falcon protagonist Sam Spade and Dashiell Hammett turned out to be one and the same? What if the falcon itself sat on Hammett’s own writing desk throughout his 12 years as a writer?

What if, in fact, all the characters in Falcon had real-life counterparts who re-entered Hammett’s life with respective axes to grind … and thoroughly derailed the massively successful writing career that peaked when he’d sold them all out by committing their crimes to the printed page?

The stuff that makes dreams becomes the stuff that makes novels all the time. Still it’s rare to find a novel that taps into such a peculiar vein of fiction-fan wish-fulfillment, and that somehow creates a convincing simulacrum of the object of that fandom in the process.

McAlpine doesn’t really write like Hammett (although he makes some metafiction mischief out of that too), but he reanimates the “real” Brigid O’Shaughnessy and Joel Cairo and the Fat Man and other stars of the hard-boiled fiction firmament quite ably. Hammett Unwritten delivers solid mystery writing and tries several unexpected things … and somehow makes them all work.

Particularly fascinating is that Hammett Unwritten accomplishes the next-best thing to writing the unwritten—it satisfies the insatiable longing for another Dashiell Hammett novel. In fact, it doesn’t simply add to Hammett’s output, it picks up precisely where he left off. In a way far more satisfying than the truth could ever be, it also answers the nagging question of why Hammett never wrote another book. What’s remarkable about Hammett Unwritten is McAlpine’s unfailing and seemingly instinctive knowledge of what fans of Hammett—and other famously blocked writers—most want to know.

Hammett certainly found himself in distinguished company among the handful of first-rank 20th-century American writers who fell prey to prolonged cases of writer’s block. All of them inevitably faced the attendant prying and speculation about what happened and why. Certainly not every writer whose productivity lags for years spends that time staring disconsolately at an empty page (although Hammett’s acquaintances attest that he logged many hours doing just that). Some ex-novelists contentedly move on to other pursuits. L. Ron Hubbard, for example.

For devoted readers, the notion that a writer’s work might become less important to the writer than to readers can be tough to swallow and even tougher to understand. Novelists who seem to come and go in a brief flash of brilliance perplex us most. It’s hard to conceive of a novelist as a one-hit wonder—to accept that the talent, vision and dogged diligence required to write one (or a few) good-to-great novels could come and go as quickly and completely as a lucky burst of inspiration that yields a catchy, three-chord, three-minute hit record.

How does a writer of the gifts of, say, Harper Lee write To Kill a Mockingbird, then never complete another book (so far) in her life? Some have speculated (quite outrageously, and even insultingly—Capote the Ghostwriter, anyone?) on why Lee seemed to have stopped writing, but no one really knows.

Robert Christgau hit on one explanation in his review of the New York Dolls’ aptly titled second album, Too Much Too Soon. Christgau speculated that the life of a newly popular musician or writer—especially when occupied with promoting existing work—is considerably less conducive to good new writing as that of an artist still on the way up. Lee did concede she found it hard to find time to write in the years after To Kill a Mockingbird, with so many new friends dropping by for coffee. Still, no number of cups of coffee explains her decades of literary silence.

Henry Roth went 60 years between the publication of his first novel, Call it Sleep (1934), and the arrival of Volume 1 of his posthumously acclaimed quartet of autobiographical novels, Mercy of a Rude Stream (1994). Roth revealed more than anyone ever wanted to know (in vivid, squirm-inducing and sometimes-exaggerated detail) about the adolescent incest that crippled him with self-loathing and shut him up for 60 years.

Roth’s story differs from others’ in that his block ultimately broke, loosing an unprecedented torrent of end-of-life unburdening. Roth’s struggles also happened much more privately. Few people outside Roth’s own peer group noticed that he’d never written a follow-up to his first novel until 30 years after its publication, when Call it Sleep (which had failed to draw much interest in 1934) landed improbably on the front page of the New York Times Book Review, hailed as the definitive novel of the American Jewish immigrant experience. It’s doubtful that the critics who revived Call it Sleep even knew that Roth was still alive. It took some enterprising reporters to track him down—to Roth’s great annoyance—at his waterfowl farm in rural Maine. Acclaim, attention and grants followed, but Roth never published another novel until 18 months before his death.

Hammett’s flameout may be the saddest and most public of all.

Raymond Chandler reflected on the genre Hammett invented (and that Chandler later advanced) in his essay “The Simple Art of Murder.” According to Chandler, Hammett “… took murder out of the Venetian vase and dropped it into the alley. Hammett gave murder back to the kind of people who commit it for reasons, not just to provide a corpse.”

Doing so, Hammett almost single-handedly elevated the detective novel to tragic art. He enjoyed enormous popularity, and through blockbuster film adaptations became the toast of Hollywood, The Maltese Falcon and The Thin Man proved his biggest (but by no means only) successes.

Yet unlike even the best of the hard-boiled crime novelists that followed in his wake, most of whom turned their gumshoes into franchises, Hammett proved no careerist. Consider even Hammett’s two finest 21st-century successors, Ken Bruen and Walter Mosley.

Bruen inexplicably continues to churn out Jack Taylor novels after giving the Galway, Ireland-based detective the most fitting benediction a Hammett-style gumshoe ever had. In The Devil, Old Nick himself comes after Taylor, and acknowledges that in spite of the detective’s failings and faults—legion, costing him and his loved ones dearly—Taylor remains the devil’s only impediment to swallowing Galway whole.

Meanwhile, news arrived recently that Mosley’s magnificent hard-luck hero, the L.A. detective Easy Rawlins—last glimpsed in 2007’s Blonde Faith driving his car off a cliff with considerable grace and finality—will return May 14 in a new installment.

