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Hammett Unwritten

Hammett Unwritten

4.8 5
by Owen Fitzstephen, Gordon McAlpine (Afterword)

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A worthless bird statuette — the focus of Dashiell Hammett's The Maltese Falcon. And much more.

As Dashiell Hammett closes his final case as a private eye, the details of which will later inspire his most famous book, he acquires at a police auction the bogus object of that case, an obsidian falcon statuette.  He casually sets the memento on his


A worthless bird statuette — the focus of Dashiell Hammett's The Maltese Falcon. And much more.

As Dashiell Hammett closes his final case as a private eye, the details of which will later inspire his most famous book, he acquires at a police auction the bogus object of that case, an obsidian falcon statuette.  He casually sets the memento on his desk, where for a decade it bears witness to his literary rise. Until he gives it away.

Now, suffering writer’s block, the famous author begins to wonder about rumors of the falcon’s “metaphysical qualities,” which link it to a powerful, wish-fulfilling black stone cited in legends from around the world. He can’t deny that when he possessed the statuette he wrote one acclaimed book after another, and that without it his fortunes have changed. As his block stretches from months to years, he becomes entangled again with the scam artists from the old case, each still fascinated by the “real” black bird and its alleged talismanic power.

A dangerous maze of events takes Hammett from 1930s San Francisco to the glamorous Hollywood of the 1940s, a federal penitentiary at the time of the McCarthy hearings, and finally to a fateful meeting on New Year’s Eve, 1959, at a Long Island estate. There the dying Hammett confronts a woman from his past who proves to be his most formidable rival.

And his last hope.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
This imaginative mashup of meta-mystery with meta-biography, ostensibly written by Fitzstephen (a character from Hammett’s The Dain Curse), with notes and afterword by Gordon McAlpine (the real author), asks a simple question: why did Dashiell Hammett stop writing? After a brilliant 12-year run that included The Maltese Falcon and ended with The Thin Man, the master of hard-boiled detection turned from the typewriter. Did he do so because he lost the falcon statue he picked up in a 1922 caper? Was that dingus the mystical Holy Grail? Cutting back and forth through Hammett’s life, McAlpine (Joy in Mudville) gets many details wrong, but the overall portrait feels accurate—certainly more so than that in Joe Gores’s 1975 novel, Hammett. The story shines in scenes with real people such as Lillian Hellman, though encounters with people who supposedly inspired characters in The Maltese Falcon are less successful. Fans of Hammett and noir ought to enjoy requisite shocks of recognition. Agent: Philip Spitzer, Philip G. Spitzer Literary. (Feb.)
From the Publisher
“[A] spectacularly original novel…Hammett Unwritten is a brave and risky business, playing games with such a beloved and iconic literary, work but the author succeeds in making his wild story credible and fascinating.”
-Otto Penzler, The Mysterious Bookshop

"An enticing tale of fact and fiction.”
-Suspense Magazine

“McAlpine has created not just a pastiche or a homage, but rather a refreshing, brisk, yet fully and brilliantly realized work in the form of Hammett Unwritten—a work that is nearly perfect and manages to pay homage to Hammett's celebrated work, while still being an incredibly engaging read for the uninitiated. . . . [An] inspired tale that delivers as expertly drawn meta-fiction and a compelling mystery.”
-Reviewing the Evidence

"A story that will keep the reader riveted to the pages.. . . Hammett Unwritten tells a story but raises questions about the nature of fiction and those who create it that will stay with you long after you finish the book.”
-Gumshoe Review

“This fun metabiography takes the characters and general background of the Maltese Falcon and combines it with just enough fact to generate an entertaining tale with hints of The Dain Curse thrown in for good measure…If a spot of light reading is what you seek, this is a treat.”
 -Monsters and Critics

"Staggering. A must-read not only for mystery lovers and fans of The Maltese Falcon, but vital to writers. Writer's block will never be quite the same again. Wonderful novel, sublimely clever."
-Ken Bruen, author of Headstone

"It's a sort of literary conceit-within-a-conceit-within-another-conceit, and it succeeds very well. Readers who prefer to just focus on the story at hand will be rewarded with an exciting tale with a compelling protagonist (Hammett was a real-life larger-than-life character), and those who enjoy literary games-playing will have fun sorting it all out."

