A collection of short stories from a guy understandably highly praised and acknowledged by Raymond Chandler. He loved the contrast between these gritty urban stories and mannered English country manor crime stories (makes me think of the relish with which so many fans embraced the authentic feel of cyberpunk’s chipped, messy worlds (Bladerunner) as an escape from the traditionally sanitised future visions (Star Trek)). Moreover Hammett actually worked as a private detective and was a wonderful source of authentic elements. But these stories are hardly documentary: indeed several are over the top pulp fiction, such as the densely violent title story.
They’re a mixed bunch, hardly perfect but always engaging. Some feel a bit like experiments he never quite got back to polishing: a few times I felt he just dumped a couple of pages of explanation at the end of a story when it would have been nicer to have the problem more gradually worked through. That being said, the characters and mood are strong enough that the stories don’t stand or fall on some clever piece of detection (although there are even a few instances of Holmes style clever observation and interpretation). Others are classic neat, single idea, lightly humorous magazine stories – such as the self-referencing ‘Second Story Angel’, ‘Afraid of a Gun’, and ‘A man named Thin’ (OK, maybe this one has a couple of ideas). A couple of stories unusually give more thought to feminine perspectives: ‘Ruffian’s Wife’ and the excellent, tragic, stinging western style ‘The Man Who Killed Dan Odoms’. Some are all about mood. Curiously I think I found the only character I’d heard of before, Sam Spade, one of the least satisfying.
Much as he’s an entirely capable writer who has his moments, he never soars with wit like Chandler. However here we find the backbone of Chandler’s stories (what makes him more than an excellent comedic writer): straight talking streetwise detectives with their own moral code (although in contrast Hammett’s guys generally get along well with the cops – although there’s plenty of reference to corruption); high density urban living; and a cast of criminals, some with a good heart, grifters, women who’ve seen a bit much, cops good, bad, and somewhere in between.
These stories are not only worth reading as background for Chandler – they stand alone. Apart from the other merits previously mentioned, they’ve got that wonderful dark mood.