Monday, February 13, 2012

Detections and Tribulations: Short Stories by Dashiell Hammett and Bill Pronzini (Then and Now #2)

Stories discussed:

By Dashiell Hammett (in part one)
Arson Plus (1923) (Crime Stories and Other Writings, Library of America, 2001) (CSAOW)
Slippery Fingers (1923) (CSAOW)
Crooked Souls (1923) (CSAOW)
Night Shots (1924) (Detective Stories, Coyote Canyon Press, 2009) (DS) (also in Nightmare Town, Vintage, 2000)
Who Killed Bob Teal? (1924) (DS) (NT)
Mike, Alec, or Rufus (1925) (DS) (NT)
The Scorched Face (1925) (CSAOW) (also in The Big Knockover, Vintage, 1989)
The Gutting of Couffignal (1925) (CSAOW) (BK)
Creeping Siamese (1926) (CSAOW)

By Bill Pronzini (in part two)
It's a Lousy World (1968) (Casefile, St. Martin's, 1983) (C)
Death of a Nobody (1970) (C)
The Pulp Connection (1978) (C)
Cat's-Paw (1983) (Spadework, Crippen & Landru, 1996)
Skeleton Rattle Your Mouldy Leg (1984) (S)
Twenty Miles to Paradise (1985) (S)
Ace in the Hole (1986) (S)
Here Comes Santa Claus (1989) (S)
Worried Mother Job (1996) (S)

the putative hard-boiled credo:
shoot first, ask questions later

Frequently it is asserted that the hard-boiled style crime tale is inherently antithetical to the classical, puzzle-oriented mystery story associated most strongly with the Golden Age of detective fiction.

I challenge this assertion.

Notable instances of true detection can be found both in Dashiell Hammett's pioneering hard-boiled tales of the doings of his tough Continental Detective Agency operative, "the Continental Op," as well as in the "Nameless Detective" stories of Bill Pronzini, a modern master in the hard-boiled school who has never looked down his nose at "mere puzzles."

Yet the short works by both men also offer instances where a puzzle is combined with the sort of greater literary depth associated with mainstream literature.  That puzzles and literary depth have been mutually exclusive neither in the Golden Age of detective fiction nor in more recent times is demonstrated in the best tales by these two fine writers.

Dashiell Hammett memorably burst on the crime lit scene in 1923 with the publication in The Black Mask of the first of his Continental Op stories (for a fascinating, very detailed look at these stories as puzzles see Mike Grost's analysis of them).  Hammett's three earliest Op tales, published within two weeks of each other, are "Arson Plus," "Slippery Fingers" and "Crooked Souls."  All three works are straightforward detective stories.

the presence of ratiocination in hard-boiled tales
can be lost in blinding hails of gunfire,
but it nevertheless can be found
by those keeping focus
"Slippery Fingers," the most derivative of the three tales, bears a marked resemblance to R. Austin Freeman's forensic detection classic, The Red Thumb Mark (1907).  For its part, "Arson Plus" recalls the sorts of tricks used in the novels of Austin Freeman disciple Freeman Will Crofts, a British railway engineer turned mystery writer.  Crofts had made a great splash a few years earlier with his landmark intensively detailed police novel, The Cask (1920), and by 1923 he had produced three additional popular works of detective fiction: The Ponson Case (1921), The Pit Prop Syndicate (1922) and The Groote Park Murder (1923).  "Crooked Souls," the third in Hammett's initial trio of Op stories, is the most original of the group, but it too is built upon a strong puzzle plot.

In his influential introduction to a 1974 collection of Continental Op tales (The Continental Op, still in print), Steven Marcus takes a different view from the one I have expressed above, contending that there is a fundamental difference between the crime fiction of Hammett and classic puzzle-oriented detective fiction, the latter embracing rationality and the former rejecting it:

The typical "classical" detective story--unlike Hammett's--can be described as a formal game with certain specified rules of transformation.  What ordinarily happens is that the detective is faced with a situation of inadequate, false, misleading, and ambiguous information.  And the story as a whole is an exercise in disambiguation--with the final scenes being a rational demonstration that the butler did it (or not); these scenes achieve a conclusive, reassuring clarity of explanation, wherein everything is set straight, and the game we have been party to is brought to its appropriate end.  But not what ordinarily happens in Hammett or with the Op.