Product Details

Prometheus Books
Publication date:
Sales rank:
Product dimensions:
5.50(w) x 8.10(h) x 0.60(d)

Read an Excerpt


a novel
By Owen Fitzstephen

Prometheus Books

Copyright © 2013 Gordon McAlpine
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-1-61614-715-0

Chapter One

San Francisco Examiner April 2, 1922

Murder of Sea Captain Linked to Black Falcon Affiar

San Francisco, CA—SF Police confirm a link between last week's murder of Louis Doyle (44), master of the thirty-ton freighter La Palacio, and the recent criminal activity known as the Black Falcon Affair. "Captain Doyle was shot by Cletus Gaspereaux (46), aka 'the Big Man,' in an unsuccessful attempt to take from the captain's possession the statuette known as the Black Falcon," said Tom Paulson of the San Francisco Police Department. "Doyle had transported the objet d'art aboard his ship from Hong Kong in partnership with Moira O'Shea (24) and Emil Madrid (38), both of whom were later arrested as co-conspirators in his murder. Mr. Gaspereaux was slain in a shootout with SFPD."

Doyle's shooting occurred on the night of March 26 at Miss O'Shea's apartment on the one thousand block of California Street. A man of great physical size and strength, Captain Doyle managed, despite his wounds, to escape his assailants and make his way to the Pinkerton Detective Agency, where he died after delivering the Black Falcon into the hands of private operative Samuel Dashiell Hammett (26), who had been investigating the case. Subsequently, Mr. Hammett led authorities to the guilty parties.

"The irony of the whole affair," Paulson said, "is that the Black Falcon is a worthless counterfeit. It's nothing more than a crudely carved, black rock. Nonetheless, the results of its violent pursuit, which continue to reveal themselves to our shocked, law-abiding city, are sadly authentic."


Dashiell Hammett stood alone on a residential, moonlit lane on the north shore of Long Island, one overcoat pocket heavy with a .38 and the other pocket weighted by housebreaking tools—files, picks, skeleton keys—that he hadn't used since his private investigator days in San Francisco almost forty years before. In the afternoon, he'd rummaged through his closet to find the tools; in the process, he'd come across typed notes for his own obituary that a journalist friend had lifted from a desk at the New York Times a few years back and presented to Hammett to commemorate his then–recent, unexpected recovery from a heart attack. Tonight, Hammett had slipped the obit into his coat pocket to remind himself that its publication was never abandoned, only postponed, and that if his actions on this New Year's Eve seemed desperate it was because his was now a desperate situation. On the drive from the city, in the dim glow of traffic lights, he'd read the typed page; with each reading, he felt more estranged from the man the obit attempted to describe:

Writer Samuel Dashiell Hammett, the tall, slender master of "hard-boiled" detective fiction, died yesterday of heart failure at Lennox Hill Hospital in New York City. (Confirm details with hospital, incl. exact time of death and family members in attendance etc.) Born in 1894 in Saint Mary's County, Maryland, Mr. Hammett published over eighty short stories and five novels, "Red Harvest" (1929), "The Dain Curse" (1929), "The Maltese Falcon" (1930), "The Glass Key" (1931), and "The Thin Man" (1934). His best work transcended genre and was compared to Hemingway; this newspaper described his prose style as "lean, driving, hard."

Mr. Hammett left high school at age fourteen and worked numerous odd jobs. At age twenty-one he became an "operative" with the Pinkerton National Detective Agency, working for seven years as a private investigator (primarily in San Francisco) before embarking full time on his writing career.

Married to Josephine Dolan in 1922, Mr. Hammett fathered two daughters. Later divorced, he began a long romantic relationship with Lillian Hellman, assisting in her development as one of America's premier playwrights. During World War II he served (at age forty-eight) in the Aleutians. In 1951, at the height of the McCarthy hearings, Hammett refused to give incriminating information about alleged communist members of a group he chaired, the Civil Rights Congress of New York, and was sentenced to federal prison, where he served five months. Upon his release, at age fifty-seven, he encountered worsening health and financial problems. Mr. Hammett never published another novel after 1934. (Why not? Must ask around the newsroom ...)

