Maryland’s favorite son (okay, not really) Dashiell Hammett was born today in 1894. He’s one of the crime authors whose work I blasted through years ago, having read every word available, my favorite of the classic, hard boiled crime writers.
So deeply influential, you’ve no doubt watched movies his work has influenced even if you avoid the world of noir entirely. Kurosawa’s Yojimbo and Fist Full of Dollars are both loose adaptations of Red Harvest. The Thin Man was his love letter to Lillian Hellman, spawning the famous, long running comedy franchise starring the perfectly cast William Powell and Myrna Loy.
I’ve watched every film adaptation of The Maltese Falcon (the best obviously being the third - John Houston’s 1941 classic), and one of the things they all have in common is that they all omit what is usually referred to as The Flitcraft Story. Some time after September 11th, I thought the Flitcraft Story summed up what I felt about things more accurately than anything else. In the scene where Sam Spade sits up with Brigid O’Shaughnessey, he tells her a story about a man he had been hired to find a few years back. Flitcraft was married, worked in a successful real estate office in Tacoma, played golf, had no secrets. One day he left his office to attend a luncheon and he vanished. “He went like that,” Spade said, “like a fist when you open your hand.” Spade eventually ran across Flitcraft in Spokane. This is what had happened to him:
"Going to lunch he passed an office-building that was being put up- just the skeleton. A beam or something fell eight or ten stories down and smacked the sidewalk along side him…He was scared stiff, of course, he said, but he was more shocked than really frightened. He felt like someone had taken the lid off life and shown him the works."
Flitcraft was shocked to discover that chaos exists, and he decided over lunch that his quiet, orderly life as a good citizen was out of step with the way the world operated, so he left. Flitcraft wandered around for a few years, then settled in Spokane and got married.
"His second wife didn’t look like the first, but they were more alike then they were different. You know, the kind of women that play fair games of golf and bridge and like new salad-recipes…I don’t think he even knew he had settled back naturally into the same groove he had jumped out of in Tacoma. But that’s the part of it I always liked. He adjusted himself to beams falling, and then no more of them fell, and he adjusted himself to them not falling."
New York City and 9-11 always seemed just like Flitcraft to me. Shocked as hell when everyone realized that nothing one does is protection from falling beams, and then everything is different, and then back to being the same, but not really. We all know beams fall.
Hammett was a supremely odd duck. He was a drunk, a communist and a patriot, enlisting in the army after the attack on Pearl Harbour even though he was old, drunk and suffering from TB. A veteran of two wars, you can visit his grave in Arlington Cemetery.