In a 1997 interview ( Hard-Boiled Writing from a Private Eye: A Conversation with Steven Marcus ), Professor Marcus explains what he believes "ordinarily happens...with the Op."  In his analysis, the Op's explanations of the mysterious events that have beset him are not necessarily any more credible than those put forth by the putative criminals:

When the Op comes into a situation, a number of people give him accounts of what happened. These accounts do not make a great deal of sense and may, in fact, contradict one another. The Op begins to set these stories against one another, to take them apart--to use a fashionable word, to "deconstruct" them. Then he starts substituting alternative stories--stories that he has made up, stories that he has figured out, stories that he thinks are plausible for the characters with whom he is dealing. Now, the interesting thing is that most of the time the stories that he substitutes don't make any more sense morally or rationally than the ones that the people who are either guilty of a crime or involved with a crime tell him. Through one means or another, he usually finds the crook, but it is not clear that the story which he has concocted is any more accurate--or, shall we say, any less fictional--than the stories put forward by the people whom he will subsequently turn over to the law for punishment. 

I find that Professor Marcus' description of the Op tales does not really correspond with what I see in many of them.  A goodly number of Hammett Op stories, including the ones I discuss in this piece, actually have ratiocinative clarity (notably, not one of the nine stories I have selected for discussion is found in Marcus' 1974 Continental Op collection, although six of them do appear in the 2001 Library of America collection, also edited by Steven Marcus).

One point we should recall is that as a former "tec" himself Hammett had great authority with his readership.  Surely part of the appeal of many of the Op tales for 1920s readers was the feeling Hammett gave them that they were following a "realistic" crime investigation. Pertinent to this point, both the Library of America collection and that by Coyote Canyon Press (Detective Stories) include Hammett's 1923 The Smart Set article, "From the Memoirs of a Private Detective."

My favorite bit from Hammett's "Memoirs" is this mordant observation:

The chief of police of a Southern city once gave me a description of a man, complete even to a mole on his neck, but neglected to mention that he had only one arm.

But Hammett also delivers more strictly serious pronouncements, such as: 

Even where the criminal makes no attempt to efface the prints of his fingers, but leaves them all over the scene of the crime, the chances are about one in ten of finding a print that is sufficiently clear to be of any value.

In his Op tales, we often find Hammett, through his lead  character, giving similar tips about the tec biz to his readers.  Here for example is some expert wisdom from "Mike, Alec, or Rufus":

An identification of the sort the janitor was giving isn't worth a damn one way or the other. Even positive and immediate identifications aren't always the goods.  A lot of people who don't know any better--and some who do, or should--have given circumstantial evidence  a bad name.  It is misleading sometimes.  But for genuine, undiluted, pre-war untrustworthiness, it can't come within gunshot of human testimony.

Sounds to me like the Op is talking up the possibility of finding "reassuring clarity" here!

In "Arson Plus," the Op is called in to investigate a case of possible arson and murder.  The Op's investigation and the criminal gambits are so classical in form that the tale easily could be resituated in an English village and investigated by Agatha Christie's Miss Marple (okay, minus the car chase and gunshots at the end).

There are some bits that are all Hammett, however.  The brief appearance of "a scrawny little man named Philo" who stutters "moistly" is rather amusing when one considers that Hammett would scathingly review S. S. Van Dine's debut Philo Vance detective novel, The Benson Murder Case (1926), a few years later.  Like him or not, the affected Philo Vance is one of the mystery genre's great dilettante gentlemen detectives, a world away in social type from Hammett's all-professional, fat and fortyish Op.

Hammett no doubt agreed with Ogden Nash that Philo Vance
--and likely his creator as well--
deserved a good kick in the pance

Also of note is the Op's casual spurning of traditional love interest, when presented with a lovely woman--a potential suspect--in the case:

I had to wait three-quarters of an hour for Mrs. Evelyn Trowbridge to dress.  If I had been younger, or a social caller, I suppose I'd have felt amply rewarded when she finally came in....But I was a busy, middle-aged detective, who was fuming over having his time wasted; and I was a lot more interested in finding the bird who struck the match than I was in feminine beauty.

