RARA-AVIS: Hammett stories

From: William Denton ( buff@pobox.com)
Date: 15 Oct 2002

I've read eleven of the stories in CRIME STORIES AND OTHER WRITINGS now--next up is "The Scorched Face"--and except for one story, it's all great stuff. The one I didn't like as much is "Nightmare Town," which ran in ARGOSY and isn't an Op story. The idea behind the town is neat, but the story's confused. All the rest are very good. They're all Op stories, and they start off being about cases where the Continental Detective Agency is hired by a rich man because of a murder or kidnapping. Later stories like "The House of Turk Street" and "The Whosis Kid" are about the Op stumbling into trouble unexpectedly. Hammett's great when there's a bunch of greedy, nervous crooks in a room, all armed with guns. When the Op sees his chance, there's trouble.

Femmes fatales, forerunners of Brigid O'Shaughnessy, pop up a fair bit. From "The Girl with the Silver Eyes," where the Op is driving a beautiful woman to the police:

| I grunted noncommittally, and forcibly restrained my tongue from
| running out to moisten my dry lips.
| "I'm going to jail tonight if you are the same hard man who
| has goaded me into whining love into his uncaring ears, but before
| that, can't I have one whole-hearted assurance that you think
| me a little more than 'quite pretty'? Or at least a hint that if I
| were not a prisoner your pulse might be a little faster when I
| touch you? I'm going to this jail for a long while--perhaps to
| the gallows. Can't I take my vanity there not quite in tatters
| to keep me company? Can't you do some slight thing to keep me
| from the afterthought of having bleated all this out to a man who
| was simple bored?"
| Her lids had come down half over the silver-grey eyes; her head
| had tilted back so far that a little pulse showed throbbing in
| her write throat; her lips were motionless over slightly parted
| teeth, as the last word has left them. My fingers went deep into
| the soft white flesh of her shoulders. Her head went further back,
| her eyes closed, one hand came up to my shoulder.
| "You're beautiful as all hell!" I shouted crazily into her face,
| and flung her against the door.

In "Zigzags of Treachery" the Op is hired by a lawyer who gets very emotional about the case.

| His voice was losing its calmness again, so I picked up my
| hat, said something about starting to work at once, and went out.
| I don't like eloquence: if it isn't effective enough to pierce
| your hide, it's tiresome; and if it is effective enough, then it
| muddles your thoughts.

Later he says, "This lawyer was bound on getting me worked up; and I like my jobs to be simply jobs--emotions are nuisances during business hours."

The Op may be nameless, and he may not crack wise or philosophize like Marlowe, but he's no cipher. I like him.


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

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