Why not indeed?

It was seven years now since the unfinished obit and twenty-seven years since Hammett's last book; he'd never intended to stop writing but had seemed to just dry up, which was why he was standing now in this quiet, upscale neighborhood, resolved not to leave without acquiring a particular objet d'art, a talisman, that he'd come to believe had figured in all his old triumphs.

Crazy, of course. Hardly hard-boiled.

But it was life, not fiction.

Lily was in the city, attending a party. Hammett had claimed to be too sick to join her. Naturally, she didn't fuss. Since his recent diagnosis—which she had told him was a mere pulmonary infection but that he knew from a surreptitious glance at the doctor's files was a tumor for which the prognosis was his death in six to eight months—she hadn't fussed about much. She was patient these days, almost easygoing. At his worst times, he suspected her new gentleness was offered less for his comfort and more to alleviate whatever contradictory emotions she would otherwise feel upon his death. She knew as well as anyone that a strong final scene could save an otherwise uneven play. At his best times, however, he dismissed such cynicism and allowed her to dote on him. Tonight was neither among his best nor worst times. He had merely observed her as she pretended to be disappointed when he begged off the party. He didn't blame her. She deserved a good time. She'd always deserved more than he could give, he thought.

"But what will you do with your New Year's Eve, Dash?" she had asked, flitting distractedly about his room in her apartment, straightening his scattered books and notepads, which he would have to sort through later to reorganize into his slipshod system.

"Lily, I don't give a damn what date it is on the calendar."

"But one mustn't just ignore New Year's."

"Why not?"

"Because it tempts fate."

A cruel but irresistible comment entered his mind. "There's always next year, Lily."

She stopped straightening the room but said nothing.

"I'm sure I'll be feeling much better by then," he continued.

"Yes, Dash. I'm sure you will."

She was a better playwright than she was an actress, he thought.

"Still, I hate to think of you sitting alone by the radio at the stroke of midnight listening to Guy Lombardo," she said, turning to a pile of Time magazines that she began sorting into chronological order on an otherwise disordered shelf.

"What have you got against Guy Lombardo, Lily? Or is it his Royal Canadian Mounties you object to?"

"I can't bear the image that conjures in my mind."

"Grown men in Mounties uniforms playing trombones?"

"No, you in pajamas listening to the radio while outside all of Manhattan ..."

"Don't worry, that won't happen," he interrupted. "No radio. I'll watch Guy Lombardo on the TV. And I'll put on a tie."

"I can't leave you alone tonight."

"Don't be silly. Go."

"Are you sure?"

"I wouldn't have it any other way."

Lily acquiesced.

Hammett knew she would, which is why he had chosen this evening to come to King's Point.

Now he stood at the property line of 416 Cavanaugh Lane.

The place was right out of Town & Country.

Who'd imagine that the statuette known as the Black Falcon, whose true story had inspired the iconic object in his novel The Maltese Falcon (as well as the spilling of much real blood) would be found in so quiet and respectable a burg? The house was large and well-proportioned—no boxy mansion. The grounds were well-tended and on a frosty field at the side of the property he recognized a large metal sculpture—a Calder, all angles and curves and spatial contradictions. The house was dark but for a carriage lamp that burned near the garage, a porch light that illuminated a large, well-made front door (upon which hung a Christmas wreath), and a flickering blue glow that slipped from behind the drawn blinds of an upstairs room. A television. Hammett expected the house to be unoccupied, having learned that the widow Paxton had accepted an invitation to a party in Manhattan. Perhaps the housekeeper was home. The detective in Hammett didn't like surprises. He knew well enough to respect their danger—particularly as he wasn't here tonight in the role of detective but as something more akin to a burglar.

He considered going back to the car.

But time was short.

