“Just as Hammett made imagined crime feel real, McAlpine makes metafiction mischief suffused with meaning; from the masterful Hammett Unwritten, to the too-wonderful-not-to-mention Woman with the Blue Pencil, and now the mesmerizing The Big Man’s Daughter, McAlpine’s novels prove as moving as they do dazzling.”
John Huston’s classic 1941 film adaptation of Dashiell Hammett’s The Maltese Falcon hardly adapts the novel at all, rendering Hammett’s consummate hardboiled tale on screen almost precisely as its author wrote it.
The movie departs from the book in only four ways. Its classic closing line, cribbed from Shakespeare’s The Tempest, appears nowhere in the book. Short, slight, dark-haired Humphrey Bogart looks little like the tall, blonde, imposing, tough-as-nails private investigator Sam Spade. (Of course, Bogart’s letter-perfect performance proved so indelible that it’s virtually impossible for anyone who’s seen the movie to read the book without hearing Spade’s lines in Bogart’s voice, or even picturing Spade as Bogart, no matter how many times Hammett reminds us of his “blond devil” looks.)
Huston also entirely omits a passage in the book that has inspired (and rewards) seemingly endless consideration and re-interpretation: Sam Spade’s Flitcraft Parable, in which the detective recounts the case of a Tacoma, Washington man named Flitcraft who disappeared in 1922 without a trace until Spade (hired by Flitcraft’s wife) tracked him down in Spokane some years later. Unperturbed at being found, Flitcraft willingly explains why: Having come within a hair’s breadth of certain death one day in 1922 when a falling beam from a construction site hit the sidewalk inches from where he was walking to lunch, Flitcraft, cut loose from his moorings, simply kept walking, never returning to the life he’d known. Flitcraft appears neither apologetic over the desertion his previous life and family, nor bothered by the irony that he’d settled into a virtually identical family life in Spokane.
“But that’s the part of it I always liked,” Spade says. “He adjusted himself to beams falling, and then no more of them fell, and he adjusted himself to them not falling.”
Though Hammett often said that all his fiction was based in fact, drawn from cases he worked as a Pinkerton Agency operative before poor health relegated him to writing about crime rather than solving it, the author’s classic work contains little evident personal introspection. Hammett’s published fiction, for example, never delved into the near-fatal bout with tuberculosis—a complication of the Spanish Flu that ravaged Hammett along with much of the world’s population in 1918 and 1919—that wrecked his lungs, eventually necessitated his career change, and possibly informed his existential nihilist worldview.
Given his well-documented, lifelong reckless disregard for his own fragile health, it remains an open question whether Hammett himself ever adjusted to beams not falling as others who survived or escaped the flu may have done after it took its catastrophic toll and finally receded.
In one of the most memorable scenes Gordon McAlpine (writing as Owen Fitzstephen) created in his wonderfully imaginative Hammett Unwritten (2013), author Hammett and director Huston meet for lunch to discuss Huston’s script, shortly before The Maltese Falcon is slated to go into production. Hammett Unwritten operates in a captivating parallel universe wherein the real-life counterparts of The Maltese Falcon’s key players invadeHammett’s life, out for vengeance, and conspire to send the 20th century crime fiction master spiraling into the century’s most protracted and confounding case of writer’s block.
At their lunch (seven years into the author’s humiliatingly public decline), Huston and Hammett discuss the script’s few deviations and omissions from the book, foremost among them the elimination of a character, Rhea Gutman, daughter of Casper “The Fat Man” Gutman, the falcon-chasing villain who is killed near the book’s end. Rhea appears in one short episode, drugged, half-naked, and self-harming in her father’s hotel room, a temporary distraction to Spade as he advances toward his final confrontation with the book’s criminal quartet.
Huston questions why the Fat Man’s Daughter appears in the novel at all. “Look, it’s been a long time since I wrote the book,” Hammett replies. “Hell if I remember what I was thinking when I put the girl in . . . But you’re right. I didn’t do much with her.”
Hammett goes on to acknowledge that nearly all of the characters in the book—as well as its MacGuffin for the ages, the black falcon statuette—were based on the principal actors in a real case, including the Fat Man (known as the Big Man in real life), and notably excluding the Fat Man’s daughter and Spade himself.
Hammett goes on to reveal enough secrets about the book’s real-life roots that Huston can’t resist proposing that the two join forces in search of the “real” falcon that eluded its pursuers in the book and the case that inspired it. But his answers fall far short of acknowledging the truth of his ongoing connection to The Maltese Falcon’s characters and the havoc they’ve wrought in his life.
In Hammett Unwritten, McAlpine (as Fitzstephen) achieves the dazzling trick of producing a profound meditation on a great writer’s unraveling without ever seeming meditative or sagging under its heavy subject’s weight. Moreover, it’s a convincing and compelling enough extrapolation of Hammett’s work and life to make any reader inclined to plumb the same questions the novel asks to believe—or even wish—it were all true.
