Book Reviews and Hard Boiled Detectives: Shamus In the Green Room

Humphrey Bogart, who played Sam Spade, a shamus.
Humphrey Bogart, who played Sam Spade, a shamus.

"...like a blonde satan."

SHAMUS - Perhaps from the Yiddish shames or shammes; from a jocular comparison of the duties of a sexton and those of a store detective. Date: 1925. Used as slang for 1) police officer and 2) private detective.

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Source: shamus. (2009). In Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary.Retrieved March 23, 2009, from http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/shamus

The shamus is a central character in many of the hard-boiled detective novels that began as "dime novels" or inexpensive booklets published from the turn of the 20th century or a little before. These stories evolved into longer books, having been serialized in such magazines as Black Mask and others. As movies, they became the genre of film noir including classics such as Casablanca, The Maltese Falcon, Murder My Sweet, The Blue Dahlia, and many others. Steve Martin made a parody called Dead Men Don't Wear Plaid. Cartoon characters such as Bugs Bunny became hard-boiled detectives and television series paid homage to the genre in such presentations as Star Trek The Next Generation's®Dixon Hill 1940s detective character on the holodeck.

A novel of Dixon Hill was produced, entitled A Hard Rain and is entertaining, with the starship crew portraying gangsters, PIs, and molls. The Star Trek® novels also include a Perry-Masonesque novel in which the Della Street and Paul Drake characters are clear, but Perry Mason is rather murky. It would seem that film noir and private detectives - or attorneys that work like them - are everywhere in entertainment and literature.

The hero of this mystery series is writer Cece Caruso, a biographer of celebrity mystery writers that include Agatha Christie, Erle Stanley Gardner, Carolyn Keene, and Dashiell Hammett.

Ms. Caruso began her biographies a decade before the setting of this story, writing about Dahiell Hammett and his "blonde satan" (as Hammett called him), detective Sam Spade.

At he opening of this novel, Cece's first biography is to be produced on film. She has been hired to coach the lead actor, Rafe Simic, in the life and trials of Dashiell Hammett in order to make his portrayal of the mystery writer more believable and engaging. .She was hired, because Simic dislikes reading and did not pay much attention to the copy of the biography he received to study He is not an easy student.

All that tussle aside, Cece is afforded a good retainer along with the chance to haunt Hollywood's hideaways and celebrity venues, especially those familiar to Dashiell Hammett, and a number of vintage clothing outlets, The latter she adores and wears nothing else but their wares.

A Cece Caruso Mystery

Boots of detective and celebrity biographer Cece Caruso in the Susan Kandel Mysteries.
Boots of detective and celebrity biographer Cece Caruso in the Susan Kandel Mysteries.

Murder by Surf

Cece accompanies Rafe around San Francisco, where Dashiell Hasmmett lived and wrote, right down to his probably apartment. Suddenly, the actor receives an emergency call on his cell phone. He must return to Hollywood in order to identify a drowned corpse in the Los Angeles morgue.

He requests that Cece go with him, because he does not want to see the corpse alone; it might be an old girlfriend of his. After an anxious flight back late at night, Rafe does, in fact, identify the body as his long-ago girlfriend, "Maren", and tell Cece something about their high school years together. However, information arises from several sources to tell Cece Caruso that the story does not ring true. The threads of the story, gathered from friends, relatives, witnesses to gang crimes going back 20 years are rather tangled, but compelling.

Maren like to surf in the dangerous waters that were "owned" by a rich gang called the Bay Boys. She was allowed in where other non-locals were beaten literally to a pulp. However, she had other dangerous hobbies, like blackmailing married men for kicks and taking her babysitting charges to the tattoo parlor. An hour glass tattoo nearly ties together all of the particulars, but not quite. Did Maren just disappear, like the Elvis-sighting theories, or was she drowned? We might never know.

Interestingly , the green room means three things:

1) Green Room Productions - Rafe Simic's film production company,

2) The waiting room backstage for TV talk shows and such, and

3) The phenomenon in surfing where the water completely surrounds the surfer for an instant.

How many actors are swallowed up the by effects of the talk show circuit and the green room on a dying career? How many writers (and actors) did Hollywood chew up and spit out - like Dashiell Hammett and Rafe Simic? -- Like it tried to do to Harlan Ellison®? They'll never take down Ellison.

Dasiell Hammett, the author
Dasiell Hammett, the author

Dashiell Hammett

Dashiell Hammett lived about sixty-seven years from 1894-1961 and was very ill with TB and alcoholism. As an adult, he held a number of different jobs, including that of detective for the Pinkerton Detective Agency. He was apparently an effective agent.

In the 1920s, the author began to write mystery and suspense, particularly the hard-boiled detective novel, which some experts feel that he actually created. He wrote at least 90 short stories or novellas.

Hammett's Nick and Nora Charles and their dog Asta figured largely in the Thin Man novel (there was only one), and Sam Spade was the famous tough private eye.

Hammett wrote only three novels total: The Maltese Falcon (1930), The Glass Key (1931), and The Thin Man (1932). The last one gave rise to a series of films about Nick and Nora Charles, while the other two novels were filmed singularly. I particularly like The Maltese Falcon on film, with Peter Lorre and Humphrey Bogart, for its humor. Mystery writer Mary Daheim paid homage to Nick and Nora in her entertaining book called Dead Man Docking.

Going to Hollywood to write for films seemed to kill Dashiell Hammett's writing career. The town did not seem to be good for him.

Several passages about this interesting author are featured in Shamus in the Green Room and add to its success.

Dashiell Hammett Film Fest

What is your favorite Hammett Film?

  • Hammett (1982) - Starring Frederic Forrest, Marilu Henner & Peter Boyle
  • The Glass Key - Alan Ladd and Veronica Lake
  • The Thin Man - Willian Powell and Myrna Loy
  • The Maltese Falcon - Bogart & Lorre, Sydney Greenstreet, Mary Astor
  • Satan Met a Lady - Bette Davis and Warren William
  • The Dain Curse - Starring Hector Elizondo
  • Watch on the Rhine - Bette Davis
  • No Good Deed - Starring Samuel L. Jackson
See results without voting

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Comments 1 comment

FloraBreenRobison profile image

FloraBreenRobison 5 years ago

I perfer The Thin Man over The Maltese Falcon, although I don't think I could give a logical reason as I love both the books and both the films. Of the others filmed I've seen The Glass Key several times, and the Bette Davis movies once apiece.

Hollywood wasn't good for Raymond Chandler health either, to mention Hollywood being tough on writers. He was trying to stay sober, but he had deadlines to meet and he found it was easier to write good dialogue quicky when he was drinking.

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