Sunday, June 12, 2022

28. Hammett: A Life on the Edge by William F. Nolan

Took this ex-library hardcover on a whim from the free shelf in the middle of Esplanade (it is a half-block after the big free closet shelf thing outside Latina so I make both stops on my way back from the Y).  I am not particularily interested in Hammett's life but this looked readable, I just made that big paperback haul and am listening to the old-time radio series Sam Spade right now, so it seemed thematically appropriate.

On the positive side, this was a well-researched and easily readable, thorough walkthrough of Hammett's life and work.  He had a really interesting life and it was enjoyable and sometimes moving to read about it.  I hadn't known that he was hounded by McCarthy and his fuckstick anti-communist dicks in the 50s nor how resistant he was to their bullshit. I also didn't realize the full extent of his fame while he was still alive.  I knew he partied pretty hard but didn't realize how much of it was as part of the Hollywood elite.  Damn, they drank!

Unfortunately, this biography is also once again a hagiography and it really harms the material.  Nolan is just too keen to reinforce and remind us how Hammett was both a superior writer and a superior person,  even though at times for the latter his actual behaviour actively contradicts such a characterization.  He did do a lot of good and did seem to have a very strong will and idealism that is impressive and respectable.  But he also was a terrible drunk who did a lot of damage to himself and at times to the people around him.

There is a nerdy trope in  the crime fiction world that bugged me the first time I encountered it and still bugs me today, though I sort of agree with it more than I did initially: the Hammett is a real hard-boiled writer while Chandler is a flowery romantic.  Nolan just has to throw that one in this book and it's just nerdy and lame.  He also does a drive-by against the guy who is considered the first hard-boiled detective writer (now totally forgotten), simply it seems to ensure that though this guy's stories were there first, Hammett's are the real ones.  It's annoying as hell.

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