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Penzler Pick, April 2001: What seems a long overdue volume is finally making its appearance. (After all, The Selected Letters of Raymond Chandler was published 20 years ago.) Here, in more than 600 pages crammed with important as well as intimate letters, is a view into the mind of the most important American mystery writer of the 20th century. While I don't believe Hammett could carry Chandler's pen when it came to literary excellence, it's fair to say that Chandler couldn't have published much had Hammett not made the private eye novel both popular and acceptable in the world of American letters.
While I don't recommend starting at the beginning and reading straight through to the end, you can dip into virtually any letter and find an interesting sentence, a fresh way of looking at something seemingly familiar, or learn something you didn't know about Hammett and the people he knew. Take, for example, this brief note to his publisher, Alfred Knopf, in October 1934. The Thin Man had been published in January of that year and was by far Hammett's most successful book. Knopf wanted to capitalize on that success and attempted to get a sixth novel out of his author. Hammett wrote back: "Dear Alfred--So I'm a bum--so what's done of the book looks terrible--so I'm out here (Beverly Hills) drowning my shame in M-G-M money for 10 weeks."
And isn't this interesting? Hammett was stationed in Alaska during World War II and had an active correspondence with Lillian Hellman but also with Prudence Whitfield, the wife of Raoul Whitfield, a fellow Black Mask writer and one of Hammett's closest friends. So Hammett writes to Hellman on May 6, then again on June 3, saying "I know I'm a lowdown bastard not to have written you in all this time..." Well, he was probably right. In the interim, he'd written to Prudence, signing off with "Good night, darling, and much love..." Is there anyone out there who doesn't believe there may have been a bit of hanky-panky with his best friend's wife while darling Lillie remained sublimely unaware?
There's so much more here I could quote for pages. Nice letters to his daughters, Josephine (who wrote an introduction to this book) and Mary; correspondence with other famous writers, his publisher, the editor of Black Mask, etc. There is also a splendid editing job by Richard Layman, probably the country's leading authority on Hammett. His expertise as Hammett's biographer and bibliographer has made his footnotes useful in putting into context the references that may be obscure to some readers.
Here is a book worthy to stand right next to The Maltese Falcon, The Glass Key, Red Harvest,The Dain Curse, and The Thin Man on your bookshelf. --Otto Penzler
Biographer Layman (Shadow Man: The Life of Dashiell Hammett) and Rivett, Hammett's granddaughter, offer a deeply involving anthology of the voluminous correspondence of Dashiell Hammett (1894-1961), culled from more than 1,000 surviving letters. The result (aided immensely by detailed annotation and crisp biographical sketches) narrates Hammett's literary success and the conflicted, enigmatic life he led following publication of The Thin Man (1934), his final novel. The letters illuminate the amazing texture of Hammett's life (from his well-paid Hollywood years to the joyful patriotism of his WWII service to his searing decline due to Red baiting) and writing (from prolific pulp contributor to innovator of popular, violent novels like Red Harvest). They also limn his unusual and intense personal relationships, particularly with the women in his life his estranged wife, longtime lover Lillian Hellman and his daughters and the warmth and chivalry concealed within an oblique persona. While Hammett was not given to detailed meditation on his fictive innovations, his astute reportage of his era's literary gossip, his street-level life and his moral complexities (which, touchingly, he discussed via correspondence with his young daughter Josephine, who writes the introduction) make up for this deficit. Although this collection is richly satisfying, reading it is a bittersweet, saddening experience. One senses that Hammett was knocked about in his lifetime and undervalued, both as a writer and for his dogged pursuit of social justice. Layman and company offer an important touchstone of literary history and a book that will remain a solid backlist title for mystery devotees. Illus. not seen by PW.
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