Dashiell Hammett wrote fiction for only 12 years, but in addition to four novels he produced hundreds of short stories for pulp magazines such as Black Mask and mainstream periodicals like Collier's and The American. Twenty of these stories, long unavailable, are collected in Nightmare Town.
Overall these are not Hammett's best stories, but there is much to recommend them, not least of all Hammett's often imitated but rarely equaled prose style, marked by its oddly poetic cynicism. Crisp dialogue, peppered with the street argot of the '20s, keep the stories moving along at a good clip. Corruption, duplicity, and deception are rife.
Some of the more enjoyable selections are novella-length, a form that was common to the pulps and at which Hammett excelled. Zigzags of Treachery has all of the ingenious plot twists that a fan of The Maltese Falcon might crave. In the crafty whodunit The Assistant Murderer, Hammett breaks with tradition by substituting a conspicuously ugly detective for the usually rakish hero we expect in the genre. The title novella, Nightmare Town, is pure pulp fiction, a hyperbolic yarn about a town in which every single citizen is corrupt.
Three of the shorter stories feature Sam Spade, the consummate hard-boiled detective from The Maltese Falcon. One of Hammett's enduring protagonists, the Continental Op, appears in seven. Among the more interesting pieces is The First Thin Man, an early, unfinished draft of Hammett's final masterwork. Written in 1930, before he moved to Hollywood and met Lillian Hellman, this version of the story bears little resemblance to the published 1934 novel. The plot is substantially different, most significantly in the absence of Nick and Nora Charles, the hard-drinking, clever-talking crime solvers modeled on Hammett and Hellman.
There are also a few less typical stories in the book that stray a bit from Hammett's usual turf. For example, in A Man Named Thin, the clever detective moonlights as a poet, of all things. But maybe that's not really so strange. Hammett, after all, had been a detective before becoming a poet of sorts a poet of the gritty, rogue-filled, crooked streets he knew and wrote about so well.
Robert Weibezahl's compilation of mystery-related recipes, A Taste of Murder, has just been published by Dell.