In five novels and dozens of stories, Dashiell Hammett almost single-handedly invented the hardboiled private detective in modern crime fiction. Using his experience as a Pinkerton operative, Hammett created tough, unsentimental sleuths such as the Continental Op, Sam Spade, and Nick Charles, and thrust them into crime stories that, as Raymond Chandler put it, "gave murder back to the kind of people that commit it for reasons, not just to provide a corpse."
Hammett published most of his stories in Black Mask and other pulp magazines that thrived in the '30s and '40s. Since his death in 1961, nearly all of his stories have been collected and published in book form. Almost no one suspected there was anything left to find. Then Andrew F. Gulli, the managing editor of The Strand, a 10-year-old quarterly devoted to publishing crime fiction old and new, started digging.
Later this month, The Strand, which has lately published previously unseen work by such authors as Mark Twain and Graham Greene, will publish the first of Gulli's discoveries, a new Hammett story, "So I Shot Him," a terse story about a death that may or may not be a murder. Gulli talked to Newsweek/The Daily Beast about how he found that tale and 14 other previously unknown Hammett stories.
How did you come across these stories?
I was looking at the website of the Harry Ransom Center [the Ransom Center at the University of Texas is a library and archive containing one of the world's premier collections of literary papers]. I knew that Lillian Hellman had donated a lot of her papers to the Ransom library, and she had a very close relationship with Hammett. I thought, hey, maybe his papers were put in the same place. So I contacted the library and one of the interns there was so helpful and gave me a list of all the materials that they had. I spent probably 100 hours referencing and cross-referencing Hammett's published versus his unpublished work. I was surprised to find that there were 15 things that had never been published before, 15 pieces of short fiction.
Are they all crime stories or are they different sorts of stories?
Most of them are crime, some of them are just straight up short stories. One of them has a detective who is very similar to the Continental Op. They're all very good. They're things that are not all that typical of Hammett. I think if they're published, people will see what a versatile writer he was and what an underrated writer he was, as you can see from the piece we're publishing. It's a very psychological sort of story.
Why weren't these published?
That's the surprising thing. Many times authors are not happy with their work, and looking at the work you'll know why. But in the case of these Hammett pieces, everything was so well written that I was surprised that none of them was ever published.
In my years of dealing with writers, it's become clear to me that writers are often very poor judges of their own work. They think something is not worth sending to a publisher, and they'll show it to me, and I'll say, "Oh my God, this is the best thing you've ever written." I suspect Hammett had a few moments like that with his own work.
Can they be dated in any way?
There are no dates on them. On some, on the letterhead, it will say, Dashiell Hammett, Knickerbocker, San Francisco, California. Some of them will even have his address. Maybe some Hammett scholars could figure out when he wrote some of them by knowing where he was living at a particular time.
"[I]n the case of these Hammett pieces, everything was so well written that I was surprised that none of them was ever published."
Did this trove come as a surprise to Hammett scholars?
It seems to have come as a surprise to everybody, including the Hammett estate and a lot of experts. Even Hammett's daughter was surprised.
Do you think you found everything there was to find?
In terms of Hammett, I think that's it. His papers are all there at the Ransom Center, and I went through everything. It's enough to form a collection, maybe 50,000 words.
What are your plans for the other stories?
There are 15 stories total, and I would like to have them published in book form as a collection. Jeffrey Deaver has agreed to co-edit the book with me, and right now we're waiting for approval from the Hammett estate. Once they give the green light, we'll be free to talk to publishers about it.
Is this comparable to anything else you've published?
Mark Twain was huge for us. P.G. Wodehouse was pretty good. Agatha Christie, in terms of sales, was incredible. We sold more single copies of that issue than any other issue in our history. Graham Greene was something else. He is my favorite novelist of the 20th century, but I didn't suspect that the news would be interested in this. I purchased the novella because I wanted him in The Strand, because he'd been in the old Strand [an English magazine in the first half of the last century, the original Strand is best remembered as the magazine where Sherlock Holmes became a star]. But I was surprised that The New York Times covered it, NPR covered it. It sort of took on a life of its own.
What this attention and interest shows is that these writers still have a place. It's not like people are not interested in reading their work anymore. A new generation is interested in them, and that's what I'm happy about. Hammett died 50 years ago, Greene died 20 years ago, but they still have popularity with a lot of younger readers.
Malcolm Jones writes about books, music, and photography for The Daily Beast and Newsweek, where he has written about subjects ranging from A. Lincoln to R. Crumb. He is the author of a memoir, Little Boy Blues, and collaborated with the songwriter and composer Van Dyke Parks and the illustrator Barry Moser on Jump!, a retelling of Brer Rabbit stories.