Saturday, September 09, 2017

Guest Post: The Black Bird and the Chicago Kid by Thomas B. Sawyer

Back in June for FFB here on the blog, Barry Ergang reviewed The Sixteenth Man by Thomas B. Sawyer. One thing led to another and for this first this first Saturday in September, please welcome author Thomas B. Sawyer to the blog today…

The Black Bird and the Chicago Kid
Thomas B. Sawyer

Funny how stuff can sneak up on you. I was a youth when I first read Dashiell Hammett’s The Maltese Falcon, and therefore didn’t really understand its significant place in American literature. Nor did I have any notion of how deeply and pervasively it would affect my life and my professional career. Only now, upon reflection, have I become fully aware of this last.

On one level, I simply enjoyed the hell out of the book. But some things about the story grabbed me in a special way – not least Hammett’s account of the Black Bird’s history, part fact, part fiction, that greatly heightened the romance of the fictional story – the possibility that the McGuffin everyone in the book was pursuing still existed somewhere in the real world. The mixing of a dollop (or maybe more?) of fact with fiction. Exciting stuff for a thirteen year-old, growing up in Chicago’s not-very-exciting South Side. How much was real, and how much was Hammett’s creation?

             That question, plus Hammett’s vivid cast of characters and his terse, unembellished style hooked me enough that I re-read the novel. Over and over, at yearly or semi-yearly intervals. By age 20, I had read it at least eight times. And discovered something new each time. It never disappointed.

Along the way, I read a lot of other books, including Hammett’s competition in the mystery genre, both old and new. And it gradually hit me that in many ways, Falcon differed from virtually all the mystery and detective fiction that had gone before – dramatically breaking the patterns set by Arthur Conan Doyle (Sherlock Holmes) and Agatha Christie (Miss Marple & Hercule Poirot, among others). It also became apparent that most of the mystery fiction written since was largely derivative-if-not-downright-imitative of The Maltese Falcon, with very very little even close to equaling it. Of course there has been, and continues to be, some terrific writing done in the genre, but for me, while Raymond Chandler’s wonderful, literate Philip Marlowe novels came nearest, along with some newer contributions by Elmore Leonard and Donald Westlake, Falcon has never been surpassed.

One of the ways Hammett’s paradigm novel was so singular was that while it contained a murder mystery – Who killed Sam Spade’s partner, Miles Archer? (three murders, actually, the others being those of Captain Jacoby of the SS La Paloma, and tough guy Floyd Thursby) – it was surprisingly, for its time – and even today, a detective story that was not about clues or suspects. Another difference was that the tale took the reader on such a fascinating, entertaining journey through rascal-and-double-cross country that one almost forgot the murder mystery part of it.

In the end, Hammett delivered satisfying closure in the matter of Archer’s killer (and Jacoby’s and Thursby’s), but in truth we almost didn’t care, the rest of it being so thoroughly gripping, introducing us to such a variety of wonderful, skewed characters – especially his enigmatic hero, private eye Sam Spade, and the lying, seductive Brigid O’Shaughnessy, who was to become the model female antagonist of novels and films noir for decades. The superb, classic movie version of The Maltese Falcon (Scr. & Dir. John Huston) is, by the way, almost scene-for-scene and word-for-word, Hammett’s book.

When I was invited to write for the Murder, She Wrote TV series (Cr. William Link & Richard Levinson and Peter Fischer) before it went on the air, I was immediately thrilled by the prospect of writing for one of the world’s truly great actresses, Angela Lansbury. I asked Peter what kind of stories he planned to do. His response, delivered with a shrug: “I dunno – sort of youknow Agatha Christie puzzle mysteries.”

I pointed out to Peter that as a boy I had read a few Christies, plus a couple of locked-room mysteries by others, wherein the suspects were invariably gathered at the end in “the drawing room” or its equivalent, and they had bored the hell out of me. “I won’t write that kind of stuff.”

“Okay – so what will you write?”

“I’ll write The Maltese Falcon.”

Peter’s reply – without missing a beat – was “That’ll be fine.”

The cool thing – he knew exactly what I meant. And that’s what I wrote for the next twelve years, coming to realize that that approach was probably my signal contribution to the series – in effect a weekly play about a bunch of fascinating characters in conflict – in which a murder invariably happened.

Without my becoming conscious of it for decades, Dashiell Hammett and The Maltese Falcon have profoundly influenced all of my writing, both pre-Murder, She Wrote, and since. Has my storytelling been shaped by other writers, other books? Of course. But I love having come to a fuller understanding of and appreciation for The Black Bird’s place in my life. It has always been for me, and still is, the Gold Standard.

© 2017 Tom Sawyer Productions, Inc.

Tom Sawyer, Emmy & Edgar-nominated, Head Writer/Showrunner/Producer, classic series, Murder, She Wrote, for which he wrote 24 episodes. Tom’s new bestselling memoir: The Adventures of the REAL Tom Sawyer. Authored bestselling Fiction Writing Demystified. Bestselling thrillers: The Sixteenth Man, No Place to Run, Cross Purposes. Sold/wrote 9 TV series pilots, 100+ scripts. Co-librettist/lyricist: JACK, an opera about JFK.


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