The mark of a truly good piece of fiction is that it somehow changes the way you think about reality. The mark of a truly great piece of fiction is that it – quite literally – changes the way you think about fiction. It transcends the routine that is so much of the written word, and it breathes life into characters in such a way that they become imprinted on your mind via the mind’s eye, perhaps even continuing on forever in whatever elaborate adventures a reader can dream up all of his own.
Interestingly enough, the same truth can be proven for good films versus great films – of which I’ve always considered John Huston’s superlative version of THE MALTESE FALCON to be. The film is what led me to Dashiell Hammett’s original novel, and, since that day many moons ago, it’s what drive me to continue seeking out vintage crime mysteries, preferably ones with a private eye in a lead role. Now I’ve been blessed with uncovering HAMMETT UNWRITTEN … and my world has been forever again turned on its head.
(NOTE: The following review will contain minor spoilers necessary solely for the discussion of plot and characters. If you’re the kind of reader who prefers a review entirely spoiler-free, then I’d encourage you to skip down to the last two paragraphs for my final assessment. If, however, you’re accepting of a few modest hints at ‘things to come,’ then read on …)
Weary with the business of private investigations, Dashiell Hammett finally called it quits on one career, instead rushing headfirst down the road of another: writer. He acquired the legendary counterfeit statue of ‘The Maltese Falcon’ in that last case, and only then did the man find his greatest talent as a gifted storyteller. But what unfolds once he surrenders the black bird to the woman he once loved will challenge the man’s perceptions and, perhaps, present him with his most challenging riddle yet: was I responsible for all that I’d done as a novelist, or were there other elements at work?
Like our wary narrator, you won’t believe your eyes as UNWRITTEN turns everything Hammett fans know upside down. The inspirations of his life – including those people who stirred him to weave his most memorable tale – take on new meaning as they collide in a new reality which unfolds curiously over thirty years. Like that seminal tale, the black bird is near (and dear) the heart, only this time around it’s postulated that the statue’s origins are even more heavily shrouded in mysticism. Hammett – as a character – remains a skeptic (much as would have Sam Spade or Nick Charles), but each new development pushes him closer and closer into acknowledging that the life he led may not have been entirely of his own volition.
Surprisingly, UNWRITTEN also serves as a cautionary tale about how one lives one’s life. For reasons that have been subject to some debate and speculation, Hammett ceased writing mysteries, instead engaging in a myriad of ‘Progressive’ causes, love affairs, and generally self-destructive behaviors. He penned his last novel in 1934 but lived until early 1961. While UNWRITTEN gets laudable mileage out of postulating a unique circumstance to explain his departure from the world of writing, it also delivers a knock-out blow reminder to those who may’ve forgotten what mom always told us: life is short, so make sure you do what you’re destined to do while you have the time you’re given.
In the conclusion, maybe Hammett does. Maybe the lesson learned here is that he’s best at solving mysteries instead of writing them. Maybe – just maybe – he had to experience just this particularly troubled existence in order for him to achieve whatever lasting peace he’d have in the known, knowable universe. Still, I can’t help but imagine that those last few fitful passages that come into his mind when he’s facing the ultimate femme fatale indicate that there was much more greatness yet to come from the mind of Dashiell Hammett, the writer, than there ever would be Dashiell Hammett, the detective. Those books are, instead, forever lost to time. Sadly, that potential was realized all too late, and that’s the moral to the story I’m stuck with.
As is some folks’ lot in life, I’d imagine that there are critics who might be quick to dismiss UNWRITTEN as a crassly commercial product meant to capitalize on another’s fame or spotlight in order to enhance one’s own reputation. In short, that would be foolish. As I said in my opening, great fiction causes the reader to reconsider everything he’s learned about the various ‘fictions’ that have come before, and I challenge you – nay, I dare you – to read UNWRITTEN and not reach the same realization I did: you can never – ever – think about THE MALTESE FALCON in the same way ever again. In short order, that is no small accomplishment … and Owen Fitzstephen (or Fitzstephan, for those in the know) and/or Gordon McAlpine did it with such ease one might blame the ghost of the late Hammett himself for such a triumph.
HAMMETT UNWRITTEN is written by Owen Fitzstephen with ‘Notes’ and ‘Afterword’ provided by Godon McAlpine (read them, people, as even those will challenge you to think about what you’re about to read AND what you’ve just read). It’s published by Seventh Street Books with a list price of $13.95 … a bargain for the wisdom it contains.
HIGHEST RECOMMENDATION POSSIBLE. I loved it from start to finish. If you know anything about Dashiell Hammett and/or THE MALTESE FALCON (in any variation), then you owe it to yourself to pick this up and read it today. I guarantee that it’ll change the way you see those various worlds in ways you’ve possibly never imagined.
In the interests of fairness, I’m pleased to disclose that the fine folks at Seventh Street Books (an imprint of Prometheus Books) for providing me with a complimentary copy of HAMMETT UNWRITTEN by request for the expressed purposes of completing this review.