Owen Fitzstephen: Turning Dashiell Hammett’s Real Stories into Crime Fiction
Novelist Owen Fitzstephen shares how a quote from crime novelist Dashiell Hammett unlocked multiple crime novels, the silver lining of a moved publication date, his best tip for other writers, and more!
ROBERT LEE BREWER SEP 15, 2020
In this post, Fitzstephen shares how a quote from crime novelist Dashiell Hammett unlocked multiple crime novels, the silver lining of a moved publication date, his best tip for other writers, and more!
Elevator pitch for the book: The great mystery writer Dashiell Hammett wrote: “All of my characters are real…based directly on people I knew or came across.” Owen Fitzstephen’s richly imagined new novel The Big Man’s Daughter tells the “real” story of the only character left unaccounted for at the end of Hammett’s classic novel The Maltese Falcon. She is 18 year-old Rita Gaspereaux, who lives with one foot in the world of graft and the other in dreams.
Coming across Hammett’s quote in the New York World about having based his work on real characters freed my imagination to consider unanswered questions in his master work, The Maltese Falcon. Specifically, what became of the fabled bird and what happened to the one innocent among the Fat Man’s criminal entourage, his daughter?
By recontextualizing it not as a “sequel” or “retelling” but as one of many “true” stories that might have inspired Hammett, I discovered new dimensions among familiar characters and situations, ultimately illuminated by my own sensibilities.
My initial idea, from about 2003, was to tell the story of the “Big Man’s Daughter” as outlined above. Along the way, however, I became fascinated by the historical figure of Dashiell Hammett and so I commenced imagining ways in which the author himself might have encountered the real criminal figures he later fictionalized in The Maltese Falcon.
In 2013, this resulted in the publication of my novel Hammett Unwritten, which received wide acclaim. However, my fascination for what might have become of the unaccounted-for young woman never dimmed. So, this past year I was drawn back into that world and The Big Man’s Daughter is the result.
The global pandemic surely came as a surprise. What seemed a perfectly ordinary publication date, May 19, 2020, became problematic due to supply chain and warehouse concerns, so the book is being released on that day only as an e-book. The publication of the physical book has been set back to September 15, 2020.
If there is a silver lining, it’s this: two publication parties (via Zoom, most likely) instead of one.
For me, an essential characteristic of the writing process is being open to surprising oneself. To readers, The Big Man’s Daughter may seem to have built from its inception straight to its rather shocking climax.
But the truth is, I was as surprised by the ending as any reader. I thought I knew where the novel was going. What a delight to discover I was wrong.
I hope readers find fascination and character on every page and that the novel ultimately leaves one with something to think about—the wonder and terror and infinite uncertainty of being (along with a ripping good crime tale).
While it is essential that an author remain ever aware that he or she is writing for a readership, ensuring that no effort is spared for clarity and pace and economy, it is simultaneously essential to recognize that you are also writing for yourself, tapping into your own unique perspective and attitudes, and by so doing producing a work of literature that may owe much to great books that came before but ultimately could be written only by you.
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Con artists working the angles, digging for answers, searching for a way in – and a way out. It’s a familiar world for crime fiction fans, but this protagonist is not your usual ‘investigator’, she one of the bad guys – or is she?
‘The Big Man’s Daughter’ takes much from Hammett’s ‘The Maltese Falcon’, adding changes that almost distort one’s memory of the original. More sequel than prequel it’s actually neither, more of a knowing nod of appreciation. In this book, there’s no Sam Spade, but detective Sam Hammett writes mysteries as Dashiell Hammett – confused? That’s not the half of it.
Bona fide criminal mastermind, Cletus Gaspereaux (a form of Casper Gutman) was an abusive father to Rita Gaspereaux (a fleshed-out version of Rhea Gutman). Cletus, the eponymous ‘Big Man’ (like the Fat Man) has been gunned down in an incident involving the possession of a statuette called the Black Falcon.
Rita attends his funeral only to be recognised by the undertaker who she has previously conned, pretending that her brother was missing and I.D.ing a John Doe. That ruse had scammed the undertaker out of money but this time, after he recognises her, Rita must apply another inventive scam on the married man (who gets his own back). It’s a great opening.
Rita is broke, dreaming of Hollywood, and turning to the pages of a paperback for escape. Her book, ‘Dorothy G., Kansas’ tells of another young woman, the reimagined Dorothy Gale from ‘The Wizard of Oz’. Dorothy is an innocent version of Rita, a what might have been in another world, and Rita is wrapped up in the story.
She agrees to help the secretary at the Pinkerton agency, aiming to recover the Falcon from a Russian count who may be related to her. It’s not an easy story to describe. Let’s just say that the structure and plot are both inventive, the ending unexpected, and the writing holds your attention. It’s sharp, at times LOL funny, and a quick read that takes you into the familiar Californian noir world of the golden age of US crime writing.
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Author Gordon McAlpine (under pen name Owen Fitzstephen) has a brand-new book available today entitled, The Big Man’s Daughter, and we here at NTG were lucky to sit down with Gordon/Owen to discuss his new book and the craft of creative writing.Nerds That Geek: What can you tell us about your new book?Gordon McAlpine: Rather than simply refer here to the jacket description or initial blurbs, I’d prefer to quote a recent review from the Thrilling Detective Website, as it captures an element of the book that may not be immediately apparent: “[The Big Man’s Daughter is] 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.”
NTG: What are you most excited for your readers to experience?Gordon McAlpine: I look forward to providing readers a rip-roaring mystery while also exploring the way that stories within stories may ultimately become inextricable from one another, creating a single narrative of greater depth than may first be apparent.NTG: What is it you love the most about creative writing?
Gordon McAlpine: I love that a story never turns out quite like you thought it would. The act of writing, the scene by scene process that engages narrative urgency in every exchange, cannot help but turn the author’s original concept in new directions that may complicate or even invalidate an initial plot outline but rarely fail to delight. This process of discovery is what makes the long hours worthwhile.NTG: What is a unique story that you haven’t tackled yet that you’d love to write?Gordon McAlpine: Unique stories are not so common. When I come across one, I’ll tackle it in manuscript before I talk about it in print.
NTG: What’s next for you after this release?Gordon McAlpine: During this hunkering down period I’ve written my first play, a black comedy about writer’s block, psychotherapy, and Chekov’s gun on the wall. It’s proven a great pleasure. Now, if only theater opens up again…
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“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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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.”