Dashiell Hammett is best known today for his signature detective Sam Spade (from The Maltese Falcon) and for the crime-solving duo Nick and Nora (from The Thin Man), but was also a prolific writer of short stories, many of which haven’t been published since their original appearances in pulp magazines like Black Mask. The Big Knockover is one of three major collections of Hammett’s stories currently in print, including nine short stories (two of which together form a sort of two-part novella) and the beginning of an unfinished novel.
That unfinished novel, Tulip, is the star piece in the collection is the least Hammett-like and the least readable. In its fifty-ish pages, making it roughly the length of most of the stories in this book, Hammett speaks to the reader through a character who writes for a living but is caught in a post-midlife introspection that has him questioning his choices in his career, including what I take as a fear of historical obsolescence after the wave of post-modern/realist works that were all the critical rage during Hammett’s own heyday:
“But couldn’t you just write things down the way they happen and let your reader get what he wants out of ‘em?”
“Sure, thats’ one way of writing, and if you’re careful enough in not committing yourself you can persuade different readers to see all sorts of different meanings in what you’ve written, since in the end almost anything can be symbolic of anything else, and I’ve read a lot of stuff of that sort and liked it, but it’s not my way of writing and there’s no use pretending it is.”
“You whittle everything down to too sharp a point,” Tulip said.” I didn’t say you ought to let your reader run hog-wild on you like that, though I can’t see any objections to letting them do your work for you if they want to, bu –”
“Not enough want to make it profitable,” I said, “though you’re likely to get nice reviews.”
I’m not sure if Hammett ever could have finished Tulip, although he wrote the last few paragraphs; the story has no plot at all, instead just relying on an extended, meandering dialogue between the writer, Pop, and the character Tulip, who wants more than anything to give Pop the material for some new story or book, even though Tulip’s stories themselves may be mostly fiction. Dialogue tends to read quickly, of course, but the lack of any narrative greed made Tulip slow going overall, and would be of interest only to Hammett completists or those who, like me, wished for more of a window into the writer’s soul.
The remaining stories in The Big Knockover are pulp detective stories, and in general lacked the austerity and tension of his best novels or even of the stories starring the same detective found in the collection The Continental Op, which I recommend very highly if you’re into detective fiction at all. In The Big Knockover, the plotting is mostly Hammett with familiar patterns and the usual double-crossing, but the language is gussied up for what I presume was the mass market. The long series of nicknames for crooks appearing in the title story was the last straw for me, names like “The Shivering Kid” and “Paddy the Mex” … that much egg salad just distracted me from what was going on underneath the silly language. And one story, “Dead Yellow Women,” is so full of racist language and stereotypes aimed at Asians that I nearly gave up in disgust. The strongest one in the collection is the opener, “The Gutting of Couffignal,” about a major heist on a wealthy island enclave reminiscent of Fitzgerald’s West and East Egg, where Hammett uses weather and a wide cast of characters to build and sustain tension until the end of the story.
Next up: Jasper Fforde’s One of Our Thursdays Is Missing, book six in the Thursday Next series, which is living up to expectations through the first third.