Friday, December 21, 2012

Forgotten Books: Nightmare Town by Dashiell Hammett (1948, 1950)

The four-story collection Nightmare Town first appeared in digest in 1948, with stories edited by Frederic Dannay, and was repackaged in this nice Dell Mapback in 1950. As a bonus, the Mapback included seven original illustrations, shown below. Bill Lyles, in a Paperback Quarterly article, attributed the art to Lester Elliott, and Bill should know.

If the novelette “Nightmare Town,” originally from Argosy All-Story Weekly in 1924, had been written by Lester Dent, Walter Gibson or Norvell Page, I’d probably think it was a crackerjack story. But at Hammett’s hands, the tale seems unworthy of its author.

Without giving too much away, I can say that the plot involves crime on a grand scale - a scale so grand that it requires heaping helpings of suspension of disbelief, and cries out for purple prose. And that’s the problem, because Hammett’s prose is anything but purple, and when he tells me something’s happening, I tend to believe him.

Not this time.

The good news, though, is that “Nightmare Town” was his first crack at tackling a large scale crime, and can be viewed as a test run for the more successful stories to follow. I’m talking here about “The Gutting of Couffignal,” in which an entire town is looted, “This King Business,” in which a corrupt European nation is up for grabs, “The Big Knockover,” where a hundred of the nation’s elite crooks converge on San Francisco to rob two banks at once, and Red Harvest, where the Continental Op blows the lid off a crime-infested city.

Our hero here is Steve Threefall, who blunders into the strange town of Izzard on a drunken bet, takes interest in a nubile young woman, and is soon up to his neck in strange characters and sudden violence. Luckily, he carries a weighted ebony walking stick and knows how to use it. The stick is described as having a roughness that polishing cannot disguise - which must have confused the Dell artist, because he seems to have turned it into a club.

Steve Threefall kicks butt with his "walking stick."

Unlike the Op, Steve allows himself to fall for the dame.

Hammett’s prose is a pleasure to read, as always, and there’s plenty of action in the finale, but something is just . . . off. I have no evidence that he tried and failed to sell this to Black Mask before submitting it to Argosy All-Story, but I wouldn’t be surprised.

Next up is “The Scorched Face,” from Black Mask May 1925, in which the Continental Op is on the trail of two runaway rich girls. This one is a nice mix of realistic detective work with gratuitous sex and violence. Hammett was quickly learning his trade.

The artist didn't get the memo that the Op is supposed to be short and broad.

Still not broad, but maybe shorter.

“Albert Pastor at Home” is a short-short (little more than flash fiction) that first appeared in Esquire in 1933. It’s a great little tale, though, full of humor and tough talk. And it’s unusual for Hammett, because it’s told in first-person present tense.

Meet Albert Pastor (alias Lefty), a genial disbarred heavyweight
who beats people up for money (or for free).

This collection saved the best for last, as the Continental Op rides into the Wild West in “Corkscrew,” from Black Mask September 1925. Hammett had fun with this one and didn’t care who knew it. Corkscrew, like Izzard the Nightmare Town, and like the yet-to-come Poisonville of Red Harvest, is a corrupt town, and the Op decides to clean it up whether his clients like it or not. Hammett was following the example of many western films of the time (and later), in which six-gun toting, bronc-busting cowpokes co-exist with city-slickers driving automobiles. It's a hoot.

Never thought I'd see the Op in a cowboy hat.

This tussle began thusly:
The ex-pug looked me up and down and spit on the ground at my feet. 
"Ain't you a swell mornin' glory?" he snarled. I got a great mind to smack you down!"
"Go ahead," I invited him. "I don't mind skinning a knuckle on you."

These days, “Nightmare Town” is the lead story in the 1999 collection Nightmare Town. It also appears in Crime Stories and Other Writings (2001), along with “The Scorched Face.” For “Corkscrew,” you’ll have to look in The Big Knockover, which also includes the Dannay-edited version of “The Scorched Face.”

More Forgotten Books at pattinase!


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shonokin said...

Yep this always seemed to me like a basic prototype for Red Harvest and I can see what you mean about the others mentioned.

Lexman said...

Thanks, very interesting !!

Rick Robinson said...

Got the CRIME STORIES AND OTHER WRITINGS, so I can read the Op and other stories I was missing. That is as soon as I finish the book I'm on now, and the library book that just came in, and one other that's been waiting a while...

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