"Nightmare Town" is a collection of 20 stories written by Dashiell Hammett between 1924 and 1934, spanning nearly his entire writing career. Seven of the stories feature the indomitable Continental Op: "House Dick", "Night Shots", "Zig Zags of Treachery", "Death on Pine Street", "Tom, Dick, or Harry", "One Hour", and "Who Killed Bob Teal". "Zig Zags of Treachery", about the apparent suicide of a prominent San Francisco surgeon, is superb, perhaps the best story in this collection. The Continental Op is a character rooted in realism whom Hammett based on a fellow detective from his days at Pinkerton Detective Agency, Jimmy Wright, and on himself. Hammett's second most famous detective, Sam Spade, hero of his novel "The Maltese Falcon", is featured in 3 stories: "A Man Called Spade", "Too Many Have Lived", and "They can only Hang You Once". These are the only short stories Hammett wrote about Spade, who was in some ways the flip side of the Continental Op. At first glance, the two detectives have more in common that not, but where the Op represents the way detectives of the era really were, Sam Spade represents the way they wanted to be.
The stories in this anthology demonstrate the variety of writing techniques that Hammett applied to hard-boiled detective fiction. "His Brother's Keeper" and "A Man Named Thin" feature first-person narration, but are otherwise divergent in style. "A Man Named Thin" is narrated by a poet who is a reluctant detective. I can't say that I like the ornate prose style, but it suits the narrator. "The Second-Story Angel" shows that Hammett wasn't above making fun of himself. The last story in this collection is the first ten chapters of a story that Hammett wrote in 1930 and never finished. The editors have called it "The First Thin Man". Hammett apparently intended the story to be called "The Thin Man", but by the time that novel was published in 1934, he had reworked it entirely. The only resemblance this story bares to the later novel is that one of characters is named "Wynant". "The First Thin Man" is interesting, though. It introduces a new detective, John Guild of the Associated Detective Bureau, Inc. Guild's manner is smoother than than Hammett's earlier detectives. The story is pretty good; it's a shame it wasn't completed. Hammett may have intended to make a novel out of it, but it lends itself well to a novella, which would have taken little further work.
"Nightmare Town" offers a broad selection of Dashiell Hammett's short stories, representing a variety of narrative techniques. All but one ("A Man Named Thin") are from the hard-boiled school of detective fiction, which Hammett invented and perhaps perfected. Hammett biographer William F. Nolan has written an informative introduction to the book. So this is an excellent collection for Hammett fans and and a good introduction for newcomers as well. If you have other Hammett short story collections and are wondering what might be repeated in this one: Nothing from the two Vintage Crime collections, "The Continental Op" and "The Big Knockover", is found in "Nightmare Town". Four short stories plus the novel fragment "The First Thin Man" in "Nightmare Town" are also found in the Library of America's "Hammett: Crime Stories and other Writings".