echo through the twenty short stories and novellas by Dashiell Hammett contained in Nightmare Town.
Before turning to a full-time writing career, Hammett traveled around the country holding a series of different jobs. Most notably he spent considerable time as a detective for the Pinkerton Agency. He worked in Baltimore, San Francisco, and in mining towns throughout the American west. He was exposed to murderers, grifters, con artists, graft, violent union-busting by the Pinkertons (which he abhorred and which help turn him into a lifelong radical) and corporate and governmental corruption. He made friends with other hardboiled detectives and saw first hand how life was on the dark side of town. He drank in bars that served `hard drinks for hard men. These experiences suffused Hammett's writings and the ultra-realistic atmosphere he created lifted almost single-handedly the detective genre from parlor room mysteries to the very real, very gritty streets of the country.
Although best known as the author of such detective classics as The Thin Man, The Maltese Falcon, and The Glass Key, Hammett wrote almost one hundred stories in a twelve-year period from 1922 to 1934 for pulp detective magazines such as Black Mask, True Detective Stories, and Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine. Many of the stories in Nightmare Town have not been seen in print since their original publication. Some of the stories are rough around the edges but they are all terse and well-written. It is easy to see how Hammett's craft evolved from these short stories evolved into his full length classic.
The title story, "Nightmare Town", is a barn-burner. Steve Threefall awakens from a drunken bender in a small-town jail on the California-Nevada border. The town is violent and corrupt. From the time he awakes from his drunken stupor until the stories climax the reader is taken on a dramatic roller coaster ride. This short story reminded me of a classic boxing match between Marvin Hagler and Tommy Hearns which lasted under three short rounds but which many boxing fans claim to be the most intense nine minutes of boxing they have seen. This is early Hammett and the story is not terribly polished but it is immensely enjoyable. This sea-change brought about by Hammett was described succinctly by Raymond Candler (noted in William Nolan's excellent introduction): "He took murder out of the Venetian vase and dropped it into the alley. Hammett gave murder back to the people that commit it for reasons, not just to provide a corpse."
In "Ruffian's Wife" we see the hard-edged life through the eyes of the wife of a seemingly violent thug. She takes delight in having such a husband and living on the edge of violence, until the violence comes to her door step. There are stories involving Sam Spade and the Continental Op, two figures made famous in Hammett's full-length novels. The cynical world-weary view of the world is already apparent even if it is clearly a work in progress. In an unusual turn the detective in "The Assistant Murderer" is painted by Hammett as fat, squat, and ugly. No matinee idol for Hammett.
The last story is perhaps the most intriguing. Entitled "The First Thin Man", it is an early, incomplete, draft of The Thin Man. The story line is dramatically different even if some of the characters remained the same. Further, Nick and Nora Charles are nowhere to be found. It is the equivalent of a literary archeological dig and well worth the price of the book on its own.
Nightmare Town may not be the best place to start for someone who has not yet read Hammett. Because these stories represent some of Hammett's earliest work I think it best for a reader to start with The Thin Man, Maltese Falcon, and the like. Once someone reads those books I think it a safe bet they will thirst for more. Nightmare Town is an excellent way for someone to drink in a bit more Hammett than I previously thought existed. These are terrific stories.