The corollary to such wishful thinking comes in McAlpine’s new novel, The Big Man’s Daughter (again, written under the non de plume Owen Fitzstephen), which plunks readers into an earlier pointin the Maltese Falcon-to-Hammett Unwritten timeline: “Nothing’s all true.”
Perhaps no three words better encapsulate the uncompromising, underlying ethos of hard-boiled fiction, the genre Hammett invented that delivered a bracing punch of plausibility to the once-contrived world of detective stories, with their carefully placed evidence and ingeniously solved crimes. Pure truth is a nice ideal, of course, but a fleeting and improbable one in human interactions invariably undercut by angle, motive, and narrative. Living in constant awareness of that dark distinction separated the hard-boiled gumshoe from easily duped and manipulated saps.
As Sam Spade acknowledges to Brigid O’Shaughnessy early on in The Maltese Falcon, when she (partially) comes clean about the made-up story she told Spade and Archer when contracting their services, “We didn’t exactly believe your story, Miss O’Shaughnessy. We believed your 200 dollars. You paid us more than if you had been telling us the truth, and enough more to make it all right.”
The Big Man’s Daughter adds another layer to the onion of truth, fiction, and metafiction in The Hammett Unwritten/Maltese Falcon universe by giving Rhea Gutman, Fat Man’s daughter, the backstory and future she deserved in the irresistible “real-life” alter ego of Rita Gaspereaux, Big Man’s Daughter. We enter her world moments after her father is gunned down, as Rita, an 18-year-old grifter wise and wily beyond her years, attempts to use the Big Man’s murder to con a few hundred dollars out of an overmatched undertaker.
The story of The Big Man’s Daughter reconnects readers with Evie LeFabre (Effie Perine in The Maltese Falcon), Hammett’s plucky, lovestruck secretary and Girl Friday, newly unemployed after her boss turned in his gumshoe license for a typewriter, and eager for adventure. While her girl-next-door gullibility would seemingly render her a poor accomplice to Rita’s con artist savvy, Evie manages to enlist Rita in another quixotic play for the “real” falcon that will take them across the country and the Atlantic in the coming days. Rita goes along agreeably at first, willing to postpone her plans to make it as an actress in Hollywood for a chance to separate Evie from the $4,500 she’s stowed somewhere in her luggage.
Thus, their adventure begins with a cross-country train ride, intermittently interrupted by Rita’s reading aloud from the novel she’s brought along—Dorothy G., Kansas. This book appears to be nothing less than the further adventures of Dorothy Gale, post-Oz, grown weary of the patronizing skepticism of those who dismiss her stories of witches and wizards and yellow-brick roads, and determined to put the black-and-white world of Kansas behind her and pursue modern womanhood in Greenwich Village.
Dorothy G., Kansas provides a compelling if sometimes perplexing secondary narrative in The Big Man’s Daughter, in its own way as inviting a rabbit hole as Sidney Orr’s blue notebook story in Paul Auster’s Oracle Night (itself a meta-meditation on Hammett’s Flitcraft Parable), and equally jarring and deflating when it’s abruptly (albeit reasonably) abandoned and sealed off from the rest of the novel.
As their travels progress, Rita and Evie muse in tandem on ideas from fiction, among them a notion culled from one of Hammett’s early stories that in the last moment of life, suspended between existence and non-existence, one might imagine and virtually experience the full span of another life unlived.
Rita’s affection for Dorothy G., Kansas encapsulates much of what makes her so intriguing: “Fiction was almost as effective an escape as laudanum,” she muses. “She liked the book, even if it was soft in parts. Perhaps she liked it because it was soft, she thought. Real life provided enough hardness. Why turn to fiction for something that was already around?”
To plunge into the fictional worlds of Gordon McAlpine novels is invariably to become entangled in ingenious twists on reality and narrative rarely found elsewhere, even when he’s re-imagining characters in worlds parallel to those invented by others, in this case Dashiell Hammett. Just as Hammett made imagined crime feel real, McAlpine makes metafiction mischief suffused with meaning; from the masterful Hammett Unwritten, to the too-wonderful-not-to-mention Woman with the Blue Pencil, and now the mesmerizing The Big Man’s Daughter, McAlpine’s novels prove as moving as they do dazzling.
Steve Nathans-Kelly is a freelance writer and editor. Many of his book reviews have appeared in online magazine Paste.
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On May 19 Seventh Street Books will publish the e-version of The Big Man’s Daughter, a new novel from Owen Fitzstephen, the mysterious and acclaimed author of Hammett Unwritten.
Owing to coronavirus-19 circumstances, the physical book will be available on September 15.
The first reviews are in and they’re good…
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The Big Man’s Daughter tells the story of 18 year-old Rita Gaspereaux, who is suddenly “orphaned” when her con-artist father’s illegal enterprise blows up around her. Alone and broke in San Francisco 1922, she must now navigate his criminal world, all the time haunted by tales of a black bird statuette reputed to possess otherworldly, wish-fulfilling powers.
