A canny exploration of the long affair between writers Dashiell Hammett (1894-1961) and Lillian Hellman (1905-1984), which endured alcoholism, war and McCarthyism.
Toperoff’s earlier novels strived to drill into the psyches of Marilyn Monroe (Queen of Desire, 1992) and James Dean (Jimmy Dean Prepares, 1997), and the lives of Hammett and Hellman give him similarly rich fodder. When they met, Hammett had left behind family to pursue a career as a screenwriter, and Hellman was a rising playwright in a perfunctory marriage. The early chapters stumble as Toperoff strains to establish their individual backgrounds and voices, as if the novel will be an awkward oral history, but the tone soon settles, and the focus turns squarely on their affection for each other. The two were on different career trajectories when they met: Hammett’s best work, like The Maltese Falcon, was behind him, while Hellman would gain celebrity with her 1934 play The Children’s Hour. And they were separated often, as Hellman covered the Spanish Civil War and Hammett drank heavily and tinkered with scripts. Yet the two completed each other both romantically and editorially, and Toperoff captures the writers' interior anxieties well, as Hammett struggled with stark minimalist autobiographical sketches and Hellman absorbed brickbats from her critics. (Some of the book's sweetest scenes feature their back and forths over their latest writing projects.) The need to become each other’s cheerleader becomes more pronounced in the later chapters, as the House Un-American Activities Committee comes after both of them; Hellman’s petty harassment at the hands of U.S. and British authorities, and the ballooning sense of injustice that ensues, is particularly well-turned. Toperoff credits numerous biographies and collected letters, but the novel never feels like a studiously researched museum piece.
Toperoff locates the private passions in an intense, public and ultimately tragic love story without indulging in glitz or melodrama.