Hammett: If Joe Gores Had Written a Bio. . .

mechanics nathan

Shot above — Nathan Ward chatting as the room fills to capacity in the Mechanics’ Library — art shot at bottom, Table with Book (and Wine, and Mic).

If you wanted an autographed copy of The Lost Detective and couldn’t make the talk, Nathan dropped in to sign stock in the branch of Book Passage in the Ferry Building and the Alexander Book Company on Second Street between Market and Mission (where they took the books immediately to the window and set up a display). He also hit a Books Inc. in Berkeley for a personal appearance (and did an interview with KPFA). If you’re quick, you might still find one with a John Hancock.

I’ve done at least two previous talks in the Mechanics’ — one may have been for the then new edition of the Hammett Tour book, the other definitely was for the two collections of San Francisco Noir edited by Peter Maravelis. That one is easy to remember since I sat next to Joe Gores, and he was always fun.

As soon as I began reading Nathan’s bio, the thought hit like a hammer: You know, this is the kind of Hammett bio Gores might have written, if Gores had written a bio. . . .

As I detail on p188 of the current tour book, Gores had a theory that Hammett first of all was a sleuth, a manhunter, that he was “a private detective learning about writing. . .  not worried about Literature [but] worried about paying the rent.” Nathan’s premise is much the same, but more accommodating of reality — he spends most of the text covering private eye tradition in the Pinkerton’s Agency, tracking down obscure possible sources for this and that (for example, Hammett once telling Frederic Dannay that the Continental Op was modeled on a Baltimore operative named James Wright — Nathan goes into the history of the name “James Wright” being used as an alias by the Pinks, meaning Hammett may have been kidding Dannay — or maybe the office employed some guy named Jimmy Wright).

Gores first laid out his theory in the essay “Hammett the Writer” in 1978, in that era when even big Hammett fans didn’t understand his background very well. No collected letters, not much litcrit of any consequence. Guys worked from the same premise as Raymond Chandler in “The Simple Art of Murder,” that while Hammett was the ace performer in the field, hey, he dropped out of school at age 14 and surely must have been some kind of primitive Grandma Moses figure, untutored — practically illiterate! — but filing reports with Pinkerton’s taught him some tricks.

Sure, you could see he wasn’t quite the knuckle-dragger they pictured Mickey Spillane/Mike Hammer as being, but closer to the caveman type than not. . . . Brutal, he-man — wouldn’t have thought twice about literary themes. . . . Writing a novel?! What the hell’s that?!

Coming in today — and with quick proletarian sensibilities that don’t discriminate against a writer for not shooting for a Ph.D. — Nathan takes those He-Was-a-Detective themes and gives them fair play. I have to think Gores would have enjoyed this bio — as more and more info emerged on Hammett’s literary ambitions, Gores retooled his “Hammett the Writer” at least a couple of times, trying to drag the actual info in with his romanticized picture of a detective who happened to buy a typewriter.

The final version or revision of the Gores thesis, by the way, appears in the Vince Emery book collecting Hammett’s Lost Stories.


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