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by Owen Fitzstephen and Gordon McAlpine
Seventh Street, February 2013
174 pages
ISBN: 1616147148

Buy in the UK | Buy in Canada

While it may endanger my credibility as a student and devoted fan of the detective fiction genre to admit this, Dashiell Hammett's THE MALTESE FALCON has done little for me as much as I have tried to embrace it. Quite frankly, I have always found the narrative and characters to be a bit of a bore and find the omission of certain passages with references to homosexuality in some published editions to be the most interesting thing about Hammett's beloved novel. With that in mind, author Gordon McAlpine (nom-de-plume of "author" Owen Fitzstephen, though McAlpine provides a tongue-in-cheek afterword in his own name) has created not just a pastiche or a homage, but rather a refreshing, brisk, yet fully and brilliantly realized work in the form of HAMMETT UNWRITTEN—a work that is nearly perfect and manages to pay homage to Hammett's celebrated work, while still being an incredibly engaging read for the uninitiated.

This is, of course, a fictional tale that traces Hammett through his "lost years" where he published no new work from 1934 till his death in 1961 and instead focused on leftist political activism, or so it is commonly believed. The book begins on New Year's Eve 1959, when an ailing Hammett sneaks away from his longtime companion, playwright Lillian Hellman, breaks into an elderly woman's garage to retrieve a replica of the black bird. The original figured prominently in a case during his time as a private investigator on which he drew for inspiration for THE MALTESE FALCON, and at the same time, made enemies of everyone caricatured in that book with little disguise.

The book then flashes back to 1933, as Hammett is finishing work on what would be his final novel when a femme fatale from his past shows up spinning a story about the black bird's mystical powers of bringing luck to whoever possesses it and demanding the bird statue. Since she is fresh out of a mental institution, Hammett primarily just wants to get rid of her and gives her the bird without thinking much of it.

The novel swiftly traces Hammett's downfall including his relationship with Hollywood, struggles with writer's block, re-enlistment in the army during World War II and eventual blacklisting during the McCarthy-era Red Scare, as he re-encounters many of the characters he used in his iconic THE MALTESE FALCON, characters that were greatly offended by how Hammett presented them. They ultimately help to lead him into misfortune and a renewed search for the missing bird and the dangerous woman from his past who has it.

Within HAMMETT UNWRITTEN there is much to devour: an exploration of the positively fascinating relationship between Hammett and Lillian Hellman, the reality of writer's block and superstitions generally, and the extent of responsibility an author may have when he draws heavily upon real people in their fictional narratives; but more than that McAlpine (or Fitzstephen, if you're willing to play along with the conceit) is able to concoct an inspired tale that delivers as expertly drawn meta-fiction and a compelling mystery.

So many books that deliver comparable tales fall prey to being simply pastiches with tongues far too firmly in the cheek, and as a result appeal only to fans of their subject matter, but here McAlpine has created a nearly perfect tale that will appeal to devoted students of the genre, as well as general audiences who are just looking for a well-written piece of a literary fiction. Coming in at less than 180 pages, HAMMETT UNWRITTEN is a refreshing and brisk diversion at a time when books with featherweight substance routinely hit the 400-page mark, but also manages to be a surprising and fully realized novel that serves both as a compelling piece of crime fiction and literary meta-fiction that simply cannot be missed.

§ Ben Neal is a public librarian in northeastern Tennessee and likes to fancy himself an amateur writer, humorist, detective, and coffee connoisseur in his spare time. He can be reached at beneneal@indiana.edu.

Reviewed by Ben Neal, March 2013

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Contact: Yvonne Klein (ymk@reviewingtheevidence.com)

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