Although "Arson Plus" in form is a traditional puzzle story, the above quotation indicates an aspect of it that must have seemed so compelling and fresh to American readers in 1923: the language.  It sounds like real American people, not storybook characters.  Compare Hammett's writing with the rather prissy description of an underworld den from a cumbrously titled 1929 American detective novel, The Strange Disappearance of Mary Young (by Milton M. Propper):

Pop Ashby's was a rooming-house, a saloon, and a dance hall combined: and it was something of a blot upon the record of Philadelphia's law and order.  The most vicious denizens of the underworld frequented its rooms, and the lowest dregs of humanity could be found there.  The evil that was there hatched would horrify the average citizen and cause a widespread demand for its destruction, and destruction it undoubtedly deserved.

No one reading the above passage, surely, would imagine that the author (only 22 when he wrote it!), talented mystery plotter though he was, had actual experience with the squalid locale about which he was writing.  With Hammett, on the other hand, one can easily believe the author had first-hand knowledge of everything about which he wrote.

"Arson Plus" is a good tale (though there is one question that surprisingly goes unasked by the usually incisive Op), but "Crooked Souls" is even better, Hammett's first great Op classic of the crime genre.  As the evocative title indicates, here Hammett already evinces more interest in character.  Where "Arson Plus" is strictly a crime problem story, "Crooked Souls" also is a crime story about people with problems.

A tale of kidnapping and family dysfunction, "Crooked Souls" introduces the first in Hammett's long gallery of overbearing, ruthless and predatory millionaire businessmen, one Harvey Gatewood.  "He had made his several millions by sandbagging everybody that stood in his way," the Op matter-of-factly informs his readers of Mr. Gatewood.

Gatewood's mansion is the sort associated with snobbish English country house mystery tales, but the domicile is sardonically described without reverence by the distinctly unawed Op:

At the Gatewood residence I found butlers, second men, chauffuers, cooks, maids, upstairs girls, downstairs girls, and a raft of miscellaneous flunkies--he had enough servants to run a hotel.

There is certainly action in "Crooked Souls":

Coming silently to the door of apartment 202, I listened.  Not a sound.  This was no time for hesitation.  I pressed the bell-button.

As close together as the tapping of three keys under the fingers of an expert typist, but a thousand items more vicious, came three pistol shots.  And waist-high in the door of apartment 202 were thee bullet holes.

The three bullets would have been in my fat carcass if I hadn't learned years ago to stand to one side of strange doors when making uninvited calls.

But there is also plenty of ratiocination by the Op.  "How'd you rap to it?" the Op is asked at the end of the tale, after he has rounded up the criminals (in the process of said rounding up deadpanning the immortal line, "Get up and receive company"). "Several ways," the Op answers--and then lists them.  Unlike Professor Marcus, I gather, I find that the Op's solution makes both rational and moral sense.

"Night Shots," "Who Killed Bob Teal?" and "Mike, Alec, or Rufus" (also known as "Tom, Dick, or Harry") were not included by Professor Marcus in the LOA edition of Hammett short stories, though each is a cracking good tec tale.  Fortunately all three works are found in the Coyote Canyon Press edition of Hammett detective stories as well as Vintage Books' Nightmare Town collection.

"Night Shots," which finds the Op on hand to find out who tried to kill another of Hammett's venal and ornery millionaires, offers a clever hard-boiled variant on the classical closed setting, country house mystery story:

The house was of red brick, large and square, with a green slate roof whose wide overhang gave the building an appearance of being too squat for its two stories; and it stood on a grassy hill, well away from the country road upon which it turned its back to look down on the Mokelumne River.

Mokelumne River
"Who Killed Bob Teal?"--about the murder of one of the Op's fellow ops--as the title suggests is another straightforward problem story.  At the end, the Op gives another cogent, step-by-step explanation of his deductive process.  "With all that to go on," he confidently declares, "the rest was duck soup."

"Mike, Alec, or Rufus," which concerns a robbery in an apartment building, offers something in the way of a locked room problem (just how did the thief get out). The solution would have done any classical British detective story writer proud. We also get the great sarcastic and cynical line, "This sounded too much like a movie subtitle to be very promising."

