Hammett's detectives are the real 'original'

Sunday, November 14, 1999
Nightmare Town: Stories
by Dashiell Hammett. Alfred A. Knopf. 396 pages. $25.

     "I don't like eloquence: if it isn't effective enough to pierce your hide, it's tiresome; and if it is effective enough, then it muddles your thoughts," observes the narrator of "Zigzags of Treachery," one twenty tales collected in "Nightmare Town." These words of the Continental Op, one of Dashiell Hammett's best-known characters, sum up the no-nonsense attitude of the tough, taciturn detective. For these men, like the best stories assembled here, eloquence lies in direct language which never reveals more than it has to.

     However, depending on your fondness for Hammett, this collection may reveal more than it has to. "Zigzags," "Night Shots," "A Man Called Spade" and "Too Many Have Lived" -- these last two feature Sam Spade -- are classic Hammett. But some of the others read like footnotes to his major works, of great interest to the fan or scholar but not essential for the general reader.

     For example, "The First Thin Man" (1930), an incomplete draft of "The Thin Man" (1933), lends insight into Hammett's writing process and provides a glimpse of the very different book Hammett might have written had he not met Lillian Hellman, his on-and-off companion from late 1930 until his death in 1961. She is thought to have inspired Nora Charles, whose witty conversations with husband Nick give the final work its successful blend of humor and suspense. Nick and Nora do not appear in the early version, and non-enthusiasts should skip it in favor of the complete novel.

     Similarly, "Nightmare Town" and "Afraid of a Gun" may not be the strongest pieces here, but they do highlight the influence of Poe on Hammett's work. Likewise, the poet-detective of "A Man Named Thin" and the boxer of "His Brother's Keeper" do not rank with Sam Spade and the Continental Op, but their stories give a sense of the range of Hammett's fictional interests.

     For either novice or enthusiast, the main benefit of "Nightmare Town: Stories" is to bring us back to the originals. From the filmed versions of the 1930s and 1940s to more recent parodies (Garrison Keillor's "Guy Noir" on NPR's "A Prairie Home Companion" or "Shrug" on ABC's "It's Like, You Know..."), characters like Sam Spade have become pop-culture clichés. Reading these stories transports us to a time when detectives such as these seemed fresh, speaking a language that felt crisp and new.

     (Phil Nel is a Visiting Instructor of English at the College of Charleston.)