This should have gone up last week, but it came to me after I left town.
Happy Valentine's Day, folks.
Yes, February 14th is Valentine's Day.
Dashiell Hammett's novel "The Maltese Falcon" was published on February
14th, 1930. Saint Valentine's Day. Exactly one year to the day after the Saint Valentine's Day Massacre in Chicago. A great day to be a gangster, eh? Unless you're on the wrong side
of the gun.
But, hey, let's look at Dash Hammett when he was writing The Falcon and the
world he was living in. He is young and attractive. He is in his Dangerous Thirties. A redhead
like the young Mark Twain. Living in San Francisco. How cool!
But let me put you in his shoes, okay?How would you kill time waiting to die?
I'm talking about you being so infected with tuberculosis that your spouse and your kids cannot live with you because you could infect them on your way to the grave. And the Government is who's telling you that your wife and kids cannot live with you.
You are a hundred percent disabled. And you can contaminate and thus kill those you love the most. Everybody KNOWS you are dying. Oh, but it is a hot time to be alive. You live in the hottest, most sophisticated city in the United States. A city just back from the dead.
Twenty years earlier the Great Earthquake & Fire -- aka The Really Really Big One -- had done a Katrina on your city. Your city was destroyed, maybe more thoroughly than N'Orleans was.
San Francisco fought back and rebuilt itself. In many ways, the Crookedest City in the USA cut some corners, took some shortcuts, broke a lot of laws, did many unethical and immoral business stunts, fiddled with the books behind its back, and rose like a phoenix from its own flames. Within 20 years of the disaster, too.
Now, when Hammett lives in San Francisco, the City is even better, bigger, richer, and prettier than before the Really Big One. Everybody in America is rolling in dough. Everybody has got mucho money. The economy is Roaring. The Stock Market is Roaring. And you get in on it
with next to nothing, pal, for just ten cents on the dollar.
You're a Fool if you don't invest. Gamble all you got and get rich quick, pal. Hey, everybody's doing it. Hey, so far the sub prime problems we have today have not led to the Great
Depression, right? So we are chump change to the $ of the 1920s.
Go for a walk in your city. For the first time in history, half the population of America lives in cities. Automobiles everywhere. Prohibition is Roaring. Making every red-blood American a hypocrite. The Feds say making or selling alcohol is a felony. Buying or possessing
alcohol is not a crime. Prohibition was our nation's one shot at being Moral. Prohibition gave us
speakeasies, Al Capone and the Mob, drive-by shootings, Tommy guns, bathtub
gin, and you know the rest.
Oh, and the White House and Congress are crooked as hell, too. Who would ever have thunk it that members of the President's Own Cabinet were selling America's stored-for-emergency strategic oil supplies to big corporations? The Teapot Dome Scandal was what America called it. And folks on the street couldn't stop talking about it.
Back then, the Attorney General for the USA had to resign because he accepted bribes. America's Top Cop was a Crook!? Wow, what a role model. And the Secretary of the Interior was also accepting bribes, and he ended up going to prison, the first member of the Cabinet ever to go to jail! And other members of the Administration got convicted and sent to jail, too.
And some government guys, rather to go to jail, committed suicide.
Uncle Sam was crooked!? Say it isn't so, Joe. (Remember that slogan, folks.) But then, the unimaginable happened. The President died. In office. But not in Washington, D.C. President Warren G. Harding, from Ohio (yep) is generally rated one of the worst presidents America ever had. As a husband, Harding disowned by his father-in-law, who was so disgusted that he wouldn't talk to his daughter or her spouse for the first eight years.
As a US Senator, Harding missed two-thirds of all his roll calls, even missing the chance to vote on legislation he proposed. He was a shameless opportunist, a real political animal, if I'm not being oxymoronic. At times he publicly opposed legislation that privately he supported, because
publicly opposing it was good politics. He thrived in the smoke-filled back rooms.
Harding himself said he was at his best when he was "bloviating," which is shooting the sh--, ah, chitchatting with his buddies over his livelong and weekly poker games.
Oh, and him and his cronies were known as The Ohio Gang.
Privately, when discussing the Teapot Dome scandal, Harding complained about "My God-dammed friends!" Harding was very handsome and very charming, and the ladies liked him. He got nominated and then elected president because, as everybody said, "he looked like a president." Really, that's what they said. In the first national election that women could vote in.
The whisperers also said he cheated shamelessly on his wife. Why, there were claims that the President of the United States had illicit sex with another woman in the White House. They said he had sex with the woman in a closet while the Secret Service guarded the closed door in case his wife chanced to come by.
The President of the United States having illicit sexual relations in the
White House? Oh, I am shocked, shocked! It's unimaginable, right?Harding, who had just been visiting up in Alaska, being the first president who ever visited the future state, had received a really long secret message that "shocked him" to the core about the Teapot Dome scandal.
Harding and his entourage tried rushing back to Washington. Staying overnight in San Francisco, the President . took ill. Food poisoning? (I dunno.) Which became pneumonia. Which might have led to a heart attack, or maybe a stroke. The President died in a luxurious hotel, the Palace, in downtown San Francisco. A half-dozen blocks downhill from the apartment building where
Dashiell Hammett would be living alone, unemployable, waiting to die from tuberculosis.
