I love Dashiell Hammett. I enjoy his writing and I admire the man. I’ve read all of his novels and the short story collections THE BIG KNOCKOVER and THE CONTINENTAL OP. I was ecstatic when I discovered NIGHTMARE TOWN at a Half-Price Books just weeks after discovering the book existed, but I’ve got to say that when Colin Dexter describes the title story as “Hammett at the top of his form” in his introduction, he is dead wrong.
Hammett is best known for THE MALTESE FALCON, the most exciting and tense book I’ve ever read about people arguing, but he got his start in the pulps, and “Nightmare Town” shows it. It’s so action-driven and jammed with murders and fight scenes that I could almost swear it was Robert E. Howard (whose work I also love) trying his hand at a crime story, and not a story by the master of verbal confrontation. This shouldn’t completely surprise me the way it does – the title story of THE BIG KNOCKOVER is also an action piece featuring a resort community invaded by an army of bank robbers – but “Nightmare Town” includes some outright bizarre twists.
For some inexplicable reason, our hero -- Steve Threefall – is a master of stick-fighting, wielding an apparently specially-made cane to deftly bludgeon his way through attacking gangs twice in the story. For a story originally published in 1924, it often feels like a latter-day Jackie Chan or Jean-Claude Van Damme film in which the hero running around in a generic action movie plot just happens to know martial arts.
The final twist – the secret that explains why the town is such a nightmare – is also riotously baroque and feels like it should belong in one of the “character pulps” (DOC SAVAGE, THE SHADOW, THE SPIDER) rather than a hard-boiled mystery. Reviewing the publication history, I see that this story did not appear in Hammett’s usual haunt BLACK MASK, but instead was in ARGOSY ALL-STORY MAGAZINE. Didn’t they publish Tarzan? Suddenly this makes much more sense.
“Nightmare Town” is an entertaining rollercoaster ride with some surprisingly modern conceits and charmingly old-fashioned characterization. It was a fun way to fill an hour, but I’m looking forward to the other stories in this collection for more of Hammett at the true top of his form. Sam Spade, I hope you don’t disappoint me.