Wednesday, September 20, 2017

Hammett: Joe Gores


Joe Gores was an admirer and a student of Dashiell Hammett's writing. Both had been private investigators before they  became full time writers. Both had lived and worked in San Francisco. Thus Gores was the perfect person to write this fictionalized version of events in Samuel Dashiell Hammett's life, set in 1928 when Hammett was no longer a private detective and was trying to support himself with his writing.


In this novel, Hammett is approached by Victor Atkinson, a private detective he had worked years before.  He wants Hammett to join him in an investigation of corruption in the San Francisco police department and government. Hammett refuses, stressing that he is not interested and not up the task after many years away from the profession. When Atkinson is killed very soon after that, Hammett gets involved.

Gore's story telling sucked me in. He provided a wonderful picture of San Francisco in the late 1920's. I enjoyed both the view of Dashiell Hammett at that time and the mystery plot. The descriptions of the corruption in San Francisco at that time were fascinating.

The New York Times obituary for Joe Gores has this to say about Hammett:
In “Hammett“ (1975) Mr. Gores skillfully blended fact and fiction, inventing a murder case for his protagonist to solve at the time the actual Hammett was finishing “Red Harvest.” Critics praised Mr. Gores’s evocation of Hammett’s literary style and character, as well as his fictional world.
On the dust jacket of the hardback edition, a quote from Joe Gores:
"I wanted to paint a fictionalized, yet honest portrait of the man who created an authentic and original voice in American literature and to paint that portrait against the backdrop of his times--the 1920’s--and his city--San Francisco." 
The Author Notes at the end of the book about Hammett's life and San Francisco history were almost as enjoyable as the book itself. Those notes got me interested in reading more books by Hammett. So far I have only read The Maltese Falcon and The Thin Man.

After reading the book, I then watched the film adaptation from 1982, directed by Wim Wenders. The executive producer was Francis Ford Coppola, and Ross Thomas was one of the screenwriters. It was not the first time we had seen the movie, so I already knew I liked it. But viewing it after reading the book, I noticed how different it was from the book. Some of the basic story was there, and it was still about corruption and vice in San Francisco, but the story in the film was not nearly as realistic as the book felt. Still, we enjoyed viewing the movie again.

I liked Frederic Forrest as Dashiell Hammett, and Marilu Henner was very good as a neighbor and friend. Peter Boyle is one of my favorite actors and he had a good role as Hammett's old friend, a former Pinkerton detective. That role is much bigger in the film than in the book. And Elisha Cook Jr. has a small part as a taxi driver.

Here are some interesting links regarding problems in the production of the film:

Writers Who Worked on The "Hammett" Screenplay at The Thrilling Detective

Wim Wenders Sets The Record Straight at IndieWire


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Publisher: Putnam, 1975
Length:    242 pages
Format:    Hardback
Setting:    San Francisco
Genre:     Historical Mystery
Source:    Purchased.


17 comments:

  1. I still haven't read any of Joe Gores' books. Maybe 2018! I have this one but I think the DKA books hold a bit more appeal for me.

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    1. I know the feeling, Col. I am already planning for my 2018 reading. And I agree, the DKA series would be more your thing.

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    2. Nonetheless, HAMMETT is a brilliant novel. Even the early thrown-away petty evil of a minor character casually drowning a litter of unwanted kittens sticks with one, but Gores always did know how to get across the banality of even vicious evil.

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    3. Yes, I forgot about that scene, Todd. There are some truly evil characters in this book.

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  2. Really interesting look, Tracy, at a book that includes a real person as a fictional character. It's not easy to pull that off, but I'm glad Gores did. And the setting and context are very appealing, too.

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    1. That is a challenge, Margot. I enjoyed the story and the setting primarily.

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  3. The film version is great fun but is not a great adaptation - they had huge problems with it apparently. They started shooting with one cast but stopped, scrapped most of it then picked it up again months later with several changes including the cast (Brian Keith played the Peter Boyle role originally, for instance).

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    1. I agree, Sergio, a fun movie but not the same feel as the book at all. That is interesting about Brian Keith having that role first; I can see him playing that role well also.

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  4. I read Hammett so long ago I'd forgotten the plot until you reminded me, Tracy. Saw the movie more recently and fortunately the forgotten novel plot didn't interfere with my enjoyment of the movie. I remember liking the novel, but found Spade and Archer a little heavyhanded--overboiled, maybe. If the comparison's valid, I would say Gores did Hammett better than he did Spade.

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    1. Mathew, I hope to read Spade and Archer in the next few months to see what I think. I do think it would be hard to write in another author's style.

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    2. I still need to catch up with S&A as well.

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  5. Tracy, I'd probably read this book after I have read (and reread) some of Hammett's novels including THE MALTESE FALCOM and THE THIN MAN. I'd be particularly keen to read about the 1920's San Francisco setting in this book.

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    1. Actually, Prashant, I will probably read this book again after I have read some of Hammett's short stories and one or two books I have not yet read like Red Harvest and The Glass Key. And the setting in San Francisco is great.

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  6. I haven't read any of Joe Gores' books either, Tracy. Thanks for reminding me. Maybe I'll begin with this one, it sounds intriguing. (Hadn't seen the film adaptation either. But I do remember the actor Frederic Forrest and how much I liked him once upon a time.

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    1. This would be a good place to start, Yvette. For some reason I get confused (about the plot) more when I read PI novels. More characters or something. But I usually like the main characters a lot, so it makes up for it.

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  7. The Maltese Falcon and The Thin Man are both very good. The latter is different from the movie version, as the book is more serious and less light-hearted.

    The description of the kitten scene threw me right off from reading this book. A cat lover, I couldn't enjoy the book after that scene.

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    1. Kathy, It did surprise me the first time I read The Thin Man, that it was so different in tone from the movie. But I like both the book and the movie.

      Yes, the description of the kitten scene was bad, although not dwelt on, and I had forgotten about it. I am glad you are forewarned.

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