Given the book title for this year’s Big Read in Pomona — "The Maltese Falcon," by Dashiell Hammett — it seemed only appropriate that the annual event got off to a flying start Friday, Oct. 7 at Western University of Health Sciences.
The university hosted about 75 people for the Big Read kickoff, titled "California Classic Noir," which featured remarks from Julie Rivett, Hammett’s granddaughter, and a panel discussion with the biographers of Hammett, Ross Macdonald, and Raymond Chandler.
The Big Read is a nationwide effort by public libraries to unite their communities in reading a single book. Last year’s novel in Pomona was "Fahrenheit 451," by Ray Bradbury. Bradbury and his biographer appeared at WesternU during the 2010 Big Read kickoff event.
This year, after a reception in the university’s Recital Hall, Pomona’s Big Read project coordinator, Pat Lambert, greeted the audience by thanking the Friends of the Library and several other groups for helping sponsor the event, and noted that making this year’s Big Read book a mystery seemed a good fit for Pomona. "If it weren’t for the mysteries, we’d have a lot of angry readers at the library," she quipped.
Lambert then introduced Julie Rivett, one of Hammett’s four granddaughters. Rivett regularly lectures about her grandfather and takes his books on tour, and in 2005 curated the San Francisco Public Library’s exhibit commemorating the 75th anniversary of "The Maltese Falcon."
"I have to confess that I really didn’t get to know my grandfather," because he died of lung cancer when she was just 3, Rivett said. Though she has a handful of memories seen through a 3-year-old eyes, she said, most of what she knows about Hammett is the result of studying his works and what others have written about him, as well as talking with her own family.
"I will be the first one to admit that I am fascinated by my grandfather … and that he was nothing of the curmudgeon you would have imagined" based on how Sam Spade and other characters in his fictions speak and behave, she said.
Nevertheless, the similarities between Hammett and his most famous character are striking, she continued, notably their skills as detectives — Hammett briefly worked for the world-renowned Pinkerton Detective Agency in the early 1920s — and their living quarters. Spade’s neighborhood and apartment in "The Maltese Falcon" are essentially exact replicas of Hammett’s own living and working quarters in San Francisco, so "when I look at this book, I can’t help but see my grandfather at his desk," Rivett said.
In other ways, Hammett and Spade distinctly part company. The author, who suffered from tuberculosis and received disability payments for his condition, worked as a typist to pay the bills while he pursued his love of writing, and eventually had a piece published in Smart Set magazine, leading to publication of 43 more stories over the next several years in a variety of publications, notably Black Mask, which was known for its detective stories. A change in editors at Black Mask allowed Hammett to fully invest his time in a series of longer-form detective stories for the magazine, eventually prompting him to start work on "The Maltese Falcon" in 1929.
Hammett considered "Falcon" to be his finest work, although he and others writers of the time would not have described it as "noir," which is a newer description, Rivett said. "It would have been called ‘hard boiled’," she said.
Regardless, that type of fiction has several standout qualities, she continued, notably:
* Style — Everything from clothes to cars to architecture had an aestethic appeal that is uniquely of the time.
* Loss of innocence — "The good guys don’t win, but neither do the bad guys," Rivett said. Characters tend to be shadowy, cynical, and as rife with moral ambiguities as the plot points they deal with.
* Language — Characters speak to one another with what Rivett described as "proletarian wit," which is not elitist, but "street smart." Hammett prided himself on capturing these conversations well, and others agree: author Margaret Atwood once said Hammett "captured the cadence and tone of vernacular in modern American language."
Rivett’s presentation was followed by a panel discussion moderated by Denise Hamilton, a former Los Angeles Times reporter, Hammett biographer, and author of the Eve Diamond series of crime novels; Tom Nolan, a Ross Maconald biographer and crime fiction reviewer for the Wall Street Journal; and Judith Freeman, a novelist and Raymond Chandler biographer.
All three agreed that "The Maltese Falcon" and Hammett’s other works were critical to the development of detective fiction into the books and stories we see today. Chandler’s two big influences, Freeman said, were "the two H’s — Hammett and Hemingway." Hammett was as important to the detective story genre as Edgar Allan Poe, who invented the form, Nolan said, although Maconald — whose work came into vogue in the 1950s and ’60s — was more interested in family dynamics than gangsters, which is why his detective stories are more "domesticated."
Hammett, Chandler and McDonald also represent a string of great detective writers who essentially handed off the genre to one another throughout the 20th century. Hammett’s last novel, "The Thin Man" — which went on to become a popular series of movies starring William Powell and Myrna Loy — was published in 1934, about the same time Chandler started writing. Chandler — who once said Hammett did something really great writers do, which is to write scenes as through they had never been written before — was nearing retirement when Maconald’s career began to take off in the 1950s.
All three, Hamilton noted, "were very cinematic. You could really see what they wrote in your head."