Thursday, January 21, 2016

Turning Noir Inside Out with HAMMETT UNWRITTEN, "Owen Fitzstephen"

There's nothing like a journey into the roots of modern noir to put things into perspective. A little Dashiell Hammett, a little Maltese Falcon -- whether in the book or film or (chuckle) in modern pastiche as "Guy Noir" on A Prairie Home Companion, it's all a great refresher. That solitary, whiskey-soaked detective has Hollywood flair: That's where the genre rose to its early glory.

So it felt a bit risky to open up HAMMETT UNWRITTEN by "Owen Fitzstephen" (with "Notes and Afterword" by Gordon McAlpine, the author of record). Would it make fun of the famous detective, or respect him? Would it be dark, or a spoof?

It turned out to be a little of both -- and even more, a mystery-writer's mystery, probing the tragic illness known as "writer's block." The cover blurb from Ken Bruen signals there will be some depth of character, too! And, as Bruen cautions, "Writer's block will never be quite the same again."

Item: one statue of a black bird, worthless. Item: one former girlfriend, scorned, emerging from prison. Item: a deal with the lady, a trade of a useless item, a sacrifice of the past in order to hold onto the Hollywood life, shared with a successful and beautiful playwright. Hmm.

So that jailbird gal, Moira, confronts "Sam" Dashiell Hammett in 1933 in the second chapter and tells him:
"A joke is exactly what it is. Your problem is that you don't know the punch line yet."

Hammett knew this: in his bed one night in '22 -- before the fullness of Moira's dark, conspiratorial nature became clear to him -- she'd rested her head in the crook of his arm and confessed that she'd pilfered his case notes on the Black Falcon affair (then still embroiled in mystery) from his desk at the Pinkerton office. As her confession occurred ... Hamilton's reaction was relaxed. She proceeded to tell him that the most important thing she gleaned from his notes was not any single piece of information, but the realization that he possessed a strong, straightforward prose style that not only served as something of an aphrodisiac for her but also suggested he might one day be wise to trade in his Pinkerton-issued .38 for a typewriter.
Oh, this is a fun read! If you're facing a snowy week ahead, or a rainy one, it will make good company. If your shelf includes The Maltese Falcon, you can tease this onto the same shelf. Why hot?

From Seventh Street Books, where the line of good mysteries keeps growing.

No comments: