Hammett Unwritten: A Novel, by Owen Fitzstephen

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Spoilers ahead

Hammett Unwritten tracks Samuel Dashiell Hammett’s life from the early 1930s, offering an explanation for the literary silence between the publication of The Thin Man in 1934 and his death in 1961.  The premise is that, rather than outright fiction, Hammett’s 1929 novel The Maltese Falcon is actually a thinly disguised account of his last case as a Pinkerton agent in 1922, with Sam Spade standing in for Hammett himself.  After the 1922 case’s conclusion he had picked up the bird (actually more a black bird-like piece of rock) for a few dollars at a police auction as a souvenir, which he kept on his desk as he successfully produced stories and novels in huge quantities for a decade.  Then Moira O’Shea, one of the people from the case (Brigid O’Shaughnessy in Hammett’s book), comes to visit.

She is freshly released from a lengthy stay in a mental institution and spins Hammett a yarn about the falcon having mystical powers that confer on its possessor whatever that person values most.  In Hammett’s case that would be the gift of literary creativity.  As a rationalist he derides her, but gives her the bird, partly to get rid of her, but partly because he feels he has to prove that it is not the cause of his literary success.  Unfortunately that act has far-reaching consequences: as long as he possessed it, he was highly productive, but without it he finds that he no longer has the ability to write.

Over the next quarter of a century we follow Hammett struggling with his writer’s block, his changing relationship with Lillian Hellman as she writes successful plays, his drinking, philandering, political activities, McCarthyite persecution and illness.  From time to time he meets the people who were the models for the characters in The Maltese Falcon (who according to Hammett Unwritten were real rather than creations of Hammett’s imagination): O’Shaughnessy, Joel Cairo, Casper Gutman, Miles Archer (actually not dead, but very annoyed at his depiction), and Hammett’s old Pinkerton secretary Effie Perine.  Much of the book consists of stretches of dialogue with them, discussing the statuette but also commenting on their fictionalised depictions in the book and film adaptation.  There is also a long and very liquid lunch with John Huston discussing the film adaptation.

Everybody from the old days seems to have a different theory about the falcon’s origins, but all emphasise the mystical angle.  Perhaps none of these is true – or perhaps all are.  Was the absence of the bird’s influence to blame for the desertion of Hammett’s literary abilities, or was it psychological, Moira’s theory being self-fulfilling?  Hammett begins to believe it was the former, in line with other characters from the case, and that Moira in a masterstroke of psychology had double-bluffed him, using his vanity against him to secure the prize.  Finally, terminally ill, he decides to retrieve it from the perfidious Moira.

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Hammett Unwritten purports to be a typescript by one ‘Owen Fitzstephen’ that ‘Gordon McAlpine’ found in Hellman’s papers at the Harry Ransom Center at the University of Texas at Austin in 2012, and McAlpine provides an afterword.  However, he notes that Owen Fitzstephan (sic) was the name of a character, a mystery writer, in Hammett’s novel The Dain Curse, possibly an autobiographical depiction, and argues that therefore the evidence suggests that the typescript was actually a memoir disguised as fiction written by Hammett himself, shortly before his death in 1961.

A further twist is the claim that Gordon McAlpine is not the real name of the finder of the manuscript either, but borrowed from the creative writing professor called Gordon McAlpine (who is definitely real) because along with Hammett Unwritten at the Harry Ransom Center was a black statuette in the shape of a falcon which the finder stole, and still has.  In fact Hammett Unwritten really was written by McAlpine, thereby managing an identification between Hammett as posited author and himself as actual author.  He may have been inspired by a 2011 report that a cache of unpublished stories by Hammett had come to light in the Harry Ransom Center: if the stories had been sitting there all these years, why not a novel, especially if it had someone else’s name on it and wasn’t obviously by Hammett?

There is no final conclusion to whether the falcon has the capacity to bestow good fortune on the possessor.  Did it really expedite Hammett’s career, and Moira’s successful later life, or was Moira messing with Hammett’s head, with the support of others who had been involved in the original case, simply in order to get revenge for his betrayal of her?  If we are holding a final work from the hitherto blocked writer, it speaks to the falcon’s genuine powers, but perhaps belief alone is enough to stimulate confidence.  In the end, the falcon remains enigmatic.  Perhaps Hammett sabotaged his career, frittering his talents, and it had nothing to do with the falcon’s absence.

As all of this suggests, the reader of Hammett Unwritten will get most from it after having read The Maltese Falcon as well as a biographical source to put the narrative in context.  Be careful though – a number of the characters in Hammett Unwritten think they are remembering what happened in the past, only to be told by Hammett that they are quoting from The Maltese Falcon.  Fiction and fact can so easily get muddled up.

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