10 August 2006 0 Comments

Dashiell Hammett and really real mysteries

Writers have it all wrong. They think they need to learn about other writers. I studied English literature at Oxford University and I read all I could find of the sort of literary criticism which makes a novel seem like a piece of East German economic analysis. Three years later, I hadn’t learned a thing, except that it was fine to have a room you could take a girl to without having to sneak past your mother, Guinness isn’t good for you, and the deputy bank manager at Lloyd’s on Broad Street with the goatee and the bald head didn’t just look like Ming the Merciless.

Then I read Dashiell Hammett. Before he wrote, Hammett was a Pinkerton detective. What he wrote was in many senses real. I could smell the places he’d been for the Pinkertons, feel the punches he’d taken, think the way he’d had to think to outwit true criminals. I’d been reading Marxist critical theorists on Daniel Defoe and French deconstructionists whose scribblings about the “stereographic plurality of meanings” were intended to tell me that whatever I thought a book was about was, indeed, what it was about–except that it wasn’t, was it. Or was it? It was the kind of stuff only a pretentious 20-year-old ought to like. It wasn’t going to take me far in life, and it didn’t help me figure out what I wanted to write about.

“The Maltese Falcon” gave me the sense of how real experiences lead a writer to the soul of his subject, and to the soul of himself. Anything but that soul isn’t worth reading about, because it’s just lies. University is where you go for other people’s lies. Novels are where you go for their confessions. The best novelists are the ones who don’t care if you like them, because if you can’t handle who they are, you belong back in school where you can pretend to understand subjects that aren’t worth knowing about.

When I began to work on the Omar Yussef Mystery series, I knew that I wanted to use real events I had covered as a journalist among the Palestinians for the previous decade. I took my characters from people I had known, and known well. I set the first book in Bethlehem, which I could see from the window of my apartment in Jerusalem, and weaved together a series of stories I had uncovered. Everyone in the book is based on someone who stood before me and talked to me, willingly or grudgingly or with outright hostility, to tell me what they thought about the killing and corruption that tainted their town.

The result is The Collaborator of Bethlehem, which will be published in the U.S. in February and across Europe later in 2007.

I think Hammett would have enjoyed it.

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