This review originally appeared as a starred review in Shelf Awareness for Readers, and is reprinted here with permission.
One almost has to be a Pinkerton detective to unravel the double crosses and mystery surrounding the falcon statue in Hammett Unwritten by Owen Fitzstephen. Or is it Gordon McAlpine, who wrote the afterword? Isn’t Fitzstephen a character from Dashiell Hammett’s The Dain Curse (though his name was spelled Fitzstephan)? This meta novel is a puzzle like that.
Leaping around in time, the narrative explores why Hammett never published another novel after The Thin Man. As he’s putting final touches on that manuscript, he’s visited by Moira O’Shea, on whom he based Brigid O’Shaughnessy in The Maltese Falcon. She tells him the black bird sitting on his desk is made of a magical stone that grants the owner’s wishes, and is thus the reason for Hammett’s success.
When Hammett scoffs at this notion, she convinces him that the only way to prove the legend wrong is to give her the statue. He immediately encounters writer’s block so immovable, the block is more like a wall. Hammett searches for O’Shea to get back the bird, but she seems to have disappeared off the face of the earth. Could the mythology surrounding the falcon be true? Or is O’Shea exacting psychological revenge?
Readers may sometimes feel like McAlpine (yes, he’s the real author) is messing with their heads, but it’s fun to go along with Hammett as he investigates the legend. Fans of Hammett’s work—and The Maltese Falcon in particular—should enjoy references to it, and the novel’s blending of fact with fiction. In the end, it almost doesn’t matter what’s true, only that it’s a story well told.
Nerd verdict: Mysterious, meta Hammett