Dashiell Hammett is a name that’s familiar to fans of mystery novels; the prolific noir-era writer penned numerous renowned books, including several that became legendary big-screen successes.
Now Hammett is himself the subject of a novel. Hammett Unwritten, by Owen Fitzstephen (aka Gordon McAlpine), a Southern California resident, is a fictionalized account based on the late author’s life surrounding The Maltese Falcon.
The book starts out on New Year’s Eve 1959 in Long Island. At that time, it had been almost 30 years since Hammett had written a new story; he was in the midst of health issues he would not discuss. He is reviewing the obituary that he wrote for himself; we see how troubled he is over divorcing his first wife in San Francisco, and only keeping in contact with his children through support payments and the occasional phone call. Booze, smoking and women definitely had an impact on Hammett’s life.
“The Black Falcon Affair of 1922” in San Francisco is portrayed in the novel as a true story, even though the real Maltese Falcon is based on the Kniphausen Hawk (a centuries-old ceremonial pouring vessel). The mysterious statuette of a falcon with a jewel on it was said to offer the person who owned it various powers. It’s the sort of archeological artifact you’d expect to see in an Indiana Jones film. Hammett Unwritten depicts the story of the falcon as real, and suggests that Hammett was both blessed and cursed by it—and that the story itself consumed him.
As Hammett recalls his most infamous case—which also went on to be the subject of his masterpiece novel—he goes down memory lane after one of the scam artists he was involved with while cracking the original case arrives in his office. Other real-life people—including Lillian Hellman, with whom Hammett had a decades-long love affair—get worked into the plot as well. The book also has Hammett cracking his final case in the days after the House Un-American Activities Committee caught up with him and blacklisted him for his refusal to cooperate—something that really happened.
While Hammett Unwritten is well-written, the overly complex story is hard to follow at times. The book jumps around various eras of Hammett’s career, the numerous women with whom Hammett was involved, the characters related to The Maltese Falcon, and so on; at times, it’s hard to determine the era in which a particular scene is set. There are also bits and pieces of interviews that Hammett did throughout his career worked in, which muddles things even more.
Did having the mysterious falcon in his possession give the fictional Hammett the fortune and fame he enjoyed as a writer? When the fictional author gave away the falcon, did that lead to his string of bad luck? How much of this novel happened in real life, and how much of it is pure fiction? These are all questions you’ll be asking yourself after reading Hammett Unwritten.
By Owen Fitzstephen
160 pages, $13.95