What better way to start the new year than with a little hardboiled American crime from the virtuoso novelist Dashiell Hammett. I had just crossed paths with him in a very peripheral sort of way via Laurie King in her Mary Russell/Sherlock Holmes mystery Locked Rooms (I still need to write about it), which is set in San Francisco and in which Hammett makes a cameo appearance and aides the pair in the solving of their most recent crime. The Woman in the Dark is really little more than a novella and can be read in one sitting and felt very slight. Hammett's novels are all fairly slight, he wastes not a word in his writing, but this one felt even thinner. Still, a perfect little kick off to reading Hammett this year.
Woman in the Dark, subtitled "a Novel of Dangerous Romance" was published in 1933 at the tail end of his writing career in installments for Liberty Magazine. It came, too, only a few years after the start of what would be a lifelong relationship with playwright Lillian Hellman. Apparently it is has more "romance" or the promise of a just possibly happy ending than his other works, but it's probably best not to read too much of the personal into his writing. His final novel, however, The Thin Man does feature a romantically involved pair filled with witty dialogue and lots of clinking glasses.
The titular woman of the novella, Luise Fischer, a Swiss refugee, is running away from something (or someone in this case) in the opening pages of the story. She is dressed to the nines in an evening gown and slippers. She has stumbled in the road and broken a heel in her effort to get away fast. And she rings the doorbell of the first house she encounters.
"She was a tall woman and carried herself proudly, for all she was lame and the wind had tousled her hair and the gravel of the road and cut and dirtied her hands and bare arms and the red crepe of her gown."
There she comes across a man known only as "Brazil" and as things are wont to happen in just these kinds of situations, both have just enough baggage and the hint of sordid pasts (or presents) to make things interesting. Brazil is as cool as a clear Arctic morning showing not the least bit of surprise, as if a woman in a red evening gown showing up on his doorstep is an everyday occurrence. Into some lives these things happen. He barely turns to her when she enters the room, and it is with a hoarse unemotional voice he replies to her anxious request for help. Maybe Brazil has other things on his mind as he seems to already be giving refuge to a young woman hiding from a difficult father.
Things quickly become complicated for the lot. Not far behind Luise two thugs come knocking on Brazil's door in search of their runaway maiden, but she doesn't want to return and Brazil is not going to let this damsel go unaided. It turns out that Brazil is a recently released parolee who has a problem with confinement. He cannot bear the idea of being locked up again, but against his better judgement he tries to help Luise free herself of what has now become unwanted attention. One of the thugs was at one time her rescuer if he brought her to America. It makes one curious what the story behind the story there is. I can only imagine, however.
These situations rarely end well. I won't give away the rest of the story, but only say that events snowball and Brazil gets himself into a messy situation. It may be that Hammett was writing this with one eye towards pitching it as a movie, which it was eventually adapted to. Woman in the Dark was filmed in B&W and starred Fay Wray, Ralph Bellamy and Melvyn Douglas in 1934, to what looks like fairly favorable attention. It seems to be streaming on Amazon now, so I shall be seeing how it translated into film.
Hammett only wrote five novels but loads and loads of short stories as well as a few screenplays. It's interesting that he stopped writing for the last twenty-five years or so of his life, but I think he was ill for a good chunk of that time. I hadn't actually planned on making reading his work into any sort of project, but it seems to be turning out that way, so I think now I will go back and pick up Red Harvest, his first crime novel and see where it takes me.