Wednesday, 12 August 2009

Lost Stories - Dashiell Hammett

Not so much lost as ‘never before collected’. And Vince Emery is to be congratulated on tracking them down and bringing them together in this way. Because set out in chronological order and with concise and acute observations in between they constitute an excellent record of a writer’s development.

The stories and other pieces range from one page skits to full on stories. Not all of them are crime. Not all of them are pulp. What they all are, however, is inimitable. Hammett was an unpretentious writer. His style matches the content perfectly. The appearance of ease was obviously studiously crafted. And we are given stories at the end of all that hard work which are easy to read, full of inventive and lively language, packed with detail and wonderful characterisation, and which offer more observation on the human condition than many ‘literary’ writers could ever hope to make.

This is, perhaps, brilliantly demonstrated in the short piece ‘The Advertising Man Writes A Love Letter’. Having served his time as a copywriter, Hammett puts his skills to use by transferring the stock phrases and tricks of advertising copy into a love letter, complete with testimonials and reply coupon. On the surface it is a joke, and a funny one at that. But look at it again and it gets to the very heart of contemporary life and relationships whilst making observations of the consumer society in which we live (then and now).

Between the stories there is also a good deal about Hammett’s life, his battle with TB (and the even tougher battles to get and keep his disability pension), his time in Hollywood and what it did to his writing and self-esteem, his politics.

I love Hammett’s writing. This book has shown me how that developed and how the man developed along with it. That made it a double treat.