Heavenly hard-boiled reading now available at the Library of America’s “Story of the Week” feature: a 1923 piece by Dashiell Hammett that marked a turning point in the development of his style; and “I’ll Be Waiting,” Raymond Chandler’s finest short story. It’s relatively brief, loaded with atmosphere, and has a honey of a twist ending, but I love it most for this opening paragraph:
At one o’clock in the morning, Carl, the night porter, turned down the last of three table lamps in the main lobby of the Windermere Hotel. The blue carpet darkened a shade or two and the walls drew back into remoteness. The chairs filled with shadowy loungers. In the corners were memories like cobwebs.
Great beginnings are a hallmark of noir novels. When I read the opening of Red Harvest, Dashiell Hammett’s first novel, I immediately wanted to read everything else the man had put to paper:
I first heard Personville called Poisonville by a red-haired mucker named Hickey Dewey in the Big Ship in Butte. He also called his shirt a shoit. I didn’t think anything of what he had done to the city’s name. Later I heard men who could manage their r’s give it the same pronunciation. I still didn’t see anything in it but the meaningless sort of humor that used to make richardsnary the thieves’ word for dictionary. A few years later I went to Personville and learned better.
Using one of the phones in the station, I called the Herald, asked for Donald Willsson, and told him I had arrived.
“Will you come out to my house at ten this evening?” He had a pleasantly crisp voice. “It’s 2101 Mountain Boulevard. Take a Broadway car, get off at Laurel Avenue, and walk two blocks west.”
I promised to do that. Then I rode up to the Great Western Hotel, dumped my bags, and went out to look at the city.
The city wasn’t pretty. Most of its builders had gone in for gaudiness. Maybe they had been successful at first. Since then the smelters whose brick stacks stuck up tall against a gloomy mountain to the south had yellow-smoked everything into uniform dinginess. The result was an ugly city of forty thousand people, set in an ugly notch between two ugly mountains that had been all dirtied up by mining. Spread over this was a grimy sky that looked as if it had come out of the smelters’ stacks.
The first policeman I saw needed a shave. The second had a couple of buttons off his shabby uniform. The third stood in the center of the city’s main intersection–Broadway and Union Street–directing traffic, with a cigar in one corner of his mouth. After that I stopped checking them up.
Red Harvest was published in 1029, the same year John Steinbeck made his considerably less promising debut with Cup of Gold, and Ernest Hemingway published his second novel, A Farewell to Arms. Hammett’s book was a downmarket detective story, but it had a lot more interesting and revealing things to say about its time than Hemingway’s opus.