Stay with me here. Hammett Unwritten is a novel with a real person, mystery writer Dashiell Hammett, as its main character, with a plot inspired by Hammett's 1930 classic noir novel The Maltese Falcon (and to a lesser extent the 1941 film with the same title, starring Humphrey Bogart and directed by John Huston). The other fictional characters in Hammett Unwritten – written by Owen Fitzstephen, a nom de plume (I think) based on a Hammett character from The Dain Curse – include several who are said by Fitzstephen to have inspired the fictional characters of Hammett's original novel: Moira O'Shea, known in the 1930 novel as Brigid O'Shaughnessy; Fitzstephen's Cletus Gaspereaux and Emil Madrid, respectively Hammett's Casper Gutman and Joel Cairo; Evie LeFabre (Fitzstephen), Hammett's assistant in his time with the Pinkerton detective agency in San Francisco, who supposedly inspired the character Effie Perine (Hammett).
In Fitzstephen's telling of the story, after the 1922 events that inspired The Maltese Falcon, Hammett acquired a fake version of the falcon at a police auction; it was a much less inspiring piece of work, nothing as elegant as the falcon of the film, with no jewels, really just a lump of vaguely falcon-shaped rock. “It hardly even looks like a bird,” Hammett says at one point.
Nevertheless, Moira, who has spent 11 years in a mental institution after the events of 1922, shows up at Hammett's apartment and demands the bird. Hammett, who just wants her out of his life, gives it to her. He is perfectly content with his life the way it's been going, and why wouldn't he be? He's in the first flush of a 30-year affair with the brilliant Lillian Hellman, he's a successful writer in his own right, a superstar, really, wealthy and much admired in the nightclubs of 1930s America. Who needs a lumpy black bird?
Turns out, he does. And over the next couple of decades, while he is suffering from permanent writer's block – after a remarkably productive writing career, Hammett basically never finished another novel after 1934's The Thin Man – Hammett is convinced that the unprepossessing bird was his good luck charm.
Fitzstephen has a lovely touch with plots, settings and sharp, noir dialogue. We follow Hammett from his years with the Pinkertons, in post-First World War San Franciscio, through his brilliant successes of the 1930s and into the most glamorous hotspots of New York and Hollywood until his death in 1961, and nowhere does the story lag or the characters fail to entertain. And then there are the mysteries. What happened to Moira in 1933, after she left Hammett's hotel room? What about the dark, evocative tales of the falcon that he hears from the other characters from his life? Why do his old associates keep dying? And the biggest mystery of them all: Why can he no longer write?
Stories within stories, mysteries within mysteries, characters within characters, birds within birds, writers within writers within writers …
I'm betting the actual author is Gordon McAlpine, a fairly successful novelist and creative-writing instructor, who claims to have found the manuscript for Hammett Unwritten among Lillian Hellman's papers, and who supplies notes and an afterword – though in the afterword, he claims that he is actually one of McAlpine's former students, using the name because not only had he discovered the manuscript by “Fitzstephen,” he had found as well the lumpy old falcon, and needs to protect himself from those who would steal it from him.
I know this for sure: I very much enjoyed reading Hammett Unwritten, and if McAlpine – or whoever – manages to stumble across another manuscript, I'll grab it.
J. Kirchhoff is an editor at The Globe and Mail.