Reappraisal: Dash and Don


It seems to me that there is entirely too little screaming about the work of Dashiell Hammett. My own shrill yaps have been ascending ever since I first found Red Harvest, and from that day the man has been, God help him, my hero; but I talked only yesterday, I forget why, with two of our leading booksy folk, and they had not heard of that volume, nor had they got around to reading its better, The Maltese Falcon.

From Dorothy Parker’s 1931 New Yorker review of The Maltese Falcon and The Glass Key, entitled, Oh Look–Two Good Books!  She was a poet, you know.  

Hammett was a major writer, for a lot of reasons, one of them being that the texture in his writing comes so very much from himself.  Writing inside an action genre, where subtleties of character and milieu are not primary considerations, he nevertheless was, word by word and sentence by sentence, subtle and many-layered, both allusive and elusive, delicate and aloof among all the smashing fists and crashing guns.

From The Hardboiled Dicks, a lecture given by Donald Westlake at the Smithsonian in 1982, which I’ve quoted from in the past, and probably will again, but you can read the whole thing in The Getaway Car.  Cut out the middleman. 

Well, that was a long break.  I’m still pondering on a problem piece (political), but while that was percolating, and I was crouched forlornly by my mailbox, waiting for somebody to drop a copy of Westlake’s Red Harvest screenplay in it,  I said to myself, “Hey, maybe I should read The Maltese Falcon.  I hear that’s pretty good.”

Yeah.  Never read it.  I started, years ago, but could not get past Spade being a ‘blonde Satan.’  Which he’s not, really.  Well, he gets up to some deviltry, but he has light brown hair.  Light brown isn’t blonde.  What was Hammett thinking?  Probably not that his snarky shamus would be forever linked with some black Dutchman with a lisp, who had just ditched Broadway for Hollywood. (Grofield would not approve.)

I have this thing, where when I read the book a movie I love was based on, the two duel for supremacy in my mind while I read.  Sometimes they fight to a standstill.  Sometimes the movie wins.  Usually, the book triumphs.  This was one of those times.  Huston great, Hammett greater.  I still heard Bogie’s voice when I read Spade’s dialogue, but even that began to fade after a while.

Movies.  They screw with your perceptions of the books.  Damn them anyway.  The good ones in particular.  And none better than Huston’s.  But never mistake the packing material for the contents.  Excelsior.

So I read it, then read some things about it, came to some conclusions, and after banging my head on my desk a number of times at all the things I knew now that I coulda shoulda woulda known back when I started work on this blog, I did still more reading.  I’m all Kindled up now, ready to dig deep.  New worlds to conquer.

See, I mainly just read the Op stories for background.  Having been assigned Red Harvest for a college course eons before, I knew Westlake had taken that as his model for his anti-Op Tim Smith, in Killing Time. It served as the backbone for several of his most interesting books.

Likewise, I read The Thin Man, because Westlake cited it as an influence on the Mitch Tobin mysteries.  But somehow, the other stuff didn’t pull me in.  I didn’t have the right key to open it.  (Glass, of course.)  Why it somehow never occurred to me that Westlake would have learned from everything written by a man I’ve many times described here as his most important literary influence….

Well, you see, we don’t scream enough about Hammett.  Mrs. Parker was right.  We know of him, of course.  We honor and homage him, we review and reference him, we parody and plagiarize him, we anthologize adapt and and assay him, we do guided tours of San Francisco based on him, and we even write lengthy scholarly biographies and other erudite tomes about him, a privilege accorded to precious few pulp writers.  We know of him.  But do we know him?  Not really.  Not most of us.

Westlake did.

And just as Sergio Leone began his career in earnest by copying Kurosawa, almost shot for shot–well Westlake was never that incautious (movie directors can afford lawsuits a lot easier than novelists), and he went out of his way to contradict and revise his mentor, but fact is, a bit of creative copying can teach you things you can’t learn any other way.  It shouldn’t be how you finish, but it’s the only way to begin.

Hammett was a part of Westlake to the very end, but it’s at the start that the influence is most powerful–and, if you’re looking close, obvious. I can see it all so clearly now.  I couldn’t then.

