Hammett: Chewing Over Crime and Communism

For Xmas on the Hammett front this year, obviously grabbing a copy of The Big Book of the Continental Op is first on the list — just try stuffing that floppy behemoth of a trade paperback into the old stocking!

And anyone who enjoys diving into the deeper chatter about Hammett on this site might want to pick up Ken Fuller’s new book, which presents itself as a — maybe, just maybe — weighty tome on Hammett as a Commie. Something for New Year’s reading that you might otherwise skip, if you’re mostly a fan of the fiction.

Trust me, most of the book makes for a fun fan-to-fan discussion of the stories, arguing this point or that with various biographers, even going back to wrestle with Peter Wolfe and stuff he wrote in Beams Falling from 1980.

It does cover the political action — even nabbed an approving review in a modern Commie paper, so there you go. I enjoyed some touches from that sort of writing, such as referring to The Great War as “that bosses’ war.”

There’s no question that communism played a major role in Hammett’s biography, pulling him into the blacklist era, running up against Joe McCarthy. When I began doing the tour in 1977, I’d say roughly half the people who showed up had relatively little interest in Hammett’s literary work — they knew him from his political stands. The blacklist rivaled or surpassed Black Mask as the reason they had heard of Hammett.

And I think it is obvious that the gravitas Hammett got from being one of the major names tossed into prison in the 1950s helped propel him to his current canonical status. He was no longer just a “mystery writer,” he was side-by-side with the Hollywood Ten in the culture. Serious business.

Fuller goes through all the stories, looking for early signs of a socialist bent — like me, he doesn’t see much evidence of one. If there’s a Wobbly in Red Harvest, it’s because there were Wobblies all over Butte and environs in that day.

He thinks Sam Spade in The Maltese Falcon is Hammett’s finest moment, and doesn’t seem to care for the Op series, so you’ll get into a live fire debate yelling at the pages from time to time. Hard to believe anyone who’d write a whole book on Hammett really doesn’t dig the Op, but here it is. For “Dead Yellow Women,” for example, Fuller notes “Why so unpleasantly racist? And why that awful title?”

Fuller splits his story discussions into five blocks — yarns pre-Black Mask, then those written during the tenures of the three Mask editors Hammett worked under (even if the stories weren’t aimed at the Mask), and finally the post-Mask product. Honest, Hammett fans will enjoy seeing him kick the can around, and I’d guess he fits the model of the majority of Hammett readers, who think the Falcon is tops and the earlier pulp stuff misses greatness.

He engages previous biographies, debating good old Vince Emery’s idea that Lillian Hellman “exerted a political influence on Hammett” — noting by extension that although the Joan Mellen biography Hellman and Hammett “makes this claim on two occasions, she provides no source, and it is probable that Emery’s own claim is derived from her book.”

Hard to believe that anyone would take Mellen’s bio seriously, but it’s amusing to see this point or that deflated.

Anyway, it’s fun watching Fuller dive into the great mix of info on Hammett and battle his way through, although he doesn’t cover all the potential waterfront.

Early in his study he writes, “in one of the most recent of his biographies, a small detail, probably of importance to no one but me: he once showed his party membership card to his daughter Jo.” A couple of hundred pages later he mentions that this detail appears in “Sally Cline’s 2014 biography of Hammett” — which “is dotted with minor inaccuracies and has only one new thing, albeit a very significant new thing, to say: that Hammett had once shown his party card to his daughter Jo.”

I’ve never bothered to read the Cline bio of Hammett, but suggest people interested in breaking news turn to page 54 of the 2009 Vince Emery edition of the Hammett Tour book, where I note: “Jo Hammett tells me that her father once showed her his Communist Party card when she was about twelve or thirteen years old.” That’s your first print reference to the idea, if you’re keeping up with what’s going on.

So, for those folk who enjoy Hammett litcrit debate or appreciate someone who like Peter Wolfe from years ago can wrestle with the mass of Hammett fiction, I recommend it. I’ve got a follow-up post brewing over a line I noticed, which got me thinking — and thinking about Hammett, what’s more fun than that?

Other than thinking about Hammett and drinking, maybe. . . .

Oh, and one thing I found especially amusing — Fuller sometimes seems kind of surprised the Commies let Hammett join up, considering what a bad match he made for them, drinking, womanizing, gambling.

His life might have been easier if they’d never given him that card.

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