And under their breath, every American back then is whispering how Somebody -- god knows who -- but Somebody assassinated the President of the United States to cover up how high the Scandal goes. Yep. That the President of the United States was poisoned. To cover up more heinous crimes, the whisperers said. The history books claim that Harding died of natural causes while staying in the Palace Hotel in San Francisco on August 2, 1923.
And I suppose Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone. (He did. But nobody believes it, right?)
On the other hand, the US Surgeon General was part of Harding's entourage, and he never examined the body. Or if he did, he never commented publicly on what he examined.
Even more suspicious, the President's wife Florence refused to permit an autopsy.
Yep, no autopsy on the dead President. Couldn't happen now, of course, but this was back in the Roaring Twenties.
Some gossips are bold enough to whisper that Harding got poisoned by his own wife. She acted real strange when he lay in state. She spent an hour along with the corpse; folks said she whispered, well . . . There are differing versions of what she said.
And Dash Hammett, you live a few blocks away from where the President died. Your wife and daughters cannot live with you. You and your family are allowed only occasional visits.
Sometimes you leave your apartment. Gotta get a loaf of bread or a bottle of rye. And the women you see around you on the streets of San Francisco have stopped looking or acting like your mom, or your sister, or your daughter, or the girl next door.
Women got short hair. They got short skirts. They smoke cigarettes in public. They drink bathtub gin out of the same glass you use. They stay out late at night. They don't take being docile no more. They are Independent. And they can do without you.
And you are in your Dangerous Twenties, good-looking and attractive, a disabled war vet living on the scraps that are falling off the table. A disabled war vet coughing up blood in your handkerchief. An ambulance driver, like Hemmingway and John Dos Passos, but. Of all the luck. You got sick before you saw combat. You caught that influenza that killed maybe 20 to 50 million people over an eighteen month period. The flu that actually ended The Great War. Oh, they called it an armistice, but soldiers on both sides were too sickly or dying to fight.
Yeah, the War to End All War ended because of soldiers dying of flu.
And you spent years in a veteran's hospital. Hell, you fell in love with the nurse who nursed you back to health. You two got married, had kids together. Her name is Josie, only you pronounce it Jose, and even though you will never live together, you will dedicate your third book "The Maltese Falcon" to her. You went off to war, found out it wasn't honorable or noble, just bloody and violent and absolutely senseless because you lived and the guy next to you
died and . . . You are Samuel Dashiell Hammett (May 27, 1894-January 10, 1961) and you are
killing time and waiting to die. Bored, lonely, frustrated, you start
writing detective stories.
Pulp fiction. Bad guys and good guys. Bad girls and good girls. Everybody's got a gun in his hand.
Kiss kiss bang bang. Fantasy writing, eh? Fantasy, as best-selling novelist Sue Grafton once said, is the Great Equalizer. She took up writing detective stories because only guys were having all the fun. She writes the best-selling alphabet series. You know, "B is for Burglar." "U is for Underwear."
Grafton was a Hollywood scriptwriter who could not get past the glass ceiling that the white men of Hollywood had erected. So she went around them. She now sells millions, yes, millions of copies of her California mysteries.
Fantasy is a way of getting through the day when life sucks. The Great Equalizer, eh?
Unlike some other writers in this pulp genre, Hammett could write from personal knowledge. He had been a real detective with the Pinkerton Agency. Of course he had been snitching on unions for big corporations, and what he had done has soured him on Big Business. But he had been a real detective. Once he investigated the theft of a ferris wheel. Steal a ferris wheel? Go
figure. Detective stories start with Catastrophe. Something has gone Terribly Wrong
in the world. "Say it isn't so, Joe."
Oh. Yeah. That phrase. That's what American kids were saying, after theydiscovered that The World Series was crooked. That gamblers had rigged the Series. That the Great American Heroes of the ballpark were criminals and bums.
No, I am not going to talk about Roger Clemens or Barry Bonds or the Patriots stealing signals from other teams. No cheap shots from me. Remember those guys coming out of the cornfields in the greatest baseball movie ever, "Field of Dreams?" Yeah, Shoeless Joe and his teammates threw the World Series. Maybe. But who really knows how far the crooked goes.
The Detective says, "I can fix it. I can solve it. I can bring Order back into the World. I can end the Chaos." Well, that's what the traditional detective could do.
But here on the edge of the Western Shore, a young good-looking guy writes
hour after hour to kill time while he waits to die. Poor and sickly and lonely, killing time and typing and waiting to die. It's the Roaring Twenties. Everybody but you is having the Time of their Lives. Twenty-three, skidoo! And all that jazz.
He writes pulp fiction at first. But he evolves and matures and starts writing stuff nobody has ever seen before. Hammett is in his mid-thirties when he finished "The Maltese Falcon." An
instant best-seller, it becomes a classic, if not THE CLASSIC DETECTIVE
NOVEL. Fame and fortune are his.
But the Falcon becomes much more. The novel is made into a movie three times. The second one features a very very young Bette Davis with peroxide blonde hair like Marilyn Monroe.
