Tuesday ’Tec! Arson Plus by Dashiell Hammett

Fire and trouble…

The only thing of Hammett’s that I’ve read is The Maltese Falcon, which I thoroughly enjoyed. But as well as Sam Spade, Hammett is famous for another detective – a nameless one, known only as the Continental Op (because he’s an operative of the Continental Detective Agency). This story is his first appearance, in 1923, so it seems like a good choice for this week’s…

Tuesday Tec2

 Arson Plus

by Dashiell Hammett

 

Dashiell Hammett
Dashiell Hammett

 

Jim Tarr picked up the cigar I rolled across his desk, looked at the band, bit off an end, and reached for a match.
“Three for a buck,” he said. “You must want me to break a couple of laws for you this time.”

An insurance company has hired the Continental Op to investigate a house fire, in which the owner, a man named Thornburgh, died. They suspect arson, and Sheriff Tar quickly confirms this – the house was soaked in gasoline before it went up. But so far the police have found no clues as to who might have set the fire. He agrees to have the officer who’s investigating the crime bring the C.O. up to speed…

Tarr leaned back in his chair and bellowed: “Hey, Mac!”
The pearl push buttons on his desk are ornaments so far as he is concerned. Deputy sheriffs McHale, McClump, and Macklin came to the door together – MacNab apparently wasn’t within hearing.
“What’s the idea?” the sheriff demanded of McClump. “Are you carrying a bodyguard around with you?”
The two other deputies, thus informed as to whom “Mac” referred this time, went back to their cribbage game.

Sheriff Tarr then agrees that McClump should work with the C.O.

the continental op

On the night of the fire, Thornburgh’s servants Mr and Mrs Coons woke in the night to find themselves suffocating in smoke. Mr Coons managed to drag himself and his wife out, but by then the blaze was so strong he couldn’t fight his way back in to help Thornburgh. A passing motorist, Henderson, stopped at the scene and together they watched helplessly as Thornburgh tried to escape from his upper floor window… alas, in vain!

Thornburgh had only recently arrived in town and kept himself to himself. The Coons had only been employed by him on his arrival and so didn’t know him terribly well either, but they said he would shut himself away for hours in his room, and they believed he was working on some invention. The only visitor he had was his niece, Mrs Evelyn Trowbridge, who was also the beneficiary of his will and various insurance policies he had recently taken out. But Mrs Trowbridge had a cast-iron alibi for the night in question.

Where the house had been was now a mound of blackened ruins. We poked around in the ashes for a few minutes – not that we expected to find anything, but because it’s the nature of man to poke around in ruins.

arson plus

* * * * *

Although this is one of Hammett’s earliest stories, it already shows some of what made him such a successful and influential writer later in his career. The plot is nicely set up and rattles along at a good pace, although the detection element is pretty weak and crucial facts are withheld from the reader only to be presented after the C.O. has caught his culprit. But the writing is excellent, with a lot of wit, and the characterisation is strong throughout. We learn almost nothing about the C.O. himself in this one, except that he’s the kind of smart-talking, hardboiled character that Hammett and those influenced by him would develop over the next few decades. But through his narration, we get great snapshots of the other characters, often summed up in a few short lines that tell more than many authors can do in pages…

McClump and I had worked together on an express robbery several months before. He’s a rangy, towheaded youngster of twenty-five or -six, with all the nerve in the world – and most of the laziness.

The following paragraph is pretty spoilerish (and a bit of a mini-rant) so, if you want to read the story, you may want to skip it. I can’t find an online link, but the story is in…

the detective megapack

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

Coincidentally, José Ignacio has also been reviewing a later Continental Op book this week, Red Harvest, over on A Crime is Afoot – a great blog for anyone interested in classic or contemporary crime fiction.

* * * * *

.

The story ends with a crazy shoot-out of the kind that actually puts me off so much American detective fiction. I’m much more of a fan of the brilliant denouement type of story, followed by the culprit being huckled off in handcuffs. Partly this is just because I find shoot-outs immensely dull, especially since it’s always obviously the baddie who’s going to die. But partly, it’s because authors often use it lazily as a replacement for actually working out a clever way to trap the villain. That’s the case in this one – they all agree they don’t have much in the way of evidence that would stand up in court, so Hammett simply engineers a situation where it’s vaguely reasonable for them to gun their suspect down, and one is left to assume no questions will be asked afterwards. I think this is my favourite bit of dialogue in the story, AFTER the cop, McClump, has shot the suspect dead…

McClump spoke to me over the body.
“I ain’t an inquisitive sort of fellow, but I hope you don’t mind telling me why I shot this [person].”