And because by the early 60’s, Westlake was more and more aware that his future was in novels, not short stories, it’s the five Hammett novels–each one different from the last–that we need to put under the magnifying glass now.

Hammett died on January 10th, 1961, which I would think only intensified Mr. Westlake’s   devotion, but he was already on the case.  Just five months earlier, in August, Westlake’s first novel under his own name (also the first he’d want anybody to know he’d written) had gotten a quick complimentary write-up in Criminals At Large, Anthony Boucher’s round-up mystery column in the New York Times.

Brief and glancing as that Boucher review is, Hammett is referenced in it.  As is a novel by Hammett.  That’s what we’re looking at next.  It’s late Hammett, but we’re doing this in Westlake’s order.

Touché, Boucher.  You got it.  Why didn’t I?  Oh right.  Never read the book.  (Or in this case, even watched the movie).  Man in the middle.  That’s me.

Care for a cartoon, while I ratiocinate?



Filed under Donald Westlake novels

12 responses to “Reappraisal: Dash and Don

  1. Pingback: Incident Report No. 32 - Unlawful Acts

  2. A (possibly apocryphal) story I’ve heard about Huston’s adaptation of The Maltese Falcon was that Huston was going on vacation before beginning work on the script. Before he left, he asked his secretary to transcribe the book’s dialogue into script form so he’d have something to work with when he got back. While he was gone, his secretary’s transcription was accidentally sent to studio head Jack L. Warner, who loved the “script” and directed a very surprised Huston to begin filming immediately.

    • I love the story, and perhaps there’s a grain of truth in it, but must note in passing that Huston adapted Treasure of the Sierra Madre, The Asphalt Jungle, The African Queen and most of his other book-based films in much the same way–cut the fat, keep the bones, fiddle with the ending.

      Having just read the novel, I know that if they’d just shot what the secretary typed, the film wouldn’t end with “The stuff that dreams are made of” which is Shakespeare, not Hammett. Hammett’s ending is a lot darker. And, on the whole, better. More honest. More modern, really. Maybe this is blasphemy, but I’d like to see somebody adapt it again. But who’d have the balls to even try? (Maybe a woman director?)

      If he liked a book, he’d give you the book, boiled down a bit to fit the space he had to tell the story. Huston was a reader. His genius as an adapter stems equally from his knowing what to change and what not to change.

      His much later adaptation of Romain Gary’s The Roots of Heaven (which he saw as a complete failure, and he was right) strayed pretty far from the source, and basically none of the changes work, but that’s an undaptable book–even by Gary’s standards. Gary co-wrote the screenplay, so there’s blame to go around.

      Maybe the truth is that something like this happened, and Huston had a flash of insight that led to great things. But it isn’t possible that they filmed exactly what the secretary typed. It’s a good story, though. I’d like to believe it. Just like I want to believe the one about the drunken little person playing a Munchkin cornering Judy Garland on set, and saying “I want to **** you” and her saying “Well if you do, and I ever find out about it….!”

    • I’m going to make a separate article (easier formatting). New evidence has emerged in the Case of the Secretarial Screenwriter. I have no idea what it proves, vis a vis the allegation. Substantiates and unravels it at the same time. But it’s kind of neat. And fits our current theme.

  3. Huston truly was a marvelous adapter. His films often improved upon the source material, though not, I’d agree, in Hammett’s case (but Hammett was a master, and even so, it’s pretty close). I haven’t seen or read The Roots of Heaven, but I’d argue that Huston matched or surpassed Richard Condon, W. R. Burnett, C. S. Forester, and B. Traven.

    • Incidentally, Pauline Kael shared a similar sentiment regarding the ending of Huston’s adaptation of The Maltese Falcon, writing:

      [A] regret: that Huston didn’t (or couldn’t) retain Hammett’s final twist — Effie’s realization of what a bastard Spade is. But perhaps its absence is part of what made the movie a hit.

      • Effie’s barely a character in the movie. And nothing at all like the character in the book, a tall lanky girl in her 20’s, obviously in love with Spade (even while she tries to fix him up with Brigid)–just as obviously wishing she could do what he does. There’s a hint of that in the movie, with the hat she wears.

