Q&A: New collection of Dashiell Hammett stories required detective work in Ransom Center’s collection
By Jane Robbins Mize
Julie M. Rivett is the granddaughter of Dashiell Hammett, celebrated twentieth-century novelist and author of The Maltese Falcon. Together with Richard Layman, Rivett published The Hunter and Other Stories, a collection of Hamett’s little-known and previously unpublished works.
The book—which includes screenplays, short stories, and unfinished narratives—largely draws from the Ransom Center’s collection of Hammett’s manuscripts, correspondence, and personal notes. In the afterword, Rivett reflects on her research experience at the Ransom Center: “For researchers, editors, biographers, and granddaughters, archival visits are irreplaceable, near-religious experiences, ripe with potential for new discoveries.”
The Hunter and Other Stories is a testament to the importance of the archive for the reader as well. Rivett writes, “We believe The Hunter’s stories deserve to be published, read, and included in the greater Hammett canon. We believe that they complement Hammett’s better-known fiction and complicate and extend the legend and life story of their author.”
Below, Rivett discusses her investigation of her grandfather’s archive and the clues and information she uncovered therein.
How did your study of Hammett’s archive at the Harry Ransom Center deepen your understanding of your grandfather’s character and career?
For any serious researcher, opportunities to spend hands-on time with primary source materials are enlightening and exhilarating beyond compare. For me, as both researcher and granddaughter, the experience is doubly gratifying! Hammett is a fascinating figure. But he’s also family—Grandma’s husband, my mother’s father, and a grandfather I can just barely remember. What I know of him has been learned almost entirely posthumously, beginning with my mother’s recollections, family photos, and the letters he sent to his wife and daughters. For me, the Hammett story unfolds outward from those personal connections—from the private man to a public figure.
The Hammett collection at the Ransom Center informs the counterpoint, preserving closely held remains of my grandfather’s professional life. These are the papers that he (and, later, Lillian Hellman) saved and tended for decades. Because I know that my grandfather was not a saver, I know that these surviving drafts, typescripts, and working notes must have been important to him. Some are good starts—stories he believed were worth developing. Others are complete but unpublished—perhaps incompatible with his hardboiled reputation or perhaps pieces he’d hoped to revisit. Many bear his emendations—an education in editing, to be sure. The collection makes it easy for me to envision my grandfather as a serious craftsman, pencil in hand, sorting and reading and revising, nodding at the best and frowning at the thought of what might have been. It’s a window into professional technique, ambition, and frustration—but for me, it’ll always be personal, too.
Can you describe your archival research process, particularly while working at the Ransom Center?
When Richard Layman and I decided to co-edit a collection of unpublished and rarely published Hammett fiction, we had a pretty good idea of what we wanted to include—mostly from the cache at the Ransom Center. Rick went back to the materials he’d collected during prior research trips and for previous proposals. I began to review online finding aids and other potential resources. It was clear that this project would require a fresh, tightly focused visit to the archive. In March of 2011 we met in Austin, where we spent days going over each Hammett work, front and back, page by page. Reviewing the main text was only part of the job—that can be done nearly as well with facsimiles. But we needed to see and feel the paper, to examine typing and handwriting, to cross-reference various iterations, to consider abandoned drafts on typescript versos, and to watch for the faintest of pencil marks or the tidiest of cut-and-paste jobs. We needed to be both scholars and detectives, tapping our overlapping perspectives in a search for clues to inform content, establish chronology, and contextualize within Hammett’s literary history. While we would have months of work ahead of us back home afterwards—organizing, creating commentary, proofreading, and more—that archival research at the Ransom Center remained a highpoint of our editorial process.
How does The Hunter and Other Stories enrich Hammett’s literary canon? How do the stories digress from his previously published works? How are they similar?
One look at The Hunter’s table of contents reveals its most surprising aspect—only four in the collection are categorized as “crime stories.” Instead, my grandfather’s fiction hinges on human conflict, difficult decisions, and irresolvable situations. Crime often lingers at edges of the stories—in, for example, “The Cure” or “Monk and Johnny Fox”—but it’s the relationships among the characters and the tensions within them that dominate the telling. The stories, considered in context, also reflect the storyteller’s biography. My grandfather wanted to be more than a crime writer. The Hunter provides evidence of his struggles to that end. Rick and I are enormously pleased to be able to provide general readers with access to these works, in part because they’re well written and insightful and, in part, because they help to break down stereotypical notions of Hammett as a genre author.
Differences in content also point to similarities in substance. In truth, even Hammett’s crime fiction is driven primarily by character exposition. “What I try to do,” explained my grandfather in 1929, “is write a story about a detective rather than a detective story.” I would suggest that after reading The Hunter, Hammett fans go back and reread the novels or the Continental Op stories with Hammett’s emphasis on character in mind. Watch Sam Spade as he observes and anticipates Brigid’s or Gutman’s manipulations. Follow Ned Beaumont and Nick Charles as they untangle the blood ties that both bind and kill. Beneath their various schemes and misdeeds, Hammett’s narratives are always more about characters, and the solutions, if they exist, grow out of the detectives’ canny understanding of human nature. As I see it, the most enduring impact of my grandfather’s fiction is the melding of insightful observation, philosophical depth, and rollicking good stories. The Hunter provides back-story on the ambitions and processes that made that possible.
Image: Cover of The Hunter and Other Stories, co-edited by Julie M. Rivett and Richard Layman.