And I complain about today’s maverick policemen!

* * * * *

An enjoyable story in its own right, and one that makes for interesting reading in seeing the beginnings of what would develop into Hammett’s trademark hardboiled style.

* * * * *

Little Grey Cells rating: ❓ ❓

Overall story rating:      😀 😀 😀 😀

44 thoughts on “Tuesday ’Tec! Arson Plus by Dashiell Hammett

  1. Oh, I’m with you, FictionFan. I don’t much like the shoot-out, either! There are so many better ways of building tension and so on. That aside, though, I’m glad you found a lot to like about this story. Hammett did weave wit into his stories so effectively, didn’t he? And I do like his characters. Interesting, too, that this was one of his early stories. I think reading people’s early work lets us see how they develop as writers.

    • I’m glad I’m not alone! Shoot-outs sometimes work in thrillers (though they tend to bore me even then) but in detective fiction I want the ‘tec to trap the culprit through clues, etc. Yes, I like his style very much and it was interesting to see how good he was even at this early stage. I really must read more of his stuff – I’ve had The Dain Curse on the TBR for ages!

  2. The shoot outs are the best part! It’s like a game of Battlefront, see. Gotta dodge. Hide here. Hide there. And whoops…there you go. That sort of thing. *shakes head* FEF.

    How do you think he can have white hair and a black mustache? #wonder

    • *laughs lots* I knew you’d be disappointed me in for that! See, think how original it would have been if they’d had a pea-shooter-out instead! Guns are so dull… *challenging stare*

      Haha! You must google Alistair Darling – the only politician in the world who I’d descirbe as cute! Doesn’t he look as if he must have some Panda DNA mixed in there? #cuddly

      • What are we going to do with you? I know! I’ll take you out the gun range and let you shoot the Glock! You’ll love it. And I think you’d be quite good at it, too. I think you’d have fun shooting the swingy things back and forth.

        *laughs* Check that out! Black eyebrows. Does he pain them, do you think?

        • Hahaha! That’s so kind of you! And could I get to play with the fun-stick too?? And maybe a couple of nuclear torpedoes?? *shakes head despairingly*

          *laughs too* Surely not, but I have wondered if he dyes them. But he’s been like that since he was pretty young…

    • My pleasure! Yes, I enjoyed this one and would like to read more of them too. I’ve had The Dain Curse on the TBR ever since I read The Maltese Falcon, but still haven’t got round to reading it…

    • The story is a bit weak, I think, but I really enjoyed his writing style, and the sort of slick-talking noir feel of it. But I think what I most enjoyed really was comparing it to the film, which I’ve always loved. Hmm… I reckon if you weren’t taken by his style by halfway, then you probably wouldn’t have enjoyed the rest much more either… These Continental Op ones feel a bit lighter – once I’ve read more I might try to talk you into them instead… 🙂

  3. I’ve always loved the Continental Op stories. For Hammett, they were a kind of experiment in writing about a professional detective without too much of a back story, but as the series progress I became VERY keen not to meet the OP in a back alley!

    • Ha! I already felt that when he took out his gun and started trying to shoot people with almost no provocation! It wasn’t even as if the other guy was dangerous in this one! But I do like his writing and wit and will definitely read more of these…

  4. That always bothers me in movies – as if police or whoever can just gun down bad guys as they please. What happened to the right to a fair trial! (Also, Hammet’s hair made me laugh.)

    • I know – it’s a definite American style of both film and crime fiction, and so different from the UK style (though we’re doing our usual copycat thing, and heading that way). It’s like all the old gangster movies – they almost never end up with any arrests… just layers of corpses! Haha! He does look rather as if he dried it when he was upside down…

  5. Another one I haven’t read! And it’s sounds pretty interesting, too — shoot-out and all. I don’t like it when an author takes “the easy way out” in a novel, but sometimes, a few blasts of gunfire seems to fit. After all, how many bad guys are wrestled to the ground and tickled to death?!?

    • Haha! But think how much more fun that would be! A real incentive to become a bad guy! Hammett can definitely write and since this was an early story I assume his plotting skills got better over time.

  6. I have never read any Dashiell Hammett or Raymond Chandler or any of those classic hard-boiled detective authors. I’m not sure why, exactly! (My early mystery experience was Agatha Christie so I guess I went into the cozy/amateur detective vein.) I wonder if I should start with this one or would you suggest a different title if I were to try Hammett?

  7. Can I have some chocolate cake without reading Hammett? LF just threw a couple of great reviews at me and I’m feeling overwhelmed already. And I’ve only been back a couple of days from my trip.

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