In a slightly later story, "Creeping Siamese," Hammett has a lot of fun with the "Oriental vengeance" motif from Wilkie Collins' great Victorian mystery novel The Moonstone, as the Op is presented with a dead world traveler on the Agency's doorstep.  The Op's boss, the "Old Man," turns out to be even more phlegmatic than the Op himself:

The Old Man's voice and smile were as pleasantly polite as if the corpse at his feet had been part of the pattern on the carpet.  Fifty years of sleuthing have left him with no more emotion than a pawnbroker.

The Op is skeptical of any role played in the murder by "creeping Siamese":

"Don't be too hard on him," I told O'Gar.  "Being around movies all the time has poisoned his idea of what sounds plausible."

Once again, the practical Op does some solid detection and solves the problem quite satisfactorily.

"Creeping Siamese" is more cerebral than
one might think from this cover

All the stories discussed above are extremely enjoyable both as cerebral puzzle stories and as visceral tales of crime.  Yet for my money Hammett's two greatest true detective stories are "The Scorched Face" and "The Gutting of Couffignal."  Both are tours de force of hard-boiled short crime fiction (both are available in the 2001 Library of America edition and the collection The Big Knockover, currently available from Vintage Books).

In "The Scorched Face," the Op investigates a complex case involving disappearances and suicides of wealthy society matrons and debutantes.  There's much to like in this tale: a good problem, lots of action, a quality of real pathos and an interesting situation and characters.  The hard-nosed Op comes off as surprisingly empathetic here and Hammett manages to stage a brilliant last-line revelation of near O'Henry level proportions.  Bill Pronzini, who includes "Face" in his Hard-Boiled anthology, sees this tale as one of the three or four best Op stories, in part for what he calls the "the sharp surprise stinger in its final sentence."

In his and Marcia Muller's "Aficionado's Guide to Mystery and Detective Fiction," 1001 Midnights (1986), Pronzini also highly praises "The Gutting of Couffignal," particularly for its "terrific atmosphere of menace and suspense." This brilliantly titled story about the brutal assault by a pack of ruthless crooks on a wealthy and privileged island community (the Op is on hand guarding wedding presents) indeed is splendidly menacing and suspenseful, but the intellectual problem Hammett offers in the tale is tops as well.

At the end of the story the Op lays out no less than twelve points that led him to his stunning deduction, and the whole chain of reasoning is strong and impressive. Further, Hammett manages another kicker of a last line and the entire climax is superbly managed (more can't be said without spoiling the story).  "Couffignal" doubtless would make my personal top ten list of favorite detective stories.  It is a brilliant piece of crime literature, indicative of how a bold and talented detective fiction writer can expand the artistic boundaries of the mystery genre without collapsing the basic puzzle framework.

In Part Two of this piece I will look at how the hard-boiled mystery tale has been treated by a modern master, Bill Pronzini.

Note: My first Then and Now blog piece concerned the detectives of Freeman Wills Crofts and Ian Rankin.  See Good Cop, Bad Cop --The Passing Tramp


  1. Congratulations, Curt. I think you've just managed to persuade me to check out something from the hard-boiled school.

    These Hammett stories certainly sound intriguing. Many thanks.

  2. I've had "Couffignal" on my shelves for quite a time; now's the time to dust it off I think.

  3. That's always been my point--- "hardboiled" is a STYLISTIC designation, "puzzle plot" is a structural one so, although they aren't often found together, there's absolutely no reason why they can't. "Puzzle plotting" is associated with a more genteel, frequently British style, simply because more stylistically genteel writers tended to concern themselves with puzzle, but there's nothing inherent in the connection

  4. Scott,

    Great point about the difference being style not structure necessarily. What I don't get is how so often people write how hard-boiled books are these incoherent messes with nothing but fistfights, gunplay and slinky femmes fatales. Sure, there's that...but you can have cerebration too. They are not necessarily mutually exclusive.

    Puzzle Doctor and Xavier,

    I think all these Hammett stories discussed are enjoyable for the plots. Couffignal is something extra.