Jim Ott's Blog

This blog is a collection of columns I've written for Bay Area News Group newspapers serving the East San Francisco Bay region.

Wednesday, October 03, 2007

Catching up with Hammett

This column appeared in the Herald on October 2.

Let’s try something fun in my column today.

My wife and I recently read, and enjoyed, “The Maltese Falcon,” Dashiell Hammett’s hardboiled detective novel published in 1930. Many people are reading the book thanks to a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts. Called “The Big Read,” this national initiative is designed to restore reading to the center of America culture.

So to have a little fun as I share what I’ve learned about the author and his work, I’m writing the rest of this column in the black and white prose style of Hammett. Here we go:

I stepped through the door into the television studio. The lights glared as TV30’s able cameraman adjusted chairs on the set.

Suddenly, stepping from a shadow in the corner, there she was: a brunette in lipstick and heels. She held a thumbed over copy of Hammett’s book.

“Hello Jim,” she said, removing her glasses. “Ready to tape another show?”

“Sure,” I said, holding up my own copy of Hammett’s masterpiece.

She was Kathy Cordova, a woman who’d seen the inside of scores of books and interviewed dozens of authors on “In A Word,” the show we host together on Tri-Valley Community Television Channel 30.

This day, as long as the cops didn’t bust down the doors, we’d be discussing “The Maltese Falcon.” Joining us were two guests: Mark Coggins, a Hammett expert and detective fiction writer; and Hailey Lind, author of “Brush with Death.”

Sure, I learned a lot about Hammett that day, and you’d be smart to tune in to watch the show. But

I’ve learned even more since then. Here’s just a taste:

Hammett was born on a farm in Maryland in 1894. He quit school at 14 to go to work. In 1915, he was hired on at Pinkerton’s National Detective Service, where the whittled-down prose of the reports he wrote foreshadowed his later fiction.

In 1918, he did what most all-American boys did and joined the army to fight the war to end all wars. But he never got overseas. Instead he drove an ambulance at Camp Mead, Maryland. He was discharged honorably due to a bout with tuberculosis.

After moving to Frisco in 1921, he started penning short stories at the public library. He sent one to H.L. Mencken. Sure enough, it was published, and as they say, a writer was born.
“The Maltese Falcon,” in 1930, was Hammett’s second novel.

While Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes and Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot preceded Sam Spade, Hammett gets the credit for transforming the well-mannered detective story for American audiences.

In Hammett’s hands, the detective story took on an urban toughness, uttered through a prose style of slang and grit and realism. The motivations of a detective like Spade are often questionable, since his choices seem at once both selfish and altruistic.

Hammett’s 80 short stories and five novels are part of the fabric of American literature and culture. Every novel has been made into a movie. The most famous, of course, is John Huston’s 1941 “The Maltese Falcon” starring Humphrey Bogart, the film most credited with launching the Film Noir era in Hollywood.

Now, before I pull this page from my typewriter, toss it onto my editor’s desk, and walk off into the evening in search of another column idea, I want to illuminate for you knowledge-starved readers what I learned about the term “hardboiled detective.” Popularized by that great newspaperman Damon Runyon, a detective is hardboiled when he—or she—is fundamentally a good egg, but hard on the outside.

Who knew?

For information about the many events taking place in October to commemorate “The Big Read,” visit the Pleasanton Library www.ci.pleasanton.ca.us, or drop by Towne Center Books in Pleasanton. For TV listings of “In a Word” on Comcast or via webcast, visit www.tv30.org.


she said...

"encore!" -very fun

Cindy said...

Jim, I've just entered the blogging world and find it fascinating! Love your column ~ and now I know what hardboiled is!!! Thanks!