Doubtless on account of my predilection for typically British novels of detection, I have somehow fostered the mistaken reputation of one who dislikes the Hardboiled school. I mean, I named Jim Thompson one of the four most important male authors in crime fiction, have heaped praise on James M. Cain, Dashiell Hammett, both Ross and John D. MacDonald, and the Cool & Lam books of Erle Stanley Gardner, but still there lingers an air of distrust whenever I step away from the Venetian vase of the drawing room and into the mean streets. So let’s look to The Dain Curse (1929) to exemplify a lot of the good that the subgenre has to offer.
Structurally, what we have here is essentially four novellas — belying Hammett’s apprenticeship in the pulps, writing stories in instalments — which all centre on the youthful Gabrielle Dain Leggett. The first three of these vignettes demonstrate the violence and death that seem to shadow her every personal relationship, and the fourth then draws out their common threads to show the eponymous curse of her Dain blood up for the deliberate human design at its core. And along for the ride, at the heart of every single one of the befuddling developments, is Hammett’s tough, unsympathetic, unnamed Continental Op — veteran of only two novels and who-knows how many cases (I’m aware that someone does actually know), a protagonist who would go on to be misunderstood and poorly-replicated throughout the length, breadth, and depth of the Hardboiled subgenre.
I don’t really want to get into the specifics of the plots, you’re better off experiencing Hammett’s breakneck developments as pure as possible. Each milieu is distinct, the rolling cast of characters overlapping just enough for this to feel like a cohesive narrative, and a jaded eye is run over topics as diverse as religion (the cult at its core dismissed as “probably as full of quackery as any other”), the escalation of criminal schemes (“Kill yourself into a hole, and the chances are a time comes when you have to kill yourself out”), and the general hopelessness of the people who surround Gabrielle and are as susceptible to superstition as she is (“It was a long story, and he was too excited to make it a clear one”). Tonally this is not new, but the events here are at times as wild as anything you’ll find in Rim of the Pit (1944) by Hake Talbot or as kaleidoscopic as The Red Right Hand (1945) by Joel Townsley Rogers.
Hammett also distinguishes himself — and for my money this is what the likes of Mickey Spillane and Raymond Chandler never understood — in his protagonist’s essential fallibility as part of that universe. Seen both externally — “You’re never satisfied until you’ve got two buts and an if attached to everything,” he’s told early on when apparently seeking complications that no-one else sees — and internally, the Op is far more human than any of the gun-totin’ ciphers whose creators would mistake simplicity of purpose for simplicity of actions. He feels pain and fear and doubt, such as in one skirmish where he refuses to help his opponent up off the ground in order to hide “how shaky I was”. He cudgels his brains over the solutions to problems that require more than simply fists, recognising that his attempts at violence often result in simply more violence. Mike Hammer’s brutalist over-reactions, or Philip Marlowe’s sophomoric meandering, never came close to the intelligence on display here.
We’re perhaps not as far from the drawing room as some might like to claim, though Philo Vance would last about three chapters before someone slugged him and threw him in the sea, and there’s more design in Hammett’s tale than one might expect (Chandler’s “have a man with a gun come through the door” advice rings painfully hollow in light of the sheer brilliance of the web we’re made aware of come the end). It’s as tough as nails at times — see chapter 18, ‘The Pineapple’ — but also has a sharp humour that doesn’t really care if you’re in on the joke (‘The Vague Harpers’ — the title of chapter 4 — is simply wonderful). Where lesser lights of the school would waste much grandiloquence on making sure you understood how tough their heroes were, the Op tells you what you need to know and leaves the rest up to you (the second visit paid to the dead body in the third story is…would anyone else have the sheer chutzpah to write that?). You either get it or you don’t, fine by him.
This cuts both ways, of course. Sometimes the developments could do with a little more clarification — you’re supposed to understand simply because an event happened rather than being explained — and I think this might be an excuse to get around the final summary of events not quite making the sense it should. But then a description is unexpectedly embroidered (“…we borrowed a loose-jointed touring car of at least three different makes…”) and the contrast can’t help but make you smile. And, for all the ‘man alone against the scum of the world’ archetypes that would spring from this well, the Op is a surprisingly collaborative hardboiled dick: justifying his actions to a boss who has to worry about a client’s willingness to pay for the job, or coaxing an amusing story out of a fellow operative for the amusement of their ward. This overweight, middle-aged man with no external life might, in many ways, be the most complex detective figure the genre ever produced.
So, yes, there is a design here that would appeal to my puzzle novel-loving brain, but Hammett’s contribution to the Hardboiled school is two lessons — this and Red Harvest (1929) — in the perfect balance of character and plot, with his infelicities in both somehow supporting each other like a collapsing arch to make a structure at once flawed and ripe for imitation. The Maltese Falcon (1930) is a very different book, and I can believe The Glass Key (1931) and The Thin Man (1933) will be very different again and represent the limits of what he knew how, and indeed wanted, to write: capture something near-perfectly, and then don’t go back. I’ve neglected his writing for too long while other, shinier considerations commanded my attentions, but 2021 will see me fill in the gaps in my Hammett reading and — rest assured — I am very excited to see what I’ve been missing.
Curt Evans @ Mystery*File: Not all Hammetts were created equal. Case in point: Hammett’s second novel, his famous family slaughter saga, The Dain Curse. Less viscerally organic than his first crime tale, Red Harvest (1929), it is also, in my opinion, vastly inferior both to his immediately following works, The Maltese Falcon (1930) and The Glass Key (1931), and even to his last novel, the slick (if rather facile) The Thin Man (1934). I am hardly the first person to note flaws in The Dain Curse. A quarter-century ago, in his entry on the novel in 1001 Midnights, Bill Pronzini observed that The Dain Curse was “overlong and decidedly melodramatic.” Indeed it is!
Mike @ Only Detect: His lack of a name in no way lessens the sense of presence that he confers on the Leggett affair—both as a professional sleuth and as the narrator of record. Indeed, the Op’s blunt, just-the-facts persona serves as an effective counterpoint to the bizarre, over-the-top sequence of events that he describes. His jaded response to the often ridiculous particulars of the case goes far in helping maintain the reader’s willing (and sometimes merely grudging) suspension of disbelief.