24
Nov
11

Cleaning out the vault: Dashiell Hammett’s Nightmare Town

Nightmare Town: StoriesNightmare Town: Stories by Dashiell Hammett

Here’s another collection of hard-boiled noir from the Dashiell Hammett vault. You might be wondering, with three great collections of his shorter works already out – The Continental Op, The Big Knockover and The Library of America’s Crime Stories and Other Writings – what makes this one worth checking out? After all, isn’t there a reason why these stories remained unavailable for decades?

Those are reasonable questions. Thankfully, they’re pretty easily answered: Nightmare Town isn’t just one of the biggest collections of his work, it’s one of the better ones.

There’s about a dozen stories featuring his most famous characters: the Op and Sam Spade plus a bunch of loose one-off stories. Some are better than others, but they’re all pretty good and there isn’t really a clunker among the bunch. The stories vary wildly in tone and theme: some are more Westerns than Noirs, others tackle unusual viewpoints (a grifter’s wife, an uneducated prizefighter) and a show Hammett’s more playful side. Meanwhile, the stories with The Op and Spade are all vintage Hammett; it’s a surprise they hadn’t been anthologized before.

These usual takes make for some of the best stories here. Take A Man Named Thin: Hammett adeptly tackles a poet-detective who speaks in full, nearly snobbish sentences (and solves both a crime and an ending to a sonnet in an afternoon). It’s a departure from the rest of his oeuvre that almost seamlessly blends humor and larceny. Or take the title story, apocalyptic in it’s unrelenting violence and destruction.

A nice surprise here is an unfinished early version of The Thin Man. This earlier draft doesn’t feature Nick and Nora Charles and is much darker and bleaker than the finished version. Fans of Hammett’s novel should get a kick out of comparing the two.

On the whole, Nightmare Town is a good collection of stories. It’s not a bad introduction to his shorter pieces – I’d still recommend The Continental Op  for those new to Hammett – but it’s a good reference point for fans. It contains more than a few of his best stories (and a couple not included in the Library of America collection, too). The ideal Hammett comp still hasn’t come out, but this is probably the best of the bunch. Recommended for fans of Hammett, hard-boiled prose and crime fiction.

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