Hammett fans owe Vince Emery a big "Thanks!" for putting this volume together. I spent a lot of delightful time going over this enjoyable book and reconsidering the origins of the detective as the focus for a story . . . rather than the mystery.
As the title of this volume suggests, these are Hammett stories that you cannot easily find elsewhere. Since they are not usually available in complete form, these are obviously not his most famous stories.
There are other available collections of the better known Hammett stories (such as The Big Knockover edited by Lillian Hellman, The Continental Op Short Story Collection edited by Steven Marcus, Nightmare Town edited by Kirby McCauley, Martin H. Greenberg and Ed Gorman, and Dashiell Hammett: Crime Stories and Other Writings edited by Steven Marcus). You'll probably like the stories in those collections better than in Lost Stories.
But after you've finished all of Hammett's novels and short stories, you'll yearn for more. And that's where Lost Stories will become a treasure for you.
This extensive volume also contains a running commentary on Hammett's life and times which will give you a good perspective on his career and family life. . . especially through the lenses of being a soldier, tubercular invalid, new husband and father, private detective, hungry writer, advertising man, famous writer, incorrigible drunk and gambler, script doctor and Communist. I found it helpful to know where he was in his life when each story was written. I also appreciated understanding how his earnings translate into buying power today.
I didn't expect a lot from these stories. But I was pleasantly surprised to find that Hammett was always a good writer . . . before he became an astonishingly good writer.
Since many of these stories are quite brief, I won't attempt to describe each one except to note which ones I especially enjoyed. The book begins with Hammett's very first story, The Barber and His Wife, which displays a powerful ability to portray character with a few actions and words. The first published story (for Smart Set) was the anecdote-length tale called The Parthian Shot. Hemingway would have admired such a story.
The Road Home was his first detective story . . . and you can already feel the power of Sam Spade in it.
By 1923, Hammett's skill as a satirist was fully developed in such stories as The Master Mind and The Sardonic Star of Tom Doody. The stories begin to take on a special quality with The Joke on Eloise Morey as he employs stream of consciousness narrative and a dark-tinged sense of humor. Some of the stories seem almost autobiographical like Holiday. Plot lines begin to emerge in stories like The Green Elephant, Laughing Masks, Itchy, Ber-Bulu and This Little Pig that have the germs of full-fledged novels in them.
I particularly commend Laughing Masks, Ber-Bulu and This Little Pig to you. They are the crown jewels of this collection.
Ardent Hammett fans will also cheer for Joe Gores' delightful introduction.
Dashiell Hammett was a marvelous writer who virtually single-handedly invented the hard-boiled detective story. Once I discovered Hammett I read every piece of work I could get my hands on. At the time this consisted of his five full length novels and compilations (including The Continental Op and The Big Knockover) of some of his short stories. I never felt as if I had read enough of Hammett. The publication of newly found or little known stories is, therefore, a welcome find. "Nightmare Town" is one such collection. "The Lost Stories" is another and is an excellent discovery for any Hammett fan or any fan of good writing. There are only 21 stories here, all found in defunct magazines (including H. L. Mencken's Smart Set) and all of which had not appeared in print since their original publication. Standing alone these 21 stories would not be sufficient to warrant a full length book. However, the editor Vince Emery, has set out these stories in chronological order and has written something of a side-by-side biography of Hammett's life and times. This may seem intrusive to those who simply want to read the stories. However, Emery's commentary is very well written and he does a very good job of putting the stories in the context of Hammett's life and of the times. After a good introduction by Joe Gores, a successful mystery writer in his own right, Emery walks the reader through Hammett's life and times. Hammett's transition from a detective struggling with tuberculosis and eking out a meager existence through military disability payments to a successful writer is set out in a concise, well-written fashion. Emery briefly describes the story and Hammett's efforts at selling that story to various publications. Emery does spend a fair amount of time dissecting Hammett's work, exploring common themes, elements, pet phrases and the like. Some may find this a bit too similar to a course in writing for their taste. I found it helpful, others may not. The stories themselves are fascinating. They may be uneven at times but from the very first one you can see Hammett's voice. Hammett always had an ability to craft a sentence that could describe a person, his attire, or a setting that would take others paragraphs. In one story, "The Green Elephant", Hammett describes a low-level criminal: "Joe's fault, as Doc Haire had once pointed out, was that he wan an unskilled laborer in the world of crime, and therefore had to contend himself with stealing whatever came to hand a slipshod and generally unsatisfactory method." The Lost Stories is a valuable addition to the Hammett literary canon.
After you have read every novel and the main collections of short stories in publication, you may wish Hammett had written more. Along comes Vince Emery to find and collate the rare material gathered here. Not only is it every bit as good as other published Hammett short stories it has the added pleasure of a compelling introduction by Joe Gores. The short stories and the linking commentary form a biographical study of Hammett through his lost work. Apart from the recently discovered 15 stories, should they reach publication, this will complete my collection. More importantly, it introduces the man behind the stories, the complex, artistic, realist who created the genre, the believable scenarios and characters, the Homeric hero, and the legacy, to which the world of fiction and film owes a debt of gratitude. It is also good to read two distinct opinions of the work, both of whom are keen to put Hammett in his rightful place as a true American Voice in literature and to argue his place in the literary Canon. Even if you care little for Hammett's genius being recognised, the book contains some stories that depart from the material you may expect from the author, as well as some gems dipped from his usual pool of inspiration: his experience as a Pinkerton Detective. For something a little unusual, and with something of the flavour of Joseph Conrad, try Ber-Bulu.
Personally, I rate Hammett in front of Chandler (though not by much). These stories are a welcome addition to the Hammett canon. Vince Emery combines a potted Hammett biography with comments on the stories in an admiring but not flattering way. Recommended to any Hammett fan.