Waiting for the perfect moment was no option when all that remained of his life could be measured in months. It had never been a good option. Recently, he told a newspaperman that the cause of his decades-long writer's block was that as a young man he'd written the last third of a novel in a single, thirty-hour sitting and that since then he'd believed he could do it again if circumstances lined up just right. He'd waited, but circumstances never lined up. Of course, now he attributed his writer's block to something too esoteric to explain to any journalist—unless, that is, the ghost of H. P. Lovecraft or E. A. Poe took up writing the literary column for one or another cosmopolitan rag, which he didn't consider likely even in a universe as strange as this one. No matter. A pagan holiday like New Year's Eve was the right time to make his play for the Falcon, he believed, regardless of who might be in the house. He kept to the shadows as he moved through the front gate and up the walk.

He would be stealthy.

And if discovered, he would be clever with words.

And if disbelieved, he would be violent.

He was still Samuel Dashiell Hammett, for God's sake—or at least, a close approximation.

Nearing the porch, he heard the television. The night was freezing and he'd expected the house to be sealed tight. Still, he'd not be climbing through any open windows. He was sixty-five years old and his weight had dropped to one hundred and twenty pounds. He had no illusions about being a Cary Grant–type cat burglar (and even Cary Grant was too old to be traipsing on the rooftops of Monte Carlo, he thought). He stepped onto the porch, which he hoped would not creak beneath him. If he could hear the television playing inside, then whoever was watching it might hear him out here. An old movie; he couldn't distinguish dialogue but only the strings and rhythms of a thick musical score. He moved to the front door, reaching for the knob before stopping cold. From here, he made out the dialogue from the movie.

It wasn't just any movie.

It was Bogart in the role of Sam Spade talking to Sydney Greenstreet as Kasper Gutman: "Now let's talk about the black bird," Bogart said.

Hammett froze.

"Mr. Spade, have you any conception of how much money can be got for that black bird?" Greenstreet said, his voice oozing decadence. The words were Hammett's, taken by Huston directly from the book. Hammett didn't have to see the TV to know that the scene was set in Gutman's hotel suite. He'd visited the studio on the day they shot it—almost twenty years ago now. Afterward he'd gone drinking at a dive on Sunset Boulevard with Bogart and Peter Lorre. He looked around. Was this a setup? Or some kind of joke? No one knew he was coming. Not even Lily. Still, Hammett didn't trust coincidence. Then again, maybe it wasn't such a long shot—Channel 9 in New York ran The Maltese Falcon so often on their Million Dollar Movie that Hammett sometimes joked he should own an interest in the TV station by now.

"You mean you don't know what that bird is?" Greenstreet continued.

"Oh, I know what it's supposed to look like," Bogart said. "And I know the value in human life you people put on it."

A snap and the blue light at the window died.

The voices stopped.

Hammett considered: the inhabitant of the Paxton residence was either going to bed now or had heard something suspicious and was dialing the police. He thought going to bed the more likely possibility. Nonetheless, he couldn't help considering what prison sentence would accompany a breaking-and-entering conviction in light of his previous record. Two years? Five? For a man with lung cancer, either was a life sentence. The prospect of dying behind bars was a humiliation that only the most sublime loot could tempt him to risk.

He took a deep breath, then removed his tools and knelt before the door.

Was the ease with which he picked the lock an auspicious sign?

He stood, opened the door, stepped inside, closed the door behind him, and removed a penlight from his pocket. Before he could turn it on, however, someone switched on a lamp, illuminating the entry. Hammett froze. From behind him, the direction of the staircase—a woman's voice:

"Who are you?"

He recognized the voice, though it had been decades since he'd last heard it.

"Get out," she continued. "Or I'll call the police."

Already, everything was going wrong. But perhaps there was enough left of Sam Hammett, private detective, to salvage the moment. Then he heard Lillian's voice in his head, asking What on earth were you thinking by breaking-and-entering, you foolish old man? He had hoped he wouldn't have to display the .38. Now he had no choice but to show the damn thing, which he slipped out of the inside pocket of his coat as he slowly turned around.


