I knew there was a reason I wasn’t excited to discover a book by Dashiell Hammett that I hadn’t read yet.
Dashiell Hammett is one of my top five favorite authors. Raymond Chandler may be the better author but his plots are convoluted and his novels tend to bog down. Hammett’s stories, by contrast, are spare and constantly engaging. The Maltese Falcon was my introduction to Hammett and to the hard-boiled genre and it was a revelation. I was taken by the wit, the moral ambiguity and the brutality. Red Harvest is rightly recognized as one of the 100 best English Language novels of the 20th century and has influenced a ton of movies including Yojimbo, A Fistful of Dollars and, my personal favorite movie, Miller’s Crossing.
I have read all Hammett’s major works and collected short stories so I was suprised to stumble across a copy of Woman in The Dark at a local used bookstore. The novella was originally published serially in 1933 and the 1988 edition that I found was its first printing as a hard cover. You would think I would be exciting to find a previously unpublished book by my favorite author but, in the back of my head I assumed there was a reason I’d never heard of this book.
As it turns out, I was correct. I will say that Woman in The Dark has the virtue of brevity. The cover refers to it as a novel but, in truth, it’s a novella, and even that might be generous. The story is unremarkable and the writing is a little flat. This was, apparently, the first book that Hammett wrote after falling in love with Lillian Hellman and Hammett seems to be finding his voice incorporating love and a less bleak outlook on life into his work. In this sense, we might consider that Hammett seems to have learned from his mistakes and his next and final novel, The Thin Man, succeeds wonderfully on both counts.
The last thing I’ll say about Woman in The Dark is that the introduction by Robert Parker completely spoils the ending of the book. What the hell?! Thanks Robert. Dick. Oddly enough, this is the first of two books that I read in a short period that provided its own spoiler. (The other being Zane Grey’s The Border Legion, which I will be reviewing shortly.)
Okay, I’ll say one more thing about this book which is that I don’t like the cover. Vintage has since reissued this book in paperback and their’s is a much more attractive book. I would, however, only recommend it for the Hammett completionist.