#727: The Dain Curse (1929) by Dashiell Hammett

Dain Curse

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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.

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See also

Curt Evans @ Mystery*FileNot 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.

16 thoughts on “#727: The Dain Curse (1929) by Dashiell Hammett

  1. Glad thus went down so well JJ – as a big hardboiled fan, this is especially as this is my least favourite of his novels! You are way too harsh about Chandler though … we’ll have to duke this out eventually 😀

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    • For my money this is a better book than Maltese Falcon, but they’re also doing such different things that they’re hard to compare in any meaningful way. I liked it more than his pulp stories, too, which in account of their brevity tend to be very straight ahead and less involved in the plotting.

      As to Chandler, it takes all sorts to make a village 😁 But I’m not wasting any more time rereading him to be proved right — the guy’s not my tempo, and I maintain that he’s not fit to put himself in the same bracket as Hammett, Cain, Thompson, and the Macdonalds. But, yes, we shall get into that in due course…!

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  2. Yes, Hammett can write and plot; I’ve enjoyed the Hammetts I’ve read (all the novels, I think). He even reworks an Austin Freeman plot in one novel! Whereas I dislike Chandler intensely; his plots are messes, his much-touted style is overwritten, and his worldview is repellent.

    “To read him is like cutting into an over-ripe melon and discovering that it has a rare astringent flavour. He reduces the bright Californian scene to an empty despair, dead bottles and a heap of cigarette butts under the meaningless neon lights, much more adroitly than Aldous Huxley and the rest can do; and suggests, to my mind, almost better than anybody else the failure of a life that is somehow short of a dimension, with everybody either wistfully wondering what is wrong or taking savage short cuts to nowhere.”

    What fun!

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    • I’ve read most of his short fiction, I believe, and find his novels (Red Harvest, Maltese Falcon, and this being the only ones I’ve read) to be more my style. Something about his staccato prose over a longer game becomes quite atmospheric and thrilling, where in his pulps it always struck me as a little impatient and self-consciously lacking in elaboration. I like some complications, it seems…

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  3. Just picked up five Hammet novels for $3 each based on your review (I’d been meaning to get a few of them for some time, so thanks for the excuse). Unfortunately, had to pass up the nice Dell/Avon/Pocket editions as they seem to be rather expensive for this author.

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    • Given how many reprints here are of Hammett, he can be quite expensive. I’m moderately annoyed, too, that the edition I have — the image shown above — is part of a series that includes two short story collections and all the novels except The Thin Man — so if I wanted to buy them all in these editions (which, Maltese falcon aside, I do) I can’t get TTM to match…and all the available editions of TTM in the UK don’t look anywhere near as nice as these…!

      It’s a first world problem, and I’m not exactly rushing out to buy books at present, but the reprint conundrum rears its head in new and interesting ways yet again 🙂

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      • Speaking of reprints, you have The Lost Gallows coming up. If I recall correctly, that might be the only Bencolin novel that you haven’t read. I’ll be curious to see how your view compares to mine.

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        • Nah, I’ve read The Lost Gallows before; just never wrote about it on here. The reprint is a chance to reread it and review it, however, in the hope of reminding people of its qualities. Hoping to get to it this weekend, and looking forward to revisiting it.

          Expect updates on, y’know, Thursday 🙂

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  4. I love hardboiled fiction but for some reason I find Jim Thompson to be almost unreadable. I know he gets the reader into his protagonists’ heads but inside his protagonists’ heads is a place I just don’t want to be.

    THE THIN MAN is Hammett Lite which might be why I liked it so much. RED HARVEST left me cold. I realised I didn’t care what happened to these people. I loved THE MALTESE FALCON though. So maybe it’s Hardboiled Lite that I like.

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    • Yeah, one never really enjoys a Jim Thompson novel. I think it takes guts to commit so fully to that sort of worldview, and I admire hugely what he did: hell, imagine having to get into the mindset required to write those books.

      Like Anthony Berkeley, Thompson was ahead of his time in what he wrote, and so some of it ain’t quite joined up as well as those who came after him would manage. And, like Berkeley, the diamonds can often fail to shine as bright on account of the failings around them. But, like Berkeley, he moved genre fiction on in a way that few would have had the insight or bravery to do at the time.

      And liking Hardboiled Lite is good. Means you know what not to waste your time and money on — lucky you 🙂

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  5. Glad you liked it. (Is a cure for Crofts in the offing?) it is certainly the weakest of Hammett’s books, but it has its virtues none the less. There is a TV movie with James Coburn as the op. He is well cast as Hammett but not as the op!

    I re read it a couple years ago and was surprised at how much I liked it.

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