Excerpted from HAMMETT UNWRITTEN by Owen Fitzstephen Copyright © 2013 by Gordon McAlpine. Excerpted by permission of Prometheus Books. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

Gordon McAlpine is the author of numerous novels as well as a middle-grade trilogy, The Misadventures of Edgar and Allan Poe. Additionally, he is coauthor of the nonfiction book The Way of Baseball, Finding Stillness at 95 MPH.  He has taught creative writing and literature at U.C. Irvine, U.C.L.A., and Chapman University.  He lives with his wife Julie in southern California.

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Hammett Unwritten: A Novel 5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 3 reviews.
JJStanley More than 1 year ago
This wickedly engaging read by author Gordon McAlpine (I will give McAlpine credit for the novel, although readers will discover that the actual authorship of this manuscript is not entirely certain), is a must read to any fan of Hammett or the entire hard-boiled detective genre of which he was the pioneer. If anyone wants to learn the truth about the Maltese Falcon or what really was the source of Hammett's famous writer's block, the answers are in this short tale. My only complaint with this novel was its brevity. McAlpine has a wonderfully rich narrative voice and ear for dialog that leaves you wanting more. The truth of this novel, including its title, is cloaked in the same kind of mystery as the best detective fiction it pays homage to. And the answer to its riddle is brilliant and is not found until the last paragraph of its clever afterword. If you are searching for a savory, smart, quick read that really delivers, "Hammett Unwritten" is the small treasure at the end of your quest.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I didn't know life was that hard to some people...
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I've been so busy lately. Life is hectic. I just wish I could sleep half of it, learn an eighth of it, use the internet and eighth of it, write and read an eighth of it, and the rest of my time would go to thinking. But I have other things, like chores and family stuff and friends and homework and overwhelming adults of authority. <p> Let me just note for that friends part, I don't really have that many friends. Most of the people in my class (as in, entire grade at my school) don't even know what a fandom is. And that, (haha) my friend, is a sad thing. Things are very gender based. I've yet to see another girl at my school reading Ranger's Apprentice, Eragon, or Daniel X. It's annoying. <p> Now, there are three other girls in my class whom I know to be fangirls. Aurora, Alexis, and Chelsea. Aurora hates me, which I won't even go into right now, Alexis is similar in fandoms but is distant and probably sides with Aurora, and then there's Chelsea. She's a fan of Twillight, Harry Pottor, and Doctor Who. Well, she used to watch Doctor Who, but she kinda just stopped. Chelsea is friends with both me and Aurora. She's one of my closer friends and is proabably more like me personalitywise. (Is that even a word?) It's kind of sad, but most people who know me are either on Aurora's side or are in the same boat as I am. Meaning, they are either friends with Aurora or they started out as her friend and she decided to kick them out of her circles and hate them for unreasonable explanations. Life just isn't fair. <p>I was kind of lost for months after she kicked me out. I was very lucky to find my perfect group--not all fangirls, but people who were also some branch of Christian religion and weren't the most normal people in the world. (We all like trying new things and weird food combinations.) I'm happy with Kim, Ashley, Hannah, and Alison as my lunch buddies. I only have one (or no) classes with each of them. <p> I should get back to the point. <p> My parents are divorced, so this is our schedule for the summer: <p> Week one: Dad. Two: Mom. Three: Dad. Four: Mom. Five: Dad. Six.... <p>The school year schedule is every other weekend and Wednesday overnights with mom. The rest of the time is with dad. I don't even know the holiday schedule. <p> Going from house to house each time usually takes up about forty five minutes of my life--driving, getting my stuff ready, etc.<p>We are also expanding our house, which takes up a lot of time. I think I mentioned this in my last entry.<p>I honestly don't have as much time as I'd like. <p> But I do have plenty of time to think while we're grocery shopping or going to Home Depot for the five billionth time. At least I have that. I can think up a Doctor Who parody to Let it Go or ponder the mysteries of the universe. Sometimes I ask how I'm able to think at all. I often think about time. I NEED to know the explanation for time. I wonder if you know the answer to time travel into the past. But again, I'm not Harry James Potter Evans-Verres. That would e awesome, though, if I was.