[Reading Room] Nightmare Town by Dashiell Hammet

Short review: I can’t believe I’ve never read anything by Dashiell Hammett before. I must be crazy. This was awesome. Totally got its hooks into me and stayed with me long after I read it.

Nightmare Town is the title story in this collection by the Noir master. Having mostly watched movies adapted from Raymond Chandler stories, and pastiches of Noir by others, I wasn’t sure what to expect.

I was, however, preparing for a reading at a Noir night, and thought I ought to do some research before I wrote a story to fit the theme.


The Story

Nightmare Town begins with a drunk driver cruising into a small town and driving his car straight into the wall of the local bank. Attracted by a mysterious local ‘dame’, our hero (now sober, after a night in the town’s jail) decides to stick around for a while.

There’s a weird vibe in this town, that he notices almost immediately, and it only gets weirder.

What I Liked About It

Part of the fun of this story for me was I could totally imagine it taking place in the town where I live, back when autos were a rarity and the local doctor was the most reputable guy in town.

But most of the fun was in the writing. It was spectacular, and not nearly as overdone as I was expecting.

Opening Lines

A Ford—whitened by desert travel until it was almost indistinguishable from the dust-clouds that swirled around it—came down Izzard’s Main Street. Like the dust, it came swiftly, erratically, zigzagging the breadth of the roadway.

A small woman—a girl of twenty in tan flannel—stepped into the street. The wavering Ford missed her by inches, missing her at all only because her backward jump was bird-quick. She caught her lower lip between white teeth, dark eyes flashed annoyance at the rear of the passing machine, and she essayed the street again.

Near the opposite curb the Ford charged down upon her once more. But turning had taken some of its speed. She escaped it this time by scampering the few feet between her and the sidewalk ahead.

Hammett, Dashiell. Nightmare Town: Stories (Kindle Locations 322-328). Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

I love the language in this opening. The Ford is “whitened by desert travel” (and we know, don’t we, that it probably wasn’t a white car. Mr Ford is famous for his assertion that you could have a Ford in any color as long as it was black…).

Look at how he captures the frenetic energy of the car’s motion. “it came swiftly, erratically, zigzagging the breadth of the roadway.”

The girl moves “bird-quick” out of the way.

THIS is what I’m talking about when I say our writing in short stories needs to be ‘muscular’ and to do double duty. We’re not told that the weather is dry or that the girl is scared by the car, but we know it in a much more immediate way.

Introducing The Characters

Isn’t this a marvelous way to introduce our protagonist:

STEVE THREEFALL awakened without undue surprise at the unfamiliarity of his surroundings as one who has awakened in strange places before. Before his eyes were well open he knew the essentials of his position. The feel of the shelf-bunk on which he lay and the sharp smell of disinfectant in his nostrils told him that he was in jail. His head and his mouth told him that he had been drunk; and the three-day growth of beard on his face told him he had been very drunk.

Hammett, Dashiell. Nightmare Town: Stories (Kindle Locations 351-355). Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

As a reader you knew, didn’t you, right at the same time Steve did, that the ‘shelf-bunk’ and the smell of disinfectant meant he was probably in jail. I love the fact that he knows from the feel of his mouth that he’s been drunk AND from the beard on his face that he has been very drunk. This is a guy who has benchmarks for how hungover he is. This is an accomplished and habitual ne’er-do-well.

I didn’t really expect him to be the hero of the piece, but he did win me over with his wry acceptance of his situation and his complete lack of any attempt to weasel out of the consequences.

The Plot Thickens

Steve has come to town on a dare and there is nothing to keep him there, no reason for him to give anything more than a passing thought to the various odd happenings he runs into around town. Until he meets the girl again.

One moment there was nothing, in the four continents he knew, of any bothersome importance to Steve Threefall; the next moment he was under an unescapable compulsion to gain the favor of this small person in tan flannel with brown ribbons at wrists and throat.

