A few days after the fact, word drifted in that William F. Nolan died, age 93, on July 15. I scanned some of the obits, all rightly selecting the science fiction novel Logan’s Run as the book of all his books with which he’ll be identified.
One movie, and you’ve got a cult — remember the Logan’s Runners who used to tear wildly down the hallways at sf conventions in the mid-70s?
But on These Mean Streets Nolan deserves notice for the Hammett connection. His Dashiell Hammett: A Casebook (1969) was the first full-length book on the writer — sure, almost every date was wrong, and the critiques of the work frozen in that 1950s/60s mindset. But it was the book on Hammett that fans wanted to read at the time, and it’s still fun to prowl through — a pal of mine was giving it another read the other day.
When John’s Grill went over to overt Maltese Falcon themes in 1976, Nolan and ex-Pinkerton’s man Jack Kaplan helped set up the Dashiell Hammett Society. I believe they had two meetings, about a year apart, before the energy waned with the death of Kaplan.
I always tell people that John’s Grill is the Society, usually hauling out the name when doing fundraisers for charities and so on. And at some point, pre-pandemic, as the Hammett tour stood in front of John’s, a plump amiable old guy came out the doors and told us he was presiding over meetings of the Society. Obviously he didn’t know who I was, but if you can cut yourself in on a gig, why not? No idea how long that incarnation lasted — or if they ever had a meeting.
With Hammett: A Life at the Edge in 1983 Nolan took another swing, a full biography. Of all the bios that came out in that era (and they were a glut on the market), I’ve said that Nolan’s no doubt is the easiest to read, if you’ve only got time for one.
As part of the publicity tour for Life at the Edge Nolan spoke before The Maltese Falcon Society in San Francisco. That Society lasted for five years, from the first meeting on May 20, 1981 (now forty years ago!) to the last on Hammett’s 92nd birthday, May 27, 1986. I got to hang out with Nolan for a couple of days, which was fun. His publisher had him installed in the St. Francis and we had a little party (nothing to compare with the Fatty Arbuckle bash).
I got a few of his books inscribed at the time, and of his other hard-boiled material my fave is the anthology The Black Mask Boys from 1985. And as it happened both Nolan and I were hitting the pages of Firsts: The Book Collector’s Magazine in the 2000s, sometimes side-by-side. Currently I have out the October 2002 issue with my article and checklist of classic era Arkham House ephemera, prepping for a book-length expansion to be co-authored with John D. Haefele — in that issue Nolan appears with “Collecting Howard Browne.” I met Browne once, too.
I didn’t cross paths with Nolan again until PulpFest, July 30-August 1, 2010, where he was a Guest of Honor. I didn’t want to take up too much of his time — he was swamped with people — but thought I should say hello. And I wanted to ask him about the status of another bio he’d reportedly done, A Man Called Dash: The Life and Times of Samuel Dashiell Hammett.
Vague rumors about that book had reached my ears. Supposed to be under contract with Knopf. But when Nolan turned in a 900 page manuscript they balked. Too many pages. (Publisher Vince Emery once told me, But 300 of the pages are Notes! Notes. Yeah, right. A page is a page.) Anyway, from what I was hearing it sounded as if it was dead.
So I asked what the status was, and Nolan seemed to think it was still in the works. Currently on his Wiki page a tentative release date has it coming from Knopf in 2015. That’s six years ago now, but who knows?
A last word on Hammett from Bill Nolan might still roll out someday.
And at 93, he certainly had a good run.