Recently, I watched The Maltese Falcon (1941), featuring Bogart, Greenstreet, and Mary Astor. This prompted me to reexamine, after many years, the work of Dashiell Hammett, on whose novel the film is based. I was unable to find Falcon in my library, but I did discover The Glass Key and The Continental Op, so I catch myself looking into them at odd moments of the day. So far, that is the most progress I’ve made with Hammett (I couldn’t get into The Thin Man either, book or movie, a long time ago), but since a novelist can learn from bad novels as well as good ones (sometimes even more), I suppose I shall persist, at least for a while. But it is tedious going, especially for someone who had also been rereading Raymond Chandler’s luminous “detective stories,” which are really “literary novels” whose protagonist happens to be a private eye. Though in a previous life it was Hammett who worked as a Pinkerton detective, and Chandler as an oilman, Chandler was the one who wrote as if he were working from experience—which goes to show what literary genius is all about. While Chandler at times overdoes his characters’ “cracking wise,” his tough blondes, and occasionally his atmospherics, his prose glimmers and shines on the page. Hammett’s just squats there, like sentences written by a not too terribly talented enrollee in a creative-writing class. The characters are just names, the dialogue stinks, and the narrator vacillates between stilted literary prose and something more relaxed, but still wholly unconvincing. The stories, I suppose, are OK, but the Falcon in this respect is hardly notable. Perhaps the booze had something to do with it, but then Chandler was a notorious lush, too. A more convincing explanation is Hammett’s 30-year affair with Lillian Hellman. That would crack the shell of the most hard-boiled writer, which Hammett is reputed to have been.
—Chilton Williamson, Jr.
The writing of Jeff Minick should be familiar to Chronicles readers; he has appeared in these pages dozens of times over the past 15 years or so. His name, however, was not always attached to his work. Under the nom de plume Joe Ecclesia, he wrote our Letter to the Bishop column for the better part of a decade, and those articles constitute a majority of his Chronicles pieces (though that majority is getting slimmer with time). His more recent letters from Uncle Samuel to his nephew Hobson have borne his own name.
For a couple of years now, I have had Jeff’s Learning as I Go sitting on my shelf, constantly disappearing under stacks of other books, waiting for life to slow down enough so that I could savor its contents. But life doesn’t slow down unless we make it do so, and I finally decided to force its hand by picking up this 300-plus-page volume. What a delight it has been to revisit the letters of both Joe and Samuel, and all of the other pieces that Jeff published in these pages up until 2013, and to read for the first time others that appeared elsewhere. Most of the pieces in this handsome and elegantly typeset volume are only four or five pages long—a perfect length when your eyes need a rest from your computer screen, and your mind needs a rest from the inanities of the modern world.
—Scott P. Richert