Rita has learned much from her father about the dark fringes of society. But has she learned enough? Fortunately, she is not without her own resources. What helps her most to cope with the greed, cruelty, and deceit around her is her almost obsessive reading of fiction, particularly the novel she possesses (and is possessed by) at the time of her father’s death. This book-within-the-book, a source of escape and solace for the blossoming young con-artist, tells the story of another 18 year-old, a Dorothy G. from Kansas.
The two young women couldn’t be more different. But as the story proceeds their lives become entwined in unexpected ways. The haunting conclusion is breathtaking.
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An ebullient mashup/revision/sequel perfect for knowing readers who don’t mind (spoiler) missing the Falcon yet again.
“Dashiell Hammett’s The Dain Curse is only the first in a hall of playfully refracting mirrors that also reworks motifs from The Maltese Falcon and The Wonderful Wizard of Oz.
Left alone by the death of her racketeer father, Cletus Gaspereaux (Fitzstephen’s version of Casper Gutman, repurposed here, like most of the cast, from The Maltese Falcon), and the demise or imprisonment of his unsavory associates, Rita Gaspereaux (Rhea Gutman) has to survive on her own. When her attempt to bury her father quietly in San Francisco backfires in a spectacular way, she’s left with no money and no consolation outside the pages of Dorothy G., Kansas, a novel that follows 18-year-old Dorothy Gale, Rita’s model and alter ego, around Paris, where her job as a waitress brings her up against private eye Paul Darnell. Desperate, Rita agrees to join forces with Evie LeFabre (Effie Perine), the secretary to Pinkerton operatives Sam Hammett (Sam Spade) and Mike Arnette (Miles Archer), who’s plotting to recover the real Maltese Falcon for which the Russian Count Keransky (General Kemidov) substituted the fake at the center of the action in Hammett’s novel and Fitzstephen’s earlier spinoff, Hammett Unwritten (2013). Although Rita plans to run off with the bankroll Evie’s raised to finance her search, Evie and professor Ted Bowman, her cousin and partner, aren’t nearly as naïve as they seem, and the triple partnership swiftly devolves into a battle of wits. An ebullient mashup/revision/sequel perfect for knowing readers who don’t mind (spoiler) missing the Falcon yet again.”
Owen Fitzstephen‘s book is called The Big Man’s Daughter, and it doesn’t really have a detective in it, but…
Explaining one of his books is a bit like skiing about soup. This is really just the author playing fast and loose (and possibly avoiding lawsuits from the Dashiell Hammett estate) with The Maltese Falcon (again).
Like, really fast and really loose.
When the best laid scams of her father (a criminal known as “The Big Man,” not “The Fat Man”) to procure a priceless statuette of a bird called the Black Falcon (not the Maltese Falcon) that is said to possess mystical powers, go belly-up, eighteen year-old scam artist Rita Gaspereaux (whose name is not Rhea Gutman) finds herself abandoned and penniless in the merciless criminal underworld of 1922 San Francisco.
Sounds intriguing, even if it’s not exactly the stuff that P.I. dreams are made of.
But then McAlpine, that crafty son of a bitch, slips us a real literary Mickey Finn.
Rita’s only comfort (and possible salvation), it turns out, is a novel about another lost eighteen year-old that she’s become obsessed with. And as this multi-layered mash-up unfolds, Rita begins to discover some strange and disturbing parallels between herself and a certain Dorothy G. from Kansas, the plucky heroine of the book-within-a-book, and the lines between fictional worlds begin to, uh, magically blur.
Damn you, Fitzstephen! You’ve done it again!
It may not be a detective novel, or even a mystery, really, but it’s a heady brew all the same; a ballsy, carefully assembled and psychologically sharp read that tears into the guts of what it’s like to be young, scared and not sure where you’re going. Or where exactly you’ve been.
If you’re a Hammett fan, you’re going to love this.
“This arresting mystery from Fitzstephen (Hammett Unwritten) explores what might have happened to a minor character in Dashiell Hammett’s The Maltese Falcon. In 1922 San Francisco, cunning 18-year-old Rita Gaspereaux is at loose ends after her con artist father, Cletus, “known to some in the rackets as the Big Man,” dies in a shootout over the possession of a statuette called the Black Falcon. Rita, who’s learned a few tricks from Cletus, believes she’s at last free to take control of her life, but barely a day passes before she’s drawn against her will into a quest to retrieve the fabled bird. Meanwhile, Rita takes solace in fiction, “almost as effective an escape as laudanum,” in particular a novel about an innocent 18-year-old from Kansas, Dorothy G. Extracts from the novel nicely complement Rita’s story. Lies, cons, shifting alliances, kidnapping, and death propel readers toward a strangely hypnotic climax, which is skillfully presaged yet still an exhilarating surprise. Fans of metafictional mysteries will be enthralled.” (May)