RARA-AVIS: Hammett's Good Cop/Bad Cop

From: Moorich2@aol.com
Date: 04 Dec 2003

All this Hammett and Chandler talk has sent me back to the originals with Hammett's Op stories the first of my revisits. Let me say that I can't wait to reread my Chandler old favorites like FAREWELL MY LOVELY and THE LONG GOOD-BYE.
 Both writers have given me many hours of pleasure.

My rereading has renewed my appreciation for Hamlet's Continental Op stories.
 In the midst of renewing my love of these gems, I have to consider that Doug Greene may be correct when he says the natural form for the mystery is the short story. Well, I would say the perfect length is the novelette--10,000 to 20,000 words.

But let me tear myself away from these generalizations and return to a particular point. The "Good Cop/Bad Cop" method of interrogation is one of the most common set-pieces in hard-boiled fiction. It continues in the popular culture every week on programs like "NYPD Blue" and "Law and Order." When did this first appear? Perhaps someone out there will come up with an example of say, the Sheriff of Nottingham interrrogating Robin and his Merry Men. But I was amazed at a fully developed example of the Good Cop/Bad Cop technique in Dashiell Hammett's 1929 story "Fly Paper." Let me quote from it and see for yourself how spot-on is this nearly 75 year old example:

    "But you did know she was dead," I said positively.
    "I didn't," she said just as positively.
    I nudged O'Gar with my elbow. He pushed his undershot jaw at her and barked, "What are you trying to give us? You knew she was dead. How could you kill her without knowing it?"
    While she looked at him I wave the others in. They crowded close around her and took up the chorus of the sergeant's song. She was barked, roared, and snarled at plenty in the next few minutes.
    The instant she stopped trying to talk back to them I cut in again.
"Wait," I said, very earnestly. "Maybe she didn't kill her."
    "The hell she didn't," O'Gar stormed, holding the center of the stage so the others could move away from the girl without their retreat seeming too artificial. "Do you mean to tell me this baby--"
    "I didn't say she didn't," I remonstrated. "I said maybe she didn't."
    "Then who did?"
    I passed the question to the girl. "Who did?"

Now folks this is the classic Good Cop/Bad Cop routine from Hammett's 1929 story. My question is this: can anyone name an earlier example in print?" I have no doubt that cops have used variations on this since knuckles dragged in the Bronze Age but when did it make it into the literature?

Perhaps THE THIN MAN sounds a little lame seventy years after publication and after spawning countless imitations of the husband and wife team with accompanying witty patter have bombarded us through seven decades. And even the opening lines of the 1929 "Fly Paper" ("It was a wandering daughter job.") evokes thoughts of Ross Macdonald.

But even if we grant no points for originality, even comparing it on an equal basis with this week's episode of "NYPD Blue" or "Law and Order," I say this 1929 scene is a classic that holds its own against the best of its prodigy.

Richard Moore

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