RARA-AVIS: The Gutting of Couffignal (1925)

From: William Denton ( buff@pobox.com)
Date: 08 Oct 2002

I'm not seeing much talk about pre-1930 writing! I'll post about a couple of Hammett short stories I read. THE BIG KNOCKOVER is easy to carry around and read on the subway, so I'm working through that.

"The Gutting of Couffignal" (BLACK MASK, December 1925) was right in the middle of a stream of Continental Op stories from 1924-1929 that lead up to RED HARVEST and THE DAIN CURSE, after which Hammett only went back to the character twice.

The Op is guarding the presents at a high-society wedding in a rich man's house on an island enclave north of Frisco. In the middle of the night, explosions and gunshots start. Apparently a gang is holding up the whole little town: they blew up the post office, they destroyed the bridge, they've got a machine gun set up on the back of a truck. The whole place is in an uproar. The Op starts looking around, with a Russian princess who was at the wedding tagging along.

There's no big showdown against a gang of villains, in fact, the Op never really finds them. He chases around from here to there, hiding behind houses, trying to follow the action. The Op clears it all up in the end, rattling off a string of observations that let him figure out what was really going on. I liked the last line:

| "Stop, you idiot!" I bawled at her.
| Her face laughed over her shoulder at me. She walked without
| haste to the door, her short skirt of gray flannel shaping itself
| to the calf of each gray wool-stockinged leg as its mate stepped
| forward.
| Sweat greased the gun in my hand.
| When her right foot was on the doorsill, a little chuckling
| sound came from her throat.
| "Adieu!" she said softly.
| And I put a bullet in the calf of her leg.
| She sat down--plump! Utter surprise stretched her white
| face. It was too soon for pain.
| I had never shot a woman before. I felt queer about it.
| "You ought to have known I'd do it!" My voice sounded harsh
| and savage and like a stranger's in my ears. "Didn't I steal a
| crutch from a cripple?"

Those are nice sentences. Also: "You can't fight machine guns and hand grenades with peaceful villagers and retired capitalists."


William Denton : Toronto, Canada : http://www.miskatonic.org/ : Caveat lector.

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