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Book Report: Lost Stories

Your Humble Blogger had passed the two hundredth page of Lost Stories, the newish collection of, um, “21 long-lost stories from the bestselling creator of Sam Spade, The Maltese Falcon, and The Thin Man, and was preparing to write the blistering note that I had sort of expected to write when I got the book from the library, only more so. I mean, when an author is as well-collected as Dashiell Hammett, when there is already a collection of short stories not good enough to be in the two good collections, then you know, when you pick up the book of stuff not reprinted in fifty years, that there is a reason for it. So I wasn’t prepared for it to be good.

On the other hand, I wasn’t prepared for it to be as bad as it was. I mean, of the 21 long-lost stories, two are one-paragraph jokes sent in to Smart Set, one is a two-page list of quotes that reads like a forwarded email, three are brief spoofs, and one is an odd little synopsis story to accompany a radio broadcast. That last he probably didn’t even write, according to the editor and publisher, Vince Emery. Oh, and speaking of Mr. Emery, most of the text in the book is by him, a tissue of biography, historical context and literary analysis to hold together the scant contents. Which might be fine, but isn’t, on account of how awful the writing is. At the end of one of the spoofs, “The Advertising Man Writes a Love Letter”, Mr. Emery writes “The coupon is the punch line of Hammett’s joke. The first time I read it, I laughed out loud.” He then goes on point out how the joke is, you know, funny, ending with “In fact, this entire piece follows and exaggerates established direct mail techniques.” Ah, now I get it.

So anyway, YHB was ready to report that this book is not only as bad as expected, but far, far worse. And then I read “Ber-Belu”. “Ber-Belu” is an exotic action-adventure story, not a mystery, and would be fascinating just to read the Dashiell Hammett style using different genre conventions (as he does, occasionally, usually Westerns). But it’s just a great story. It’s a knockout. Yes, it shows a certain Kipling-esque racism, not least in the language, which (thank the Lord) has changed since Sunset Magazine published the piece in 1925, or even since it was reprinted in Dead Yellow Women in 1947. That 1947 collection is one of the ones edited by “Ellery Queen”, which means the stories might well be the condensed versions similar to the Op stories reprinted in EQMM. Which means that if I want to own a copy of this magnificent story, for when I want to re-read it, I have to either buy this execrable book or, you know, infringe copyright. Or, I suppose, find a copy of Sunset Magazine from March 1925 for sale. If any Gentle Reader happens to come across such a thing, YHB has a birthday in, well, whenever you want it to be.

The other really good story in this collection is “Night Shade”, or “Nightshade” (in this collection it’s two words, but it is sometimes one), written for EQMM’s predecessor, Mystery League Magazine. It’s a remarkable piece about, well, I don’t really want to tell you what it’s about, Gentle Reader, as I may get up the guts to spring it on people at a Story Reading sometime, or of course some of you may pick up this collection from your libraries. Actually, this story is also in the Vintage Hammett collection, which is an odd bird containing a handful of stories and excerpts from four of the novels. I wouldn’t suggest getting that book for anybody who already likes Mr. Hammett’s stuff, or, you know, for anybody who doesn’t. Anyway, the story’s a beaut.

Other than that, the only thing in here worth seeking out is “This Little Pig”, a movie-business story, which Mr. Emory includes in its “original” version, that is, the rejected draft, rather than in the version that Collier’s printed in 1934. I like the unpublished version better, myself, and I’m pleased that Mr. Emory printed it, but I’m not sure it’s accurate to describe that version, rather than the first print appearance, as the “original”. Anyway, it’s a good story, although not a go-out-and-read-everything-this-guy-ever-wrote story.

chazak, chazak, v’nitchazek,