The Dain Curse by Dashiell Hammett

Bodies galore!

😀 😀 😀 😀

When Edgar Leggett’s home is broken into and some not particularly valuable diamonds go missing, his insurance company send along their operative to investigate – enter the Continental Op, the only name we are given for the first-person narrator. The CO soon decides that there’s been some kind of inside job, and that there’s more to the case than a simple burglary. Leggett has a wife and a weird, strange-looking but oddly attractive daughter, Gabrielle. The plot is entirely incomprehensible so that’s as much of a summary as I’ll give. Suffice it to say, the thing soon turns bloody, with more corpses than you could shake a stick at, supposing you would want to do such a thing. Gabrielle, who seems to be thought of by some as a femme fatale but seems to me way too pathetic to be such a thing, is at the centre of all the mysterious happenings and comes to believe she is cursed. It’s up to the CO to solve whatever it is that’s going on, and amazingly, he does.

Oddly, despite the fact that the plot is nonsensical, episodic, and barely hangs together, I still found the book entertaining. This is largely due to the snappy, hardboiled style of the writing and the relentless pace, which doesn’t give the reader much time to ponder the basic absurdity of the storyline. Plus, in the middle of it there is a passage of very effective horror writing, as the CO battles an evil apparition that may be real or may be the product of hallucination, or is possibly a combination of both. I forgave a lot of the book’s weaknesses for my enjoyment of that piece of writing.

Through the thing’s transparent flesh I could see my hands clenched in the center of its damp body. I opened them, struck up and down inside it with stiff crooked fingers, trying to gouge it open; and I could see it being torn apart, could see it flowing together after my clawing fingers had passed; but all I could feel was its dampness.

Challenge details:
Book: 91
Subject Heading: Across the Atlantic
Publication Year: 1929

It also gives a snapshot of aspects of Californian life at the time of writing – the late 1920s. Inevitably, this involves some pretty strong racist language, but I felt this was an accurate reflection of the time (built-in and possibly incorrect assumption in that phrase that things have improved since) and in fact Hammett treated his non-white characters no worse than his white ones, so at least he was pretty even-handed in that sense. We also get to see that guns were as ubiquitous then as they still are now. In fact, as I write this, I’m realising that it could as easily have been written today – weird religious cults, casual drug-taking, addiction, money-is-the-root-of-all-evil… Prohibition might be the only thing that has really receded into the past, though I liked that he touched on the idea of moral degeneracy showing as a physical thing, identifiable by physical features – a concept that pops up in true crime cases around the turn of the century and also appears in quite a lot of late Victorian horror writing. (Hammett references Arthur Machen in the text and I felt his influence could be seen both in this concept and in the piece of horror writing in the middle of the book.) Another touch I enjoyed is Hammett’s inclusion of a character who is a novelist, which gives him the chance to include some humorously self-deprecating dialogue…

“Are you – who make your living snooping – sneering at my curiosity about people and my attempts to satisfy it?”
“We’re different,” I said. “I do mine with the object of putting people in jail, and I get paid for it, though not as much as I should.”
“That’s not different,” he said. “I do mine with the object of putting people in books, and I get paid for it, though not as much as I should.”
“Yeah, but what good does that do?”
“God knows. What good does putting them in jail do?”
“Relieves congestion,” I said. “Put enough people in jail, and cities wouldn’t have traffic problems.”

Dashiell Hammett

I feel I should have more to say about this one, but I don’t. It’s quite fun, so long as you can get past the silliness of the plot. But in truth I’m not sure why it would be considered a classic any more than most other books of the era. For me, it’s doesn’t even come close to the only other Hammett I’ve read, The Maltese Falcon, which unlike this one is tightly plotted and has a wonderful femme fatale worthy of the title. I suspect that if it hadn’t been for that later one, this one may have been forgotten along with most of the pulp fiction of the time. According to Martin Edwards in his The Story of Classic Crime in 100 Books, Hammett himself later described this book as “a silly story… all style”, and I’m forced to agree with him. Still, that style covers a whole lot of weaknesses meaning that I found it an entertaining read overall, and that’s the most important thing…

