Miskatonic University Press

The Gooseberry Lay

(You may have arrived here from Twists, Slugs and Roscoes: A Glossary of Hardboiled Slang, where “the gooseberry lay” is mentioned.)

From “Getting Away with Murder,” by Erle Stanley Gardner, in The Atlantic, Vol. 215 No. 1 (1965).

Dashiell Hammett, on the other hand, was one of the few writers I have known who had all the earmarks of genius and the temperament which goes with it. For a brief period he was a Pinkerton detective, and because of this experience, he dazzled credulous editors with a presumably encyclopedic knowledge of the underworld.

Dashiell was also a fast hand with a dictionary of criminalese and had a vast knowledge of the editorial psychology. Heaven knows how these dictionaries of the underworld are composed. Undoubtedly they represent considerable research, but how much of this research is done on the ground and how much in a library?

When Hammett started writing, there was a dictionary of the underworld which used the word “shamus” as a tag for a private detective. Hammett picked that word up, and it ran through all his stories. Every time one of his detectives would enter on the scene, someone would sneeringly refer to him as shamus. Since Hammett’s time, a whole school of realistic writers have had their characters refer to a private detective as a shamus.

Just where did that word come from? I have made it a point to try and find out and I am completely baffled. The late Raymond Schindler, one of the world-famous private detectives, told me he had never heard the word. At my request, he had asked private detectives whom he employed, and they had never heard it used. I asked the wardens of various pentitentiaries, and they told me they had never encountered the word except in fiction. During the past eighteen years, I have had quite a few contacts with inmates of penitentiaries. I have asked them about “shamus” and whether they had ever heard it applied to a private detective. Not one of them ever had.

Then one day I happened to be discussing the matter with a man who had worked for a Jewish haberdasher, and he told me had had heard the word used; it applied not to a private detective but to some kind of phony. No matter; thanks to Dashiell, the Dictionary of American Underworld Lingo lists “shamus” as a Jewish-American word meaning a policeman or prison guard, and the American Thesaurus of Slang lists it as applying to a policeman, an informer, or a stool pigeon.

It has been many years since Dashiell Hammett first put the word into circulation. Today the general reading public considers “shamus” a slang term customarily used by the underworld describing the private detective. It assumes that the writer who uses it knows his way around.

At first, Editor [Captain Joseph T.] Shaw and Dashiell Hammett didn’t hit it off. Hammett became enraged over a rejection by Shaw and quit writing for Black Mask. I was in New York at the time, and after conferring with Shaw, wrote Hammett a letter pleading with him to return to the fold.

Later on, of course, after the fame of The Maltese Falcon, Hammett could do no wrong. Captain Shaw not only went all out for Hammett but tried to get writers to follow the Hammett style. One of my big differences with Shaw came when I accused him of trying to “Hammettize” the magazine.

However, before Hammett and Shaw had become such buddies, Hammett wrote a story which contained an expression that gave Shaw quite a jolt. He deleted it from the manuscript and wrote Hammett a chiding letter to the effect that Black Mask would never publish vulgarities of any sort.

Hammett promptly wrote a story in which he laid a deliberate trap for Joe Shaw.

One of the characters in the story, meeting another one, asked him what he was doing these days, and the other shamefacedly admitted that he was “on the gooseberry lay.”

Had the editor known it, this meant simply that the character was making his living by stealing clothes from clotheslines, preferably on a Monday morning. The expression goes back to the old days of the tramp who from time to time needed a few pennies to buy food. He would wait until the housewife had put out her wash; then he would descend on the clothesline, pick up an armful of clothes, and scurry away to sell them.

Shaw had the reaction which Hammett had expected. He wrote Hammett telling him that he was deleting the “gooseberry lay” from the story, that Black Mask would never publish anything like that. But he left the word “gunsel” because Hammett had used it so casually that Shaw took it for granted that the word pertained to a hired gunman. Actually, “gunsel,” or “gonzel,” is a very naughty word with no relation whatever to a bodyguard, a gunman, or a torpedo.

What happened?

All of the writers of the hard-boiled school of realism started talking about a gunsel as the equivalent of a gunman. The usage has persisted. Recently, a magazine of national circulation, featuring the death of a gunman, described it on the cover as “The Short, Bitter Life of a Gunsel.”

A few years ago, I read a book purportedly written by a man who enjoyed a firsthand contact with the underworld, a story of stark realism. The author continually referred to the gunmen as “gunsels.”

It has been at least thirty-five years since Dashiell Hammett played his little joke on Captain Joseph Shaw, but the aftereffects of that joke are still seen in American murder stories.

Updated: 22 March 2009