by Jesse Marinoff Reyes ( Jesse Marinoff Reyes Design, Maplewood, N.J.)
Samuel Dashiell Hammett (1894-1961)!
In this issue of the “Creative living for Tacoma” magazine—somewhat oddly, produced in Seattle—City Arts took a look at the period in Hammett’s life where he spent time living in the City of Destiny (so called because it was chosen to be the western terminus of the Northern Pacific Railway in the late 19th century, with its jumping off point to the Pacific Rim via the seaport at Commencement Bay). Like so many boom-towns of the western states, Tacoma attracted a swath of ambitious humanity, not the least of which would be the lowlifes who frequent those intersections of ambition and commerce, making them hubs for lawlessness, vice, and all manner of sordid crimes. Fertile ground by 1920 for the ex-and -future Pinkerton detective, already world-weary at 26, with a taste for alcohol and a future as an iconic crime novelist.
Hammett was in Tacoma ostensibly to be treated at the new Cushman Institute Public Health Service Hospital, specializing in treatments for war vets and “lungers” with tuberculosis (Hammett had been coughing up blood and his weight had dropped to less than 130 lbs.). Hammett spent his time in Tacoma shuttling between hospital treatments, the library—where he was a voracious reader—to nights spent in movie houses and at downtown speakeasies. Tacoma’s rough and tumble, Barbary Coast-like atmosphere was certainly hardboiled. Brightly lit neon attracted patrons to legions of theatre houses—names like The Tacoma, Pantages, Rialto, Strand, Apollo, Victory, Colonial, and Hippodrome—you’d think you were in New York. As the article details, “Tacoma’s Japantown alone had 50 hotels, 20 restaurants, and a curious block of windowless barber shops, medicinal herb dealers and heavily trafficked ‘shops’ that were signless” (hint, hint). An era of social turmoil and political corruption, it was extraordinarily violent, and the daily papers screamed with lurid headlines on armed robberies, axe-murders, police raids and gun battles (again, you’d think you were in New York!). Hammett bore witness to it all, and not just from reading the morning paper. Tacoma was Nightmare Town—as Hammett would later title one of his stories.
So it was from experiences like these that Hammett would draw from—especially his time as a Pinkerton—to shape his writing. After a year in Tacoma, Hammett was transferred to another hospital, in San Diego. From there he would eventually relocate to San Francisco and his job with the Pinkertons, where he began writing short stories. By 1930, he would publish his seminal hardboiled detective novel, The Maltese Falcon. In the early pages of the novel, Hammett details a richly elucidated albeit compressed vignette of a man named “Flitraft.” It was a summing up in a way, of Hammett’s world view—through the lens of his protagonist, Sam Spade—of the chaotic vagaries of human life, the irrational and fatalistic roll of the dice that can determine whether a man could live or die. “The Flitcraft Parable,” as it has become known, was the distillation of an event that occurred during Hammett’s time in Tacoma—where panic, mistaken identity in the heat of police pursuit, and pure, one-in-a-million chance, ended an innocent man’s life. The wrong place, wrong time scenario. Thusly inspired, it is an exhilarating piece of writing—if you’ve read The Maltese Falcon, you already know this, if you don’t you just have to see for yourself—and in a way, sets the tone for the rest of the novel. Unflinching, and as hot as the spent shell casing for the bullet lodged in that innocent man on that long ago Tacoma street.
The “Flitcraft Parable” is illustrated in comic book form in this issue by cover artist Stan Shaw (profiled in a posting last year on his indie comic detective character, “Billy Nguyen”). Shaw, one of this scribe’s favorite artists—and favorite people—and about the biggest Hammett fan I’ve yet met, dove into the story with signature alacrity and expressionistic flair. A real treat for fans and neophytes alike.
For more on Stan Shaw, see his illuminating blog, but be prepared—he can throw more stylistic tweaks at you than you can shake a stick at:
City Arts, January-February, 2008 issue
Illustration: Stan Shaw
Art Director: Victoria Culver
— with Stan Shaw.