RARA-AVIS: Dashiell Hammett's "The Diamond Wager"

From: Vince Emery (vince@emery.com)
Date: 01 Jul 2009

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    The October 19, 1929 issue of the pulp Detective Fiction Weekly contains Dashiell Hammett's short story "The Diamond Wager," which is not covered in books about Hammett. Even Richard Layman's book "Shadow Man" says almost nothing about it. I just put my copy of the pulp on eBay, and thought I'd share my write-up about this story.

    "The Diamond Wager" is one of the rarest stories by Hammett. It was only printed in this issue of Detective Fiction Weekly, and has never been reprinted in any other magazine or book.

    This 14-page, 8,000-word story is unusual among Hammett's work for two reasons. First, it is one of only five-and-a-half stories Hammett ever wrote that were set outside the United States. (The others were: "The Road Home," Burma; "Holiday," Tijuana, Mexico; "Ber-Bulu," Malay Archipelago; "This King Business," fictional kingdom of Muravia; half of "The Golden Horseshoe," Tijuana, Mexico.)

    Second, "The Diamond Wager" is one of Hammett's rare satirical stories. He had satirized conventional mysteries of his day with the story "Another Perfect Crime," poked fun at his own writing style and tough guy detectives in two stories about soft-boiled detective Robin Thin, and used the Continental Op to parody western fiction clichés in "Corkscrew." In "The Diamond Wager," Hammett creates a letter-perfect satire of the then-commonplace stories about an intellectually superior aristocratic gentleman who pulls off an impossible jewel theft (it would hardly do to utter the word "heist" in such refined company) in Paris, France; and not for gain, but just to prove a point.

    Hammett captures and subtly exaggerates the tone of voice of these stories, making fun of exactly the type of fiction that he led a rebellion against. This is not a laugh-out-loud funny parody, but a more exacting satire that convincingly imitates the characteristics of a crime fiction subgenre: The courtly gentleman thief. Hammett follows the subgenre's conventions; dropping exotic place names (Heidelberg, Pisa, the Sorbonne, Constantinople, Paris); an eccentric but refined unemotional upper-class genius as the main character (interesting to compare with Sherlock Holmes); a Watson-like friend (but more pompous) as the narrator; and a parade of props and vocabulary to convey just the right touch of over-the-top snobbishness beloved by authors in this genre ("I had a bottle of 1848 cognac brought up, and we both settled down to the inner warmth of this most friendly of elixirs.").

    Here is a four-paragraph excerpt:

         He laughed heartily. I could hardly see West as a practical joker. That was one thing out of his line. As he held his long, thin hands together, I noticed an exceptionally fine diamond ring on his left hand. It was of an unusual luster, deep set in gold, flush with the cutting. His quick eye caught me looking at this ornament. As I recall, West had never affected jewelry of any kind.

         “Oh, yes, you are wondering about this,” he said, gazing into the crystal. “Fine yellow diamond; not so rare, but unusual, set in gold, which they are not wearing any longer. A little present.” He repeated blandly, after a pause, “A little present for stealing.”

         “For stealing?” I inquired, astonished. I could hardly believe West would steal. He would not play practical jokes, and he would not steal.

         “Yes,” he drawled, leaning back away from the fire. “I had to steal about four million francs worth of jewels.” He noted the effect on me, and went on in a matter-of-fact way: “Yes, I stole it, stole it all. Got the police all upset; got stories in the newspapers. They referred to me as a super-thief, a master criminal, a malefactor, a crook, and an organized gang. But I proved my case. I lifted four million from a Paris jeweler, walked around town with it, gave my victim an uncomfortable night, and walked in his store the next day between rows of wise gentlemen, gave him back his paltry four million, and collected my bet, which is this ring you see here.”

    Hammett worked for about two years (most of 1926-1927) as advertising manager for Albert S. Samuels Jewelers in San Francisco. His background in the jewelry business may have influenced his idea for and treatment of the jewelry store that is scammed in this story.

    Vince Emery

    Vince Emery Productions Publisher:
      SAM SPADE edited by Richard Layman
      by George J. "Rhino" Thompson
    - LOST STORIES by Dashiell Hammett

    www.emerybooks.com Box 460279, San Francisco, CA 94146 USA vince@emery.com     Phone 1.415.337.6000

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