Hammett, Dashiell. Nightmare Town: Stories (Kindle Locations 449-451). Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

NOW he has something he wants. Now he has something that is going to cause conflict for him. His casual disregard for his health and safety indicate at best a disinterest in his future. Now, however, he starts to see–and want–a future. With the girl.

Style Notes

I love writers who sound like themselves, and use phrases, describe the world, in ways that only could come out of their brains.

Encountering a new man, Steve observes,

The thin man drew in his feet and stood up on them.

Hammett, Dashiell. Nightmare Town: Stories (Kindle Locations 501-502). Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

Well, of course he did. But you and I wouldn’t have thought to put it that way, would we?

And it’s not all cynicism and bleakness.

STEVE THREEFALL found Dr. MacPhail’s house without difficulty—a two-story building set back from the street, behind a garden that did its best to make up a floral profusion for Izzard’s general barrenness. The fence was hidden under twining virgin’s bower, clustered now with white blossoms, and the narrow walk wound through roses, trillium, poppies, tulips, and geraniums that were ghosts in the starlight. The air was heavily sweet with the fragrance of saucerlike moon flowers, whose vines covered the doctor’s porch.

Hammett, Dashiell. Nightmare Town: Stories (Kindle Locations 629-633). Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

‘…roses, trillium, poppies, tulips, and geraniums that were ghosts in the starlight.”

Isn’t that gorgeous?

Notes for Writers

The story I’ll be reading tomorrow night owes a lot to Nightmare Town: a stranger comes to town, down on her luck; she gets embroiled in affairs she doesn’t understand; the language is intentionally rich with metaphor (modern, in this case).

I started out writing a story that was similar in shape and scope to Nightmare Town, but it was never going to look like an adaptation or a copy, because my setting and my characters’ motivations, my plot points and my voice are so different from those of a young man writing in 1924.

Gradually, I realized that my story could never be as expansive as Hammet’s. Unlike him, I wasn’t writing a short story for a periodical with an audience of readers hungry for the written word, unfamiliar with consuming stories through visuals (except the visuals a writer could conjure).

My audience was going to be mine for seven minutes only, at a live reading. I had roughly 1100 words to tell my story. All that introductory scene-scetting, all that writing I did to get to know the characters in the town, NONE of that made it into the final version of the story.

And that was OK, because it allowed me to know the motivation of even the most fleeting of characters. I understood more about this town than I could say explicitly, but I’m hoping that knowledge comes through in the words that remain.

Having started with a larger vision for the story, I had to fight to find the one true thing the story is about, the one moment it turns on. I tried it out on one audience already and I’m pretty sure I hadn’t pared back the themes enough. So I’m still paring.

One of my early critique readers gave me one piece of advice that helped me find it. (For the record, he also told me ‘enough with the metaphors!’, which I totally disregarded because I know I’m writing for a Noir night. He might have forgotten that. Living proof that you should feel free to disregard any critique advice you don’t like.)

Final Thoughts: Be Yourself

What really struck me about Dashiell Hammet’s writing was how FRESH it felt, even 94 years later, and stuffed as it is with arcane jargon and turns of phrase that have fallen so far from use as to seem almost as distant as a Shakespearean pun.

Even with all that, I could tell this story had been written by a vibrant, living man. I could hear his voice. Nobody else could have written this story.

So fight for your own voice. Don’t be afraid of sounding uniquely like yourself. Tell a good story, the best way you can, and you will not have wasted your time.

Read the book



One thought on “[Reading Room] Nightmare Town by Dashiell Hammet”

  1. Hello Julie Duffy, thank you ….
    Your analysis of story by Hammett is really well done and you hit those fine points of text for this writer who reads to improve writing of short stories. Your comment on your reading (1100 wds) was spot on: ‘ All that introductory scene-scetting … to get to know the characters in the town, NONE of that made it into the final version of the story.‘.

    This is so true not just for a writer but for each story, or so it seems, and I seem to fight this issue in each story, cause I want to tell all I know; of course, readers (or listeners) don’t have that much time, either.
    GM Lies, Morgantown WV
    Ps I just found the Write on Wednesday prompts (I will follow)

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