Gordon MacAlpine has a new novel out. HAMMETT UNWRITTEN, written under his pen name Owen Fitzstephen, is about Dashiell Hammett closing his final case as a private eye. A dangerous maze of events takes Hammett from 1930s San Francisco to the glamorous Hollywood of the 1940s, a federal penitentiary at the time of the McCarthy hearings, and finally to a fateful meeting on New Year’s Eve, 1959, at a Long Island estate. There the dying Hammett confronts a woman from his past who proves to be his most formidable rival. And his last hope.
I interviewed Gordon MacAlpine about his latest release.
Tell us about HAMMETT UNWRITTEN.
I have always been intrigued by the seam where fact meets myth and, even more, by the dynamic exchange between the two, which is sometimes strong enough to rip the seam apart, leaving us unable to discern where one ends and the other begins. That the great mystery writer Dashiell Hammett actually worked in his early twenties as a private detective presents opportunities for such exploration. However, it was not until I came upon the following Hammett quote in a 1934 edition of the NEW YORK EVENING JOURNAL that I conceived a truly original way into his story: “All of my characters are real. They are based directly on people I knew, or came across.” This put me in mind of his classic novel THE MALTESE FALCON, which I admire not only for its craft but also for the audacious revelation at its conclusion that the sought after black bird was still out there. So I wondered: who had been the “real life” models for the Fat Man, Joel Cairo, and Bridget O’Shaughnessy, all of whom must have known Samuel Dashiell Hammett in his P.I. days and may have drifted in and out of his life thereafter, witnessing his transition from gumshoe to bestselling novelist to blocked writer? And, if they were real, might the young Hammett have actually worked a case involving a black statuette, the mysterious nature of which exceeded even the fictionalized jeweled version in his famous novel? And, finally, might that “real” statuette have haunted Dashiell Hammett in unexpected ways long after he achieved fame and fortune, its presence covertly tangled among the known elements of his celebrated and dramatic life? Good questions. So I wrote HAMMETT UNWRITTEN to find the answers.
Who are your literary influences?
I admire Hemingway for his dogged, if Quixotic, search for the perfect sentence; I am intrigued by Jorge Luis Borges, who regarded the whole world as a narrative and every narrative as a whole world, always working playfully at the boundaries. Among mystery writers, I particularly appreciate the rich combination of grit and compassion in the mysteries of Georges Simenon, who created one of the most appealing series detectives ever, Jules Maigret.
Is there a particular event that has changed your life and influenced your writing?
Around age 9 I discovered the joyful experience of reading books. Until then, reading had been a school subject at which I excelled but from which I drew no extraordinary pleasure or identification. And then I came upon a series of mysteries for children called Alfred Hitchcock Presents: The Three Investigators. Written by a Golden Age of radio veteran named Robert A. Arthur, the books transported me. That thrills and wonder and friendship could be shared on a page was a revelation. What fun! With time, I learned, of course, that a writer can share more complex emotional and intellectual adventures as well. But it was those three boys and their detective agency in a junk yard that first fueled my writer’s imagination.
What are you working on at the moment?
Currently, I am completing the second volume of a trilogy for middle-readers (ages 9-12) called The Misadventures of Edgar and Allan Poe. The first book, THE TELL-TALE START, was published by Viking in January of 2013 and the second, ONCE UPON A MIDNIGHT EERIE, will be published in early 2014. Set in contemporary America, the trilogy relates the exciting story of mischievous, 12 year-old twins Edgar and Allan Poe, great-great-great-great-grandnephews of the famous writer.
How Noir is your novel?
The essence of HAMMETT UNWRITTEN is noir.
It’s true that the novel employs a degree of playful, literary gamesmanship; however, it does so only to further the plot and characterization, deepening the mysteries of identity and meaning. For this reason, HAMMETT UNWRITTEN is no postmodern experiment merely riffing on noir beats. Instead, it employs literary sleight of hand as a contemporary tool to reveal a story of ambition and revenge, which the great practitioners of noir, Hammett included, would recognize as one of theirs.
What do you make of the E Book revolution?
Good writing always will distinguish itself and readers will seek it out and find it in whatever form is available. The gravitational pull of stories is too strong to believe otherwise. Nonetheless, I am concerned about the economic stresses that current E book models pose to publishing. Additionally, I worry about the compromises to book design (including back covers, spines, and precise page layout) that current reading devices require. I am, after all, not just a writer and a reader but also a lover of the physical objects called books.
Still, ingenuity may soon assuage my reservations.
And if you’re reading this now on an e-reader…HAMMETT UNWRITTEN translates beautifully.
Grahame Greene wrote that writers have a splinter of ice in their hearts. What do you make of his observation?
What a fascinating image, particularly as there are two ways to read it. First, there is the suggestion that a sliver of cold heartedness enables writers to perceive and then to express painful or indelicate truths from which others turn away. More interestingly, the image implies a wound to the writer’s heart, for which, presumably, writing assuages some of the pain. I think both are correct. For me, the process of writing is too long and difficult to justify for anything less than the gradual melting of that icy, embedded splinter.
What advice would you give to yourself as a younger man?
Go ahead and make the mistakes to which your youth and ignorance are leading you – just don’t bother regretting them. Ultimately, you will see that they were the only way to escape the gravitational pull of a home and family spinning itself into a black hole. So, breathe easier and move on.
“HAMMETT UNWRITTEN is staggering. A must not only for mystery lovers and fans of THE MALTESE FALCON, but vital to writers. Wonderful novel, sublimely clever.” — Ken Bruen, author of HEADSTONE
Credited to “Owen Fitzstephen” (a character in Hammett’s THE DAIN CURSE) but actually written by Gordon McAlpine, who supplies notes and an afterword, the tale takes Hammett from the early 1930s to the late 1950s….and it succeeds very well. Readers who prefer to just focus on the story at hand will be rewarded with an exciting tale with a compelling protagonist (Hammett was a real-life larger-than-life character), and those who enjoy literary games-playing will have fun sorting it all out. — David Pitt
Gordon McAlpine is the author of numerous novels as well as a middle-grade trilogy, THE MISADVENTURES OF EDGAR AND ALLAN POE. Additionally, he is co-author of the non-fiction book, THE WAY OF BASEBALL, FINDING STILLNESS AT 95 MPH. He has taught creative writing and literature at U.C. Irvine, U.C.L.A. and Chapman University. He lives with his wife Julie in southern California.