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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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

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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:      😀 😀 😀 😀

The Maltese Falcon by Dashiell Hammett

the maltese falconLights, camera, action…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

When luscious Miss Wonderly hires the detective firm of Spade and Archer to find her sister, who has run off with a man named Floyd Thursby, Sam Spade might not believe her story but he’s happy to accept the $200 dollars she pays them upfront. So is Miles Archer, though his interest is more in the lady’s lovely legs. The job turns out to be more than either partner bargains for though, when both Miles and then Floyd are shot dead. With Miss Wonderly begging for his help to protect her and find the Maltese Falcon of the title, Miles’ wife hoping his death means she and Sam can finally be together, and the police accusing him of murdering Floyd in revenge for Miles’ death, Spade is in trouble up to his neck. But nothing he can’t handle…

the maltese falcon 1

Did Dashiell Hammett invent noir? I don’t know, but Sam Spade is the earliest iconic noir detective, and the one that has spawned a zillion clones down the years. The book reads like a film, making it understandable why the film of the book works so well. Heavy on dialogue, the camera stays focused on Sam Spade at all times and yet we are never allowed inside his head. As he twists and lies and manoeuvres his way through the plot, the reader has no more idea than anyone else what his true intentions might be. Has he fallen for Miss Wonderly, aka Brigid O’Shaughnessy, or is he using her? Will he double-cross her and take the money offered by the mismatched baddies Casper Gutman and Joel Cairo? Or will he trick them all, and take the fabled golden bird for himself? It’s only as the end plays out that we discover whether Spade does have some kind of moral code hidden beneath his smooth chain-smoking exterior.

“When a man’s partner is killed he’s supposed to do something about it. It doesn’t make any difference what you thought of him. He was your partner and you’re supposed to do something about it. Then it happens we were in the detective business. Well, when one of your organization gets killed it’s bad business to let the killer get away with it. It’s bad all around – bad for that one organization, bad for every detective everywhere.”

Dashiell Hammett
Dashiell Hammett

It’s a while since I watched the film, but it seems to me that the script stuck very closely to the book, and the casting was pretty much perfect. As a result, I could see the movie characters in my head while reading. It’s not just the dialogue that makes the book feel so filmic. Hammett describes every movement that Spade makes in minute detail, from the fight scenes to the rolling of his endless cigarettes, and it gave me the impression of an obsessive director’s notes on how he wanted his actors to play each scene. It also feels like a studio film – there’s very little description of the world outside and the San Francisco setting could really have been any city in America. It’s rare to have quite so little sense of place in a novel, and yet it works. Like a classy film-star, Spade is so compelling that the reader doesn’t need to have the background filled out, and the great supporting cast of eccentric characters provides all the necessary contrast to highlight Spade’s starring role.

Bogart_Mary_Astor_The_Maltese_Falcon_1941

I’ve seen lots of reviews comparing this book adversely to Raymond Chandler’s The Big Sleep. My preference is for this one. I found The Big Sleep messy plotwise, and the atmospheric writing didn’t fully compensate for that. The plot of this one is tight and controlled, with each twist revealed at the perfect moment, and while the language may not be poetic, it sets a distinctive tone. The device of keeping the reader outside the thoughts of the characters works very effectively – ultimately the real mystery is nothing to do with the falcon, or even who killed Miles. It’s about what will Spade do – who is he? He’s neither likeable nor particularly admirable, but the enigma that surrounds his moral code makes him intriguing and fascinating. The book is, of course, horribly misogynistic and homophobic, but it was written nearly a century ago (1929) so I graciously forgive it, especially since Hammett manages to tell his gritty, twisted, violent tale without the need for any offensive language.

Gutman smiled benignly at him and said: “Well, Wilmer, I’m sorry indeed to lose you, and I want you to know that I couldn’t be any fonder of you if you were my own son; but – well, by Gad! – if you lose a son it’s possible to get another – and there’s only one Maltese Falcon.”

Orion have reissued this as part of a series they call ‘Read a Great Movie’ and I have to say that this, for me, was a perfect example of doing just that. I’ll be checking to see what else is in the series…

poster-maltese-falcon-the-1941_02

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Orion Publishing Group.

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