Samuel Dashiell Hammett (1894-1961) came to prominence in the 1920s with his short stories about the ‘Continental Op’, published in Black Mask magazine under the editorship of Joseph T. Shaw. His longer works, including his five novels, initially began as extensions of these before leading to such crime classic as The Glass Key (1930), The Maltese Falcon (1930) and perhaps to a lesser extent, The Thin Man (1934). Originally serialised in magazines before publication in hardcover, they reflect the straits of the Depression era of the 1930s, a decade during which Hammett was enormously influential and at the height of his popularity, even though his literary output shrank to nothing as the decade wore on aside from occasional work as a screenwriter.
As the introduction of his work to this blog, I have chosen a lesser-known title originally serialised in three-parts in Liberty Magazine and only published as a pulp paperback in 1951, when it became the last Hammett book to be published during the author’s lifetime. It was eventually only to be rescued from critical oblivion in the late 1980s. My hardback edition is from 1988 and it features an introduction by the late Robert B. Parker who points to the book’s subtitle, ‘A Novel of Dangerous Romance’, as being a fair summary of its success and the reasons for its current standing as an unusual and minor part of the canon.
“The strumpet’s word confirms the convict’s”
It begins in classic fashion with a girl on the run. Sporting an evening gown, one shoe with a broken heel and cuts and bruises to one leg, Luise Fischer staggers to a crossroads and into the first house she comes to. Inside she finds the taciturn, pipe-smoking Mr Brazil (we never find out his first name), an archetypal hard-bitten, hard-boiled egg who is shepherding Evelyn, a young girl seeking solace from her overbearing father. Right away the young girl knows that Luise is a threat to her relationship with Brazil, a dynamic that is sketched in subtly and with a commendable lightness of touch. It turns out that they are both outsiders – she a Swiss refugee now being ‘kept’ by Kane Robson, scion of the powerful local landowner; Brazil a recent parolee who served time for a manslaughter arising from a saloon brawl. He is now in Mile Valley trying to get his life back together and recover from his claustrophobic fear of confinement. Luise has run out on Robson but he comes looking for her in the company of Dick Conroy, his younger and better-looking sidekick whom he later describes as a parasite. He seems like an agreeable chap, but as soon as Brazil goes out to help Evelyn they return and to convince Luise to return they pull out a gun and commit that great unpardonable sin of film and literature – they shoot the dog! Brazil understandably punches Conroy out and the man hurts his head. Brazil and Luise go on the run from the police and the all-powerful Robson.
“When you’re in a jam you have to take your chances.” His scowl deepened. “And the best you can hope for is the worst of it.”
Is this an overlooked major work by one of America’s great authors of the 20s and 30s? No, not really. It lacks most of the salient features of his more notable fiction like the political determinism of Red Harvest (1929), the almost Dickensian sense of character in The Maltese Falcon or the impressive integration of plot and mood of The Glass Key. Instead what we have is a brief and entertaining yarn with a surprisingly romantic streak and a semblance of a happy ending – a precursor in fact of the lighter tone later found The Thin Man (there is even a character named ‘Nora’), which he was already working on when he polished off this serial. It is a good general introduction to Hammett but doesn’t really provide a fair indication of the unique qualities of this master of the hardboiled detective story. The somewhat rushed ending in particular, which more or less tidies things up, is all over in just a couple of pages and does feel very cursory. It tends to confirm the feeling that what one is reading is more like a compressed version of a novel, or anyway an initial draft for something longer and more substantial, than the real thing.
Woman in the Dark is a straightforward and accessible thriller which according to Julian Symons, ‘was written with one or both eyes on film production’. In fact the rights were quickly sold to Select, a small film company, in a deal worth $5,000. It was turned into a fairly faithful movie version, though it predictably softened some of the rough edges (though not the canine murder surprisingly) and changed most of the character names too (‘John Bradley’ instead of Brazil). It also begins with a nice bit of black humour with a new prologue in which we think our hero is on death row but is in fact awaiting release from jail. Shot in New York in under three weeks, this low-budget quickie was distributed by RKO and starred scream queen Fay Wray and soon-to-be Ellery Queen, Ralph Bellamy, while Melvyn Douglas is a much smoother and classier version of Robson than in the book. In some versions the title has been changed to Woman in the Shadows, the new title card roughly inserted and thus eliminating Hammett’s credit which originally appeared with it. It is this version that can be viewed in its entirety on YouTube:
Those looking to find out more about Hammett’s work should definitely check Michael Grost’s typically in-depth look at the stories and novels over at his Guide to Classic Mystery & Detection.
As the book came out before 1960, this review is also eligible under the guidelines of Bev’s 2011 Mystery Readers Challenge