Hammett Archives Cough Up a Thriller
By Kevin Fagan Chronicle Staff Writer
Adapted by Thonie Hevron
Fans of the hard-boiled detective novel are giddy with the news that
a national mystery magazine is about to publish a long-lost story by the father of the genre-Dashiell Hammett—fifty years after his death.
The story, “So I Shot Him,” is one of about a dozen of the San Francisco writer’s pieces that were never printed anywhere. Word is that this 12-page thriller is high-quality and complete.
Andrew Gulli, managing editor of the Strand Magazine, stumbled across the piece while poking through Hammett’s papers at the University of Texas at Austin. He’s featuring it in his Feb. 28 issue. “It was incredible to find this,” Gulli said by phone from his office in Birmingham, Michigan. “I found 11 to 14 stories not published, and they’re all pretty good — but this one just struck me as vintage Hammett. There was just something fantastic about it.”
It’s a secret
Nobody’s tipping his hand about the story line. That’s a mystery that will have to be solved by buying the magazine. But Gulli and others who have read the story say it reads like a finished draft in the author’s signature clipped, punch-to-the- gut prose.
“It has elements of fear and Hammett’s cynicism in it,” Gulli said. “What Hammett was very good at was a constant ratcheting up of tension to the great Hammett ending, and that really stuck out to me about this story.”
The odd thing about the newly unearthed story is that it has no date or title, unlike most of Hammett’s other manuscripts. The title to be used in Strand is simply the first line: “So I shot him.”
The black bird
Hammett died of lung cancer Jan. 10, 1961, at the age of 66. By then he had published more than 80 short stories and five novels, mostly about fedora-wearing tough guys who cracked tough cases.
The most famous of his works was 1930’s “The Maltese Falcon,” considered the first novel in the cynical detective. Hammett also wrote “The Thin Man.” Both novels were turned into Hollywood movie hits.
The author’s longtime paramour, playwright Lillian Hellman, had his papers stored alongside hers after his death. That’s why they are in Texas instead of San Francisco, where Hammett’s writing and career were centered.
Not a first draft
San Francisco publisher Vince Emery read “So I Shot Him” in 2003 when he was compiling his book “Lost Stories,” a collection of 21 out of print Hammett pieces that Emery then printed two years later. “Almost everything Hammett wrote appeared in a magazine at some point, but this was never printed anywhere,” Emery said. “There are
other bits that he never printed, and most of it is very rough, little chunks and unfinished, but this one is polished. It doesn’t read like a first draft. “There is a crime in it, but it’s not really a mystery story. It’s about fear. I’m sure Hammett fans will love it.”
They already do, even without having read it.
Getting one’s hands on an unpublished fragment of anything by Hammett is no easy feat. Rights to the Texas collection are controlled by his heirs, and Hammett granddaughter and spokeswoman Julie Rivett said they are choosy.
‘A finite resource’
“This story was kind of an inside secret, I suppose,” said Rivett, “There is a small selection of unpublished work, and while we know they are there, we are careful about how we use them,” Rivett said. “They’re kind of a finite resource. “We’re really excited that the public is getting to see this story now, though. I haven’t even read it myself yet.”
E-mail Kevin Fagan at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Copyright © 2011 San Francisco Chronicle 01/21/2011