Tue March 8, 2011

50 Years After His Death, A New Thrill From Hammett

He gave us both Sam Spade and Nick and Nora Charles — so for a generation of readers, Dashiell Hammett more or less defined both "hard-boiled" and "suave." Not bad, that.

Now, from the long-deceased author of The Maltese Falcon and The Thin Man, comes a never-before-published short story: "So I Shot Him." It's suspenseful, full of secrets no one's telling, and — according to Andrew Gulli, editor of the mystery magazine that's publishing the story — somewhat more than what you might think of as vintage Hammett.

"Vintage in that you have the great vivid characterization that Dashiell Hammett is so famous for," Gulli tells NPR's Robert Siegel. "The terse dialogue, and the great tension that he ratchets up. But it's not vintage in that there's a lot of psychological elements to it. There's also even a bit of a literary feel."

Ask Gulli to describe the tale, and he'll locate it in terms of two other storytelling titans: "I'd say it's sort of like F. Scott Fitzgerald meets Hitchcock."

Written "somewhere in the '20s or maybe the '30s," Gulli says, "So I Shot Him" turns on an encounter between one man who's terrified of the water and another who's trying to get him to take a swim. Is there a subtle murder plot afoot? And why is that one fellow's wife so anxious about what's going on with the other guy?

"You're going to be asking more questions about it than if you'd just read a typical short story — even a typical noir short story," Gulli says. "To me that's what the main attraction of it was; there are more questions at the end than answers, and as an editor that's what you're looking for in a good piece of fiction."

Gulli says it's not clear why "So I Shot Him," which strikes him as mature and accomplished — "a very very fine short story" — was never published, though Hammett, he acknowledges, was "a very self-critical writer."

"Probably it was something that he felt was not easy to categorize," Gulli hazards. "It was not a straight pulp story. ... He probably feared that it would not be accepted by the pulp magazines at that time."

But the author didn't destroy the story either, Gulli notes. "Obviously he held it dear to him."

Hammett's own reticence, and his estate's famously protective approach to his legacy, make Gulli particularly conscious of what it means to have the family's permission to publish.

"They've been very, very particular on what gets released," he says. "Guys like Richard Layman have labored for years on keeping the Hammett flame alive. And I for one am very fortunate and grateful that they've given me permission to publish one of his stories."

Gulli may not be the last to be so fortunate. He saw 14 or 15 more stories in the library collection where the Hammett papers live — "and I think there are probably even some more that the estate has." Copyright 2011 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Related Program