Hammett: Birthday 126

Yeah, 126 years ago today Samuel Dashiell Hammett began life as a fat baby, and lived that life as a thin man. Pinkerton’s detective. Pulp writer in San Francisco. Hollywood. Ended up in New York.

You probably know the outline.

But if you don’t, Brian Wallace found an article in a 2002 issue of The New Yorker that goes over the ground, using the 2001 publication of Hammett’s Crime Stories from the Library of America as the excuse.

I’m loathe to link to it because of the instant barrage of banner ads, but if you’re willing to tough it out, then it’s your problem and not mine.

Brian specifically pointed out this little section:

The Library of America’s new Hammett collection, “Crime Stories and Other Writings,” contains a poignant textual note explaining that one of the stories could not be taken from Hammett’s original version because no copies of the magazine it appeared in still exist. Few are likely to mourn the January, 1928, issue of Mystery Stories, one of about seventy “pulps” then on the market — “pulp” as a category denoted the low quality of the paper, and presumably also of the contents and the readership — but the contrast of this rough extinction with the smooth, acid-free immortality of the volume at hand does point up the cultural irony of Hammett’s career. . . . But the contrast also points up the irony of the sweeping cultural mandate of the Library of America, for, as it turns out, the salvaged story — “This King Business,” printed from a later version — is hardly worth the effort of reading once.

He knew I’d like that because right here on Up and Down These Mean Streets we witnessed Terry Zobeck find a copy of Mystery Stories and go through the textual differences between the original pulp and that “later version.” Terry provided Library of America with the pulp text for a revised third printing of Crime Stories.

Somehow when dealing with topics they’ve barely heard of — such as wood pulp fiction magazines — even the sophisticates come off like backwater rubes.

When the article writer typed

The current collection contains one perfect story — “The Scorched Face,” published in 1925 —which demonstrates how imaginative wit can transform even the crudest material into an exquisite whirring toy, a rococo clock with cops chasing crooks in circles and tumbling forth to chime the hour.

you can tell she has no idea whatsoever that Hammett stole the plot for that one from the Sherlock Holmes yarn “The Adventure of Charles Augustus Milverton” — still, sure, it is a hot Continental Op tale.

And not to be too mean to the venerable New Yorker. In 2013 they showed Hammett maintained his clout by using one of the “lost” stories later collected in The Hunter and Other Stories in a “fiction” issue —and nothing in Hunter can touch the best of the Op series gathered in Crime Stories.

I’m thinking if another lost Hammett story turned up today, The New Yorker wouldn’t be loathe to publish it.

One New Yorker to another.

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