Book 28 of 90

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26 thoughts on “The Dain Curse by Dashiell Hammett

  1. In my opinion, FictionFan, that’s Hammett for you: the writing style. I’m not surprised you were able to get past the plot because he wrote so well. And I’ve always liked his pacing a lot, too. You know, I wouldn’t have thought of him as writing horror, but you’ve shown that he could put together a fine horror passage. Oh, and about whether much has changed since the 1920? Ermm…*sigh*

    • He’s a great writer, which is just as well since the plot of this one was… silly! 😂 The horror bit in the middle is a lot of fun – having read so much horror from the late Victorians recently, I felt I could see their influence. It’s just short, but very effective. Haha – cell phones! They didn’t have cell phones! 😉

    • I’ve only read one of the short stories and I enjoyed it, though it ended in typical American style with a shoot-out, which is what puts me off American crime fiction in general. It’s so unimaginative.

    • I’d only read one of the Continental Op short stories before. This won’t be a favourite of mine either, but I did enjoy it while it was happening – the pace kept me going!

    • It’s odd that it’s never been made into a movie, though I think there’s an old TV adaptation somewhere. Mind you, they’d need to get somebody to work out what the plot is about first… 😉

    • Haha – yes, it made me think better of it when I read that quote from Hammett! The Maltese Falcon is definitely the one I would recommend though – it’s far better than this.

  2. I am happy to see that I am far from the only reader to think that this book is mediocre and would likely have fallen into obscurity but for the fame of its author. Yet, I very much enjoyed Hammett’s “The Glass Key” and recommend it enthusiastically.

    • I’m glad to know I’m not alone too! Ah, that’s good to know – I’ll add “The Glass Key” to my list as my next Hammett read, then. I do like his writing style, but the plotting in this one was all over the place. Very strange…

      Thanks for popping in and commenting! 😀

  3. I get the feeling this one got the same happy/silly spot for you that A Princess of Mars did. The plot is ridiculous but you JUST CAN’T HELP YOURSELF. I read Maltese Falcon in college and felt horribly lost in the plot, though I admit I have a poor temperament for detective mysteries. I get mad because I think I’ve missed something, but I’m being unknowingly impatient.

    • Hahaha – yes! But honestly this one makes the plot of A Princess seem quite sensible! Yeah, The Maltese Falcon plot is pretty complicated too if I remember right, though I felt it kinda hung together in the end, unlike this one. But also the writing is much tighter – I felt it was very filmic, whereas this one was too all over the place.

    • I’ve only read The Maltese Falcon and this, and a couple of short stories, and The Maltese Falcon is definitely the one I’d recommend! This was fun, but not really in the same class. The Maltese Falcon deserves it’s “classic” reputation… 😀

    • Yes, if it hadn’t be so entertainingly written, the plotting would really have annoyed me, but he managed to keep me reading, so that’s the main thing… 😀

  4. I have never read Dashiell Hammett but then I don’t always like that hardboiled style. However this does sound very entertaining. I always cringe at that racist language we often see in vintage novels (so often vintage crime) but try to rem it is of its time.

    • Definitely entertaining even if the plot is a bit all over the place! Yes, sometimes the language bothers me more than others – with this one, I felt he was just using the words that were common at the time without any real racist intent behind them…

  5. I’m not entirely sure I’d be able to get past the silliness but it sounds as though this was a thoroughly entertaining read – I do like the comparison you make between the state of play then and now, fascinating that things have progressed seemingly very little!

    • Haha – every time I wrote something that it showed about the past, I realised it could be said about the present too! What a world! 😉 It is entertaining but wouldn’t be one I’d be arm-twisting people about…

    • Oh, I haven’t read The Thin Man but there’s a series of really old black and white films based on it that I used to love when I was young. I’ll be keen to hear what you think of the book… 🙂

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