Given how the genre he created has played out, it seems almost unimaginable that Hammett’s archetypal hard-boiled hero Sam Spade appears in exactly one novel (Falcon) and three short stories.

What made Hammett so willing to let go of Sam Spade, the Continental Op, Nick and Nora Charles and his other resonant characters?

It certainly wasn’t for lack of popular demand. Hammett reportedly told friends as he completed his last novel, The Thin Man, that it would be his last detective story, and its hero Nick Charles makes no secret of his distaste for detective work. “I found I was repeating myself,” Hammett said. Hammett spent the better part of 19 years in the detective business, much of the first seven as an operative of the Pinkerton Agency, the next 12 as a writer.

What of the three decades of his life after he stopped writing? We know that he lived on and off with the playwright Lillian Hellman, devoted much of his time to drinking and Hollywood hobnobbing, spent a year in the Aleutian Islands as an over-40 volunteer sergeant during World War II and committed himself fully to a significant amount of leftist political activism.

This last landed Hammett, like Hellman, in front of the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) for suspicion of Communist Party connections. And like Hellman—who recounted her HUAC experience in the era-encapsulating book Scoundrel Time—Hammett refused to name names. On trial in a related case, his Sam Spade-worthy stoic silence when asked to name contributors to the New York Civil Rights Congress bail fund landed Hammett in prison for five months in 1951. Blacklisted, his books out of print, the IRS seizing his assets (present and future), Hammett never recovered financially. He also never completed a new book between 1934 and his death in 1961.

Why? Why couldn’t Hammett write at all after The Thin Man, even before the McCarthy Hollywood witchhunt brought him down?

We know that he quit Pinkerton because of a chronic pulmonary disorder and recurring bouts of tuberculosis. He turned to writing as an alternative to the physical rigors of detective work, and his poor health only worsened with age.

We also know that he drank a lot and fully enjoyed (along with Hellman—Nora Charles to his Nick) the life to which his literary and screen-adapting success entitled him.

So Christgau’s “too much too soon” theory may well apply to the early years of his writing slump. We know that in the late 1930s he began to turn his attention to politics—civil rights and workers’ rights, in particular—often using his celebrity as leverage, and that his commitment to the causes he embraced proved absolute and unwavering. Perhaps Hammett simply found something more compelling than writing detective stories? After all, detective fiction wasn’t even Hammett’s first choice as a literary career; he may never have started writing it if the publishers of the highbrow literary monthly The Smart Set hadn’t re-routed him to Black Mask, its genre stablemate.

But we also know that Hammett continued to try to write other types of fiction after he’d lost his taste for crime. His last secretary recalls spending endless silent hours stoking the fire in his New York office as Hammett stared at his typewriter, never completing more than a few notes on a single page. Heartbreaking to consider.

Hammett’s biographers say he attempted several new novels and returned advances for at least one of them. He last attempted a semi-autobiographical work called Tulip (it survives as a fragment in the Hellman-compiled collection The Big Knockover), a ruminative literary novel based on World War II experiences. The writer began the book a year after his release from prison and abandoned it shortly thereafter.

In the end, many issues explain Hammett’s blocked last decades, and they all probably tell part of the story. We really can only guess what laid waste to Hammett’s genius. Like Roth, Hammett was exceptional at one type of writing, and apparently incapable of any other one. Unlike Roth, who could write only of himself, Hammett’s writing gifts had little or nothing to do with personal introspection.

Between narrative chapters of Hammett Unwritten that advance the imaginative fiction of the Maltese Falcon alumni/ae haunting and taunting Hammett through his unproductive last decades, McAlpine offers a sort of connective tissue—a series of brief vignettes tied to dated Time magazine covers. They illustrate Hammett’s inner turmoil and bitterness at a world moving on without him. Here we get McAlpine’s glimpses into the blocked writer’s mind as it sinks ever deeper into disuse. In 1941, when at least he still has money coming in, Hammett finds his eyes wandering from the blank page in the typewriter to Rita Hayworth on the cover of Time. He muses that even Rita Hayworth can’t take his mind off his own failings.

He turns back to the desk and pulls the blank paper from his typewriter, placing it to the left of the machine atop a quarter inch high stack of other blank pages, all likewise pulled in the past few hours; from a taller stack to the right of his typewriter he takes a new sheet and rolls it into the machine, staring at it as if he might find something already typed on it in the faintest ink.

Here we see what’s most compelling about Hammett Unwritten. McAlpine includes passages like this but doesn’t let them drag the book down. How could it, when juxtaposed with scenes of the writer himself confronted by his own characters made flesh, these avatars armed, spinning yarns, working angles, wreaking revenge? It’s almost the Hammett book one might imagine Paul Auster writing, given his earnest stabs at hard-boiled metafiction and his evident obsession with the moral implications and narrative possibilities of Sam Spade’s Flitcraft parable.

Introspective interludes aside, Hammett Unwritten cooks and delights, mixing danger and intrigue and femme fatale-ism worthy of its subject, and occasionally induces the same giddy reading delirium that accompanies a reader’s first foray into Hammett’s The Thin Man.

If plumbing the roots of writer’s block hardly seems like a winning formula for fun and exhilarating fiction, McAlpine daringly and deftly defies the odds. But the achievement is no more unlikely than a tubercular high school dropout single-handedly making crime fiction real, or a one-time Pinkerton strikebreaker staring down Joseph McCarthy and Roy Cohn, placing conviction unflinchingly above self-preservation.

Even if Dashiell Hammett’s writing talents abandoned him entirely or ultimately proved as one-dimensional as they once seemed unlimited, Hammett Unwritten gives his life the hard-boiled second act it most certainly deserved.

Steve Nathans-Kelly is a writer and editor based in Ithaca, New York. He’s a firm believer in writer’s block.

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