An illuminating collection of the famed writer’s letters.
The essential Hammett paradox is that between 1927 and 1935 he wrote five detective novels that revolutionized the genre—and never completed another book. Layman (Shadow Man, not reviewed) and Hammett’s granddaughter Rivett address this point in their selections and annotations, and their anthology creates a rounded portrait of the notoriously private Hammett. The letters are rich in naturalistic detail regarding his daily life in tumultuous times, and in his commentary upon Hollywood and the literary scene of the 1930s and ’40s, but many fans will be disappointed that most of the letters postdate The Thin Man (1934) and only those written during the author’s 1920s pulp-fiction apprenticeship discuss his writing tactics in detail. But there is good material here that sheds some light on Hammett’s private life—particularly his loyalty to women, ranging from his estranged wife and daughters to the ever-present Lillian Hellman (who stood by him long after he had lost his health, talents, and friends). The WWII letters (most of them written from the remote Aleutians) reveal Hammett at his most energetic and engaged, while those composed during his barren twilight years express an unnerving lack of rancor and a modest perspective in the face of years of political persecution, ill health, and alcoholism.
A fine rendering of Hammett’s life in his own words—and a remarkable slice of Americana.