Monday, January 10, 2011

Long Gone, Long Remembered

It was 50 years ago today, on January 10, 1961, that American detective-story writer Dashiell Hammett--who’d invented enduring characters such as The Continental Op and Sam Spade, and in the course of it, changed the character of detective fiction itself--perished of lung cancer at New York City’s Lenox Hill Hospital. He was only 66 years old, but had contracted tuberculosis during World War I and then damaged his health still further by persistently over-consuming alcohol and cigarettes. As The New York Times recalled in its obituary the next day:
Mr. Hammett won his fame as an author in the late Nineteen Twenties and Thirties. He put his name to a series of detective novels whose characters were, by modest estimate, at one remove from stuffy, formal sleuths who moved through the mystery fiction of the day, disdaining evil. Before him paragons had trapped scoundrels in the dark lair of their own duplicity.

Mr. Hammett brought the form a step closer to reality. His detectives were tough or urbane or both, but they were by no means inaccessible to the common temptations of man. They were drawn in part from the writer’s eight years of experience as a Pinkerton agent.
A less formal, more heartfelt encomium to Hammett appeared on the Times’ editorial page two days after his passing. It began with a reference to Charles Poore, an author and one of the newspaper’s regular book reviewers:
Charles Poore remarked that one of the most uncomfortable trips he ever took was an ocean voyage on which he had read a defective copy of a Dashiell Hammett novel. The last few pages were missing.

This is about the best that can be said for a writer, although many another more resounding statement might be made about Dashiell Hammett. His prose was clean and entirely unique. His characters were as sharply and economically defined as any in American fiction. His stories were as consistent as mathematics and as intricate as psychology. His gift of invention never tempted him beyond the limits of credibility. The Latin scholar responded to the classic precision of his language and the comic strip reader to the excitement of his plots.

Dashiell Hammett died the other day, and it is this sad news that leads us to make a prediction: Years from now his stories will be in print.
Hammett was born on a tobacco farm in southern Maryland on May 27, 1894. He later moved with his family to Baltimore, where in 1915, he answered a want-ad that led him to the local headquarters of the Pinkerton National Detective Agency and into a short career as a sleuth. To commemorate Hammett’s connection with Maryland’s largest burg, Patrick Maynard, a runner and regular blogger for The Baltimore Sun’s Web site, recently mapped out a 10-mile-long course past “some of the Baltimore sites related to [the] famous mystery author ...,” and wrote in the paper’s Exercists blog about following that route. Among the landmarks he passed were the Continental Building (now One Calvert Plaza), where Hammett applied for employment with the “Pinks”; “the location of the now-gone Rennert Hotel, which stood on Saratoga Street and acted as the headquarters for Hammett’s political boss in The Glass Key”; and the “former Pratt Library Branch at Hollins and Calhoun streets, where Hammett allegedly vowed to read every book.”

You’ll find Maynard’s enjoyable piece here.

Also in association with this anniversary, Don Herron--a San Francisco writer and raconteur, who’s led walking tours of Hammett-related sites in that city ever since 1977--has launched “a new incarnation” of his Web site, Up and Down the Mean Streets. Herron is a font of Hammett knowledge and esoterica, in addition to being a hell of a nice guy. When I took an abbreviated version of his downtown San Francisco tour during last fall’s Bouchercon, I found myself scribbling down information in my notebook that I didn’t already know about Sam Spade’s “father”--and there was a lot of it. I expect Up and Down the Mean Streets will develop into a welcome resource about both Hammett and the Northern California city with which he’s deservedly associated.

Finally, today might be a good day to visit (or revisit) January Magazine’s tribute to Dashiell Hammett, posted in 2005 to honor the 75th anniversary of the release of The Maltese Falcon.

* * *

Meanwhile, today also marks 30 years since the death of Richard Boone. The Los Angeles-born actor starred in more than 50 films, but is undoubtedly best known for playing Paladin, a slick-dressing, San Francisco-based gunfighter and troubleshooter, in the TV series Have Gun--Will Travel (1957-1963). Boone died of throat cancer on this date in 1981, at 63 years of age.

A descendent of frontiersman Daniel Boone, and a cousin to singer-actor Pat Boone, Richard Boone got into acting after World War II, first debuting on Broadway and then appearing in the 1950 film Halls of Montezuma. In the mid-1950s, he starred in an NBC-TV medical drama called Medic, for which he received an Emmy Award nomination. However, it was his next series, Have Gun--Will Travel, that made him a national celebrity. After the cancellation of that show, Boone and his family moved to Honolulu, Hawaii. According to Wikipedia,
While living Oahu, Boone helped persuade Leonard Freeman to film Hawaii Five-O exclusively in Hawaii. Prior to that, Freeman had planned to do “establishing” location shots in Hawaii, but to do most production in Southern California. Boone and others convinced Freeman that the islands could offer all necessary support for a major TV series and would provide an authenticity otherwise unobtainable. Freeman, impressed by Boone’s love of Hawaii, offered him the role of Steve McGarrett; however, Boone turned it down, and the role went to Jack Lord, who shared Boone’s enthusiasm, which Freeman considered vital. Coincidentally, Jack Lord had appeared with Boone in the first episode of Have Gun--Will Travel, entitled “The Three Bells to Perdido.”
Boone went on to star in an anthology series, The Richard Boone Show (1963-1964), but it wasn’t until he took center stage in Hec Ramsey, part of the NBC Sunday Mystery Movie rotation, that he found himself a small-screen star again. In Hec Ramsey (1972-1974), produced by Dragnet’s Jack
video
Webb, Boone played an aging, once-infamous quick-to-draw lawman who, in 1901, had finally settled down as the deputy sheriff in an ambitious Oklahoma railroad town. His evolving interest in forensic science set him apart from his colleagues, and made the show distinctive among western dramas. I was a big Hec Ramsey fan myself, and was sorry when a contract dispute between Boone and Universal Studios led to its demise. (A teaser for one of the episodes, “The Mystery of Chalk Hill,” is embedded on the left.)

In 1970, Boone had moved to Florida, where for a time he wrote a newspaper column called “It Seems to Me” for the St. Augustine Record. His final role was playing Commodore Matthew Perry in The Bushido Blade (1981). Boone died in St. Augustine, but his cremated ashes were later scattered in the Pacific Ocean off Hawaii.

READ MORE:When Lillian Met Dashiell,” by Bill Peschel.

3 comments:

Amanda said...

Hammett is a GOD! One of my all-time favs. Not a poor story in the bunch.

RJR said...

Boone also appeared in the 1972 t.v. P.I. movie Goodnight, My Love where he was partners with Michael Dunn. And he was in the '78 Robert Mitchum version of The Big Sleep. And as much as I liked Hec Ramsey, he'll always be Paladin to me.

RJR

squeezegutalley said...

Thanks for the great Hammett links! And for the photo, which I hadn't seen before.

Nice to have a reminder of Richard Boone too. I especially liked his sly performance in The Tall T.