May 27 was the birthday of Dashiell Hammett, John Cheever and Herman Wouk, and wouldn't you like to have been at their party? Hammett was born in 1894, Cheever in 1912, and Wouk in 1915. Hammett and Cheever, not surprisingly, have departed, going to wherever good writers go--probably a bar. But Wouk, happily, is still with us, and even published another book--"Sailor and Fiddler"--two years ago.
Hammett, it's usually said, wrote five novels, but "The Big Knockover" and "Blood Money," taken together, really form one more. The toughest and shortest of Hammett's novels is "Red Harvest." The strangest is "The Dain Curse." "The Maltese Falcon" is generally considered his masterpiece, but his own favourite was "The Glass Key." His last, "The Thin Man," dedicated to Lillian Hellman, has been considered lightweight, but it is really a very rewarding book, and certainly was for Hammett.
Frank Sinatra, speaking of Johnny Hodges, Duke Ellington's longtime alto saxophone soloist, said he "never played an untasty note." One could say of Cheever that he never wrote an ungraceful line. Cheever wrote at least four novels, but he's remembered more for his two hundred or so short stories. Collected into one volume, they won the Pulitzer Prize in 1978.
Herman Wouk's first job was writing gags for Fred Allen, although he said later that he and the other writers spent most of their time clipping newspaper items they thought might interest Allen. When he was in the US Navy in World War Two, Wouk wrote a comedy about radio and advertising called "Aurora Dawn." Not well known, and hard to find, but worth a search, as is his later comedy, "Don't Stop the Carnival." His great success, of course, was "The Caine Mutiny," a true page turner, with a great collection of characters--Keefer, Maryk, Barney Greenwald, and, most of all, the unforgettable Captain Queeg.
Interestingly, some current critics believe the Wouk book likely to endure longest is "Marjorie Morningstar," the story of a young woman whose real name is Marjorie Morgenstern, and her journey through romance and show business.
So this evening, we think you should go to your shelves and pull out three books, one each by Hammett, Cheever and Wouk, mix a martini, put some old Benny Goodman Quartet records on the turntable, and wish the writers a happy birthday.