Selected Letters Of Dashiell Hammett 1921 – 1960, edited by Richard Layman (Counterpoint)

They can be terrible interviewees, wooden performers at festivals, inept lovers, political idiots, hygienically challenged and socially gauche, but one thing, apart from their trade, writers do better than anyone else: they write the best letters. And so they should. Letters are, you would think, their busman’s holiday; the words that brimmeth over the cups of their poems, novels and plays; the spontaneous overflow of feelings that, unlike the rest of us, they have the wit to describe.

It’s true, too, that in their letters many writers shed the flaws that mar their more considered work. I would much sooner read Katherine Mansfield’s letters than her stories, and the letters of Hopkins, for instance, are sparkling in their lucidity in ways the sonnets sometimes aren’t. Likewise Keats reveals in his letters a tough-minded intellect at odds with the seemingly naïve sensuousness of his poetry, and D. H. Lawrence’s vast correspondence, so painstakingly edited by Cambridge University Press, exhibits to the end a sunniness and charm that, if not entirely absent from his novels, are seldom detected by his critics.

And then there is Dashiell Hammett.  Hammett is chiefly famous these days for his classic crime novel, The Maltese Falcon, which is chiefly famous for inspiring the movie of the same name, which is chiefly famous for the performance of its leading actor, Humphrey Bogart. Hammett is also famous thanks to his on-but-mostly-off-again relationship with the more famous Lillian Hellman, who is herself famous for I don’t remember what, exactly, except that she wrote plays, was a Communist, and never let the truth get in the way of a good lie, or even a bad one. Mary McCarthy said as much, though rather more pithily, and the indefatigable champion of free speech promptly sued her. It was Hellman who gave the rather tepid, fitful relationship with Hammett the Grand Romance make-over treatment after his death. The reality, like Hammett’s letters, was more prosaic. As his surviving daughter writes, in her introduction to this volume, the letters show that “Lillian was a constant in his life but not the everything she would have liked to be. Nobody was that; he wouldn’t have it.”

That last sentence gives the clue to why this volume is so unsatisfying. “He wouldn’t have it”: Hammett never gave himself away, not to anyone. The real man is always elsewhere. The most touching letters, in this book, are those we don’t see: the long letters from his teenage daughter, Mary, asking her absentee father his views on politics, international affairs, momentous events of the day. One review describes Hammett’s letters back as “particularly sober and thoughtful.” I found them bland and obtuse. Mary’s earnest letters were, as this collection’s editor notes, “a strategy for engaging her father”; yet a typical response begins: “Dear Mary, Now for a stab at trying to answer your questions about Europe …”

Hammett’s letters to Hellman are similarly unrevealing. Hammett was, until Chandler, the leading exponent of the genre of the hard-boiled, laconic American detective story, the creator of Sam Spade, Nick Charles, and the Continental Op. We don’t expect a Sam Spade to have an inner life: at most the genre permits a hint of emotion, quickly suppressed. But a style that is perfectly adapted to the crime story and to film noir is as ill-suited to the confessional of the letter as it would be to a diary. Here, Hammett waxes laconic over 600 pages, and the effect is numbing. What we learn of the man is all deduction from externals.

What are the externals? These letters span the period from 1921, when Hammett was a young tuberculosis patient in hospital, flirting with his nurse and future wife, Josephine, to his death in relative obscurity in 1961. In between are his brief career as a Pinkerton detective, a string of successful crime stories and novels, a wife and two daughters, high-life and mistresses in Hollywood, his relationship and professional collaboration with Hellman, soldiering in the Aleutians in World War II, and his industry on behalf of the Communist Party. 

For his political convictions, and his refusal to dob in his colleagues, Hammett went to jail briefly, and it is tempting to think that this experience, and the hounding from the IRD for back-taxes, broke him. Life is more complex. Hammett had stopped writing many years before, bored and limited by the genre’s conventions he had himself pioneered. His commitment to the communist cause, formed possibly in reaction to what he must have seen of the union-busting activities of the Pinkertons, would be touchingly idealistic were it not for his (and Hellman’s) careful silence on the realities of Soviet Russia: the political assassinations, the purges, the horrors of the gulag. As for his fading into obscurity, this seems not to have bothered him – outwardly at least. And the outward appearance, despite the mass of correspondence, is all we have.

Christchurch Press

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Tim Tweets