A nice collection of three novelettes and one tiny, not even four pages long story titled Albert Pastor at Home. Amusing (obviously) quick read, published in Esquire magazine in 1933. But even more amusing is the anecdote about its origin provided by Ellery Queenin in his warm introduction. Apparently, Hammett's agent had sold one story "exclusively" to two magazines and Hammett just penned this one quickly to solve the dispute! Oh, the good ol' days...
Two of the stories feature Continental Op. Scorched Face and Corkscrew were both published in 1925, and it shows because they are both heavily influenced by the western genre. Especially the latter one which is a decent take on
Yojimbo Red Harvest theme of the two gangs in a town not big enough for both of them.
Good stuff but I liked the Scorched Face better. A cool plot, snappy street-wise dialogue, loads of action, authentic in describing the machinery of a big detective agency. Plus, our Op hero has never been so doggedly determined to break the case. What spoiled it a bit for me was this totally over the top raid and shootout at the end. I prefer my detectives to be a bit subtler.
But the real prize of this collection is the titular Nightmare Town. Written in 1924, it precedes Hammett's hard-boiled bible Red Harvest for a few years. They are both similar thematically but this one is cruder and much crazier. It's like watching a 70s Italian Giallo where nothing really makes sense but you don't mind all that much because everything is so stylish and all the women are beautiful (and usually beautifully murdered). But the confusion here is created intentionally and our hero is as lost in the midst of all the WTFs as we are:
Was there never to be an end to this piling of mystery upon mystery, of violence upon violence? He had the sensation of being caught in a monstrous net – a net without beginning or end, and whose meshes were slimy with blood. Nausea – spiritual and physical – gripped him, held him impotent.
Mystery does get resolved and this resolution is what makes Nightmare Town memorable. It's so preposterous and bonkers that - after the initial amazement - it actually makes sense. At least it made sense to me. If you like the final act of Jim Thompson's The Getaway, there's no way you won't like this one. And, for the record, I fucking love The Getaway!