But that third film version directed by a rookie John Huston (go figure)
becomes one of the CLASSIC DETECTIVE FILMS. Ooops. More than that, the 1941 movie with Humphrey Bogart becomes one of the greatest movies ever made.
Go figure. But Hammett does not know this when he is writing alone in a San Francisco
apartment. Over a four or five year period, he wrote five novels that
changed the face of American fiction.
The Dain Curse.
The Maltese Falcon.
The Glass Key.
The Thin Man.
And success came. At the Great Depression starts, Hammett is rolling in dough. He is Hollywood's Darling. Fame and fortune are his buddies. He becomes internationally famous.
But fame and fortune change him. By the time he turns forty, Dashiell Hammett has finished his writing career. He lives almost another thirty years, but the writing has disappeared.
For the rest of his life, Hammett lives off and on the dissolute life. Too much booze. Pissing away all the money he gets. Gambling the rest of his days. Involved with left-wing politics, marginal politics. Going to prison for his beliefs.
But there is the Other Side of the Story, too. Like Hammett enlisting in the Army FOR THE SECOND TIME when he was too old, because he was at heart still a patriot.
Yeah. Hammett fought in both World Wars.
Would you pull strings to enlist in the second war when you are a disabled vet and it was the first war that slapped a permanent but undated death certificate in your hand? Guess what.
Once again Hammett came out of the war sick enough to die any day now, this
time with emphysema. Hey, buddy, first you go off to the first world war, you never see combat,
but you get TB. Then you go off to the next world war a couple dozen years later, again you don't see combat, you get sent to the Aleutian Islands off Alaska in the freaking winter, and this time you get emphysema. Sheesh.
Hey, buddy, you got to stop going off to war. War is killing you, pal. First TB and then emphysema? Whew. Bad luck for a chain-smoker. Later on, at the end of his days, he would get diagnosed with lung cancer and be dead in two months. And get a hero's burial in Arlington National Cemetery, on the other side of the hill from where President John Kennedy is
Well, folks, go look inside the Falcon now. Look for the fingerprints of a guy in his mid-thirties killing time while he's waiting to die. Look at how the sentences are constructed.
"Samuel Spade's jaw was long and bony, his chin a jutting v under the more
flexible v of his mouth..."
Sam Spade lives on the margins of San Francisco society. He lives in an efficiency apartment. His bed folds down out of the wall. He has no car. No family. No one to love. He carries no gun.
Look at his face on the very first page: A yellow that is sickly. One wonders if Hammett got this image from a mirror in his apartment. And then Corruption knocks on his door.
One more thing: Check out the Flitcraft Parable. How come it is there, eh?
Good luck & best wishes.
And enjoy. After all, you never read it before, right?
Ed Gorman is the author of A TICKET TO RIDE, THE MIDNIGHT ROOM and a recent book of short stories, THE END OF IT ALL. You can find him here.
The Beats by Seymour Krim
To me Seymour Krim was one of the most interesting figures in the rise
of Beat culture. He was more of a traditional literary man than a Beat
and was thus able to be bridge between the followers of Jack Kerouac
and the skeptics who disdained them he was birthing even. He had an
understanding of both sides.
For those not around at the time the hatred of Beats turned into a
literary lynch mob. Here's the father of neo-conism, Norman Podhoretz,
vile and ugly as always to anybody who doesn't share his fascist
leanings: "(Beatism is for the crippled of soul...young men who can't
think straight and hate anyone who can.") Norman Mailer took exception
to Podhoretz one night in a debate in Brooklyn and ripped into him,
exposing him for creep he was. It was rumored that Mailer was sober
when this happened.
But Podhortez wasn't alone. The Beats were decried by most
"respectable" (i.e. mainstream and dull) critics who were defending the
kind of literature that was putting everybody to sleep.
Into the breach came Seymour Krim, a passionate and powerful cultural
reporter who, among other things, turned his terrible mental breakdown
in the fifties into true literature. With the late Knox Burger as his
editor at Gold Medal Krim edited The Beats, one of the two or three
best books ever assembled about the Beats as both serious writers and
How's this for a list of names from that time: Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg,
Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Gregory Corso, William Burroughs, Hubert Selby,
Jr., Anatole Broyard and (yes) Norman Podhoretz's rant "The Know-
Bohemians." And many more--a heady brew of fiction and non-fiction
alike. There's even a piece from Krim's own much longer piece on his
breakdown "The Insanity Bit." The excerpt from Mailer's "The Deer Park"
is riveting and demonstrates that the novel was unjustly trashed in
its time (Mailer famously took out an ad in the Village Voice
reprinting the worst of the reviews: "Total trash. Belongs in the
garbage can." Etc.)
This is a serious book and a great read, covering everything from the
subject of beat New Orleans of the time to the pleasures and perils of
hitch-hiking. The cover is a black and white photo depicting an Allen
Ginsberg look-alike sitting across from a very fetching young woman
everybody wanted to know a lot more about.
He had a terrible breakdown and ended up in a psych hospital. His
writing illuminated both his soul and his era. And being a traditional
literary man he took work where he could find it,
Chris La Tray
Karen E. Olson