RARA-AVIS: Re:Hammet and Cain

From: JIM DOHERTY ( jimdohertyjr@yahoo.com)
Date: 02 Oct 2007


Re your comments below:

"I think one of the problems with the appreciation of Hammett's novels is that although they were collected as 'novels,' the Dain Curse, Red Harvest and the Big Knockover were originally written as interlocking short stories. I remember suffering a sense of disconnect with the Dain Curse because parts 3,4 take place years after part 1 and 2 and they're only vaguely connected. So it's not really fair to criticize the plotting as Hammett wrote them as separate stories."

While agreeing with the general thrust of your comments, a few minor corrections.

First, THE GLASS KEY was also orignally published as a series of four linked but self-contained short stories. The seams are much better concealed than they are in THE DAIN CURSE of BLOOD MONEY, and a bit better concealed than in RED HARVEST, but they are still there if you look.

Second, there were only a few months between part 2 and 3 of THE DAIN CURSE.

I love THE DAIN CURSE, by the way, but in none of the other two Op novels are the "serialized without actually being a serial" origins more apparent. In RED HARVEST, he integrates the disparate chapters rather well, and the fact that the action takes place in the same place, within a short period of time, makes it easier to see the completed package as a unified effort. BLOOD MONEY, of course, consisted of only two installments instead of four, and, consequently, doesn't seem as disjointed.

CURSE, on the other hand, with each installment following a fairly separate plotline (the missing diamonds, the temple, the honeymoon kidnapping, and the tying of the first three parts together), and the passage of time between parts 1 and 2, and parts 2 and 3, seems much more disjointed. Even the way it was published in book form, with each separate short story installment separated from the others as a "Part," adds to the disjointedness.

Nevertheless, to the degree that CURSE, follows Chandler's dictum of the best story being made up of a series of great scenes, however indifferently linked, CURSE is a success. Eachindividual scene is simply great. The dialog has all of Hammett's characteristic toughness, and the storyline all of Hammett's breakneck pace. At the same time, Hammett, as he did in HARVEST, and will in FALCON, establishes a number of "standard plot devices" that PI writers will emulate for years to come, the dysfuntional family with long-buried secrets, the phony religious cult, the innocent client whom the PI hero falls for but sends on her way, etc. Even the courtroom scene at the end anticipates Gardner's Perry Mason series.

No CURSE, despite its cobbled-together structure, is still one of the best PI novels ever, and it only suffers in comparison to HARVEST and FALCON.

As for the Op, short stories, every one is a gem, and
"The Gutting of Couffignal" is nothing except the best private eye short ever written.


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