Curse-Maker Hammett

Hammett

An Appreciation

By Kelli Stanley

All books come from somewhere. Pain half-buried, a forgotten memory. As authors, we open the lid of our subconscious and try to reorder it, correcting the pain of the past or the memory of crimes unavenged, slights never answered.

Books also come from our reading, time capsules that can cross generations and cultures and language to pour the words of philosophers and wastrels, scientists and saints, into our willing ears.

Voices impress us, fill us and touch us with an energy that—as writers ourselves—we can tap into for inspiration, truth and the courage to tell a story.

I’ve written in other places about the whispered courage and influence I’ve felt from Raymond Chandler. THE CURSE-MAKER is no exception; “Roman noir” began as an homage to the creator of Marlowe, the knight-errant in gumshoes. An appreciation for the sensuous, unforgettable way Chandler crafted words and images infuses all my work, and this book was particularly influenced by the idea Chandler aimed at during the last of his life: a married Marlowe.

Dashiell Hammett, however, provided much inspiration for the plot and themes of THE CURSE-MAKER.

He wrote only five novels. Completed over 80 short stories. His influence ripples through the twentieth century, from genre to genre and throughout the course of American literature, an endless stream of words both immortal and still modern.

Two novels helped give birth to what became THE CURSE-MAKER: Hammett’s first book, Red Harvest, and his second, The Dain Curse. Both feature the Continental Op, perhaps the most enduring detective in all of detective fiction.

If you have never read Hammett, I urge you to try a short story or two. Admire the economy of the language, the spareness of description and the rich, telling detail of character.  The man was sick for most of his life—tuberculosis—and drank until it almost killed him. He wrote about the life of a private eye from having lived it.  He wrote about pain from having witnessed it. He wrote about the haphazard, existential unfairness of life from having lived it.

I—and virtually every writer of American detective fiction—owe him a debt that can never be repaid. So we read, and we admire, and we get inspired … and we write.

We continue to assault the citadel, as Chandler put it. Not because we hope to get to the top … but because the climb itself is what’s important.

Thanks, Dash.


Hollywood

Hammett wrote the adaption for lover Lillian Hellman’s Watch on the Rhine. But Hollywood coveted his characters and plots more than they did his actual writing.

The Thin Man series of movies took on a life of their own, eventually spreading to radio and television; Hammett also created (and wrote) the comic strip character Secret Agent X-9. In radio, Sam Spade enjoyed a successful run, even if his cut-up humor was nothing like Hammett’s Satan-faced protagonist. Another character, “The Fat Man”, spawned another successful radio show, though the Hammett’s connection to this heavyweight counterpart to Nick Charles seems to have been rather tenuous.

Suspense—one of radio’s premiere entertainments—produced a few shows based on Hammett stories and/or characters. One of the best is “Two Sharp Knives” …  you can listen for yourself below.

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