        Spade doesn’t want to ruin what they have with sex, treats her like a kid sister–but he keeps putting his hands all over her, and she lets him. Encourages him. Until the end.

        And Hammett didn’t know what to do after that–subsequent short stories gave Effie short shrift.

        All of that clearly stemmed from Hammett’s own relationships. His own conflicted feelings towards women (including his two lovely daughters by his first wife). His own often less than gentlemanly behavior. That he’s ashamed of.

        Bogie’s Spade has no capacity for shame. That’s the fantasy, and the fantasy is what people wanted. And mainly still do.

        How could Huston have put all of that into the movie–a movie made back then, in that genre–and made it work, without losing focus?

        It’s the right change to make, but it’s still not as honest and true as Hammett.

        The movies have their charms, but honesty will never be their forte. Not if Hollywood wants to stay solvent. They do, however, need to make the fantasies a bit more inclusive, and that’s happening.

        So everybody gets to be the hero. And to hide from the truth together.

        I don’t know how to feel about that.

        So I read books to try and find out.

    • The Roots of Heaven is a story within a story within a story–a brilliant prize-winning ground-breaking insightful work about man’s dysfunctional relationship with nature, but it suffers from what I sometimes call ‘Passage to Marseilles Syndrome.’ (After the film of the same name). After a while, you lose track of who’s telling what story to whom when or where.

      You could not do a faithful adaptation for a mainstream audience (even though it was a mainstream best-seller, in Europe and America). There were also some major production issues, and Trevor Howard should not have been cast as Morel, and Errol Flynn was drinking himself to death, as he so enjoyed doing.

      There’s been exactly one good adaptation of a Gary novel–a book he wrote under a pseudonym so carefully protected, almost nobody knew it was his. (Westlake must have been so jealous).

      I’ve read The Asphalt Jungle, and while I’d say some good things were lost in translation, Huston did improve on his source. But that’s basically the story of Burnett’s career. Also James M. Cain’s career, I suspect. It’s not that they were bad writers, quite the contrary. It’s not even that they’re ‘cinematic’ writers. It’s that their ideas work better on film. Partly because they didn’t know when to stop writing.

      Most of the time, Hammett did.

  4. mikesschilling

    You might recall that I was impressed with Westlake’s grasp of Bay Area geography. (Unlike Tom Wolfe’s in A Man in Full, which stinks). Hammett clearly knew San Francisco well, and there really is a sign on a building on Burritt Alley (off Bush, above the Stockton Tunnel) that reads “On approximately this spot, Miles Archer, partner of Sam Spade, was done in by Brigid O’Shaughnessy.”

    • I ‘d surmise the main reason he agreed to co-author Gangway! with Brian Garfield, aside from their friendship, was that he did know San Francisco–first from intensively reading Hammett, but later by actually going there to see what Hammett was writing about, and how well the fictional geography matched up with the real thing.

      And for him, the point of that western spoof would be to imagine a whole city–far smaller and more comprehensible than New York–in embryo, as it were. (It should be mentioned, the Op isn’t originally from Frisco either. Good bet neither was Sam Spade.)

      It would seem he was not entirely impressed with the town Hammett made his own. Nor with Chicago either. But that’s neither here nor there. The lesson to be learned here is how to convert a large complex three dimensional space into words on a page. So that three-dimensionsal people can live there too.

  5. mikesschilling

    Touché, Boucher

    I thought that too, but he pronounced it “bow-cher” (I was told this by a woman I met in an online SF group who had known him. Go back to the 50s and SF was a small enough ghetto that pretty much everyone knew everyone else.)

    • How do you know I don’t pronounce touché as “tow-cher”?

      Okay fine, but if Yeats can do it, so can I.

      I have met them at close of day
      Coming with vivid faces
      From counter or desk among grey
      18th century houses.

      From there he goes on to rhyme ‘words’ with ‘words’.

      And it’s the greatest fucking occasional poem ever written.

      If it rhymes on the page, never mind if it rhymes in the mouth.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s