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Dashiell Hammett -- The Dain Curse

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  • Wyatt James
    Having recently read too many modern 500-page mysteries that are padded out with kinky sex, bloodthirsty insanity, and protagonists crippled by angst, I found
    Message 1 of 5 , Apr 3, 2004
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      Having recently read too many modern 500-page mysteries that are
      padded out with kinky sex, bloodthirsty insanity, and protagonists
      crippled by angst, I found it a pleasure to pick up "The Dain Curse"
      (1929) again (the other four Hammett novels will follow in quick
      order). 180 pages or so of beautifully contrived workmanship. If
      you'll allow the analogy, it is like the old mechanical Timex watch I
      had for twenty years as compared with my new answering machine. The
      watch that never failed vanished into the hands of a mugger many years
      ago -- one does not sentimentally hang onto something like that when a
      knife is being held to your throat by a drug-addicted kid who'd kill
      for a Big Mac hamburger. The answering machine, bought to replace the
      one that recently died of old age at the age of five, which is about
      the life expectancy of modern miracle machinery, is about the size of a
      paperback book and has one button that does all (meaning it does
      nothing any reasonable person would expect it to do -- the Timex, of
      course, only needed to be wound, and adjusted when the clocks changed
      for summer time); I've persuaded it at least to answer messages, but
      at the expense of having a working telephone that can be used when the
      machine is on: compromise deal with it now is to disconnect it when
      I'm home, put it on when I go out, which means unplugging and
      replugging all the different connection wires each time, now done with
      ingenious if sloppy operational skill, making sure all those carefully
      set out wires are covered up to keep the cats from playing with them.

      Is that business about 'technology' a pointless diversion? No, I don't
      think so. "The Dain Curse" is both thriller and mystery, and
      hard-boiled of course. The difference between hard-boiled and
      traditional detection becomes a moot point when dealing with great
      writers like Hammett and Chandler who purposely denigrated 'cosiness'.
      You will find the same literary elements and narrative skills in both
      approaches to mystery writing when they are well done -- and quite a
      lot of overlap when it comes to fair clueing and a reasonable level of
      erudition. But what I most admire about Hammett is the stripped-down
      and straightforward narrative, spiced with excellent dialogue of a
      terse and often witty sort. Yes, the plot might be absurd, as is
      "Silence of the Lambs" as a modern example, yet works not by
      overwhelming the attention span by long passages of obfuscation and
      psychology but by punching and jabbing like Ali in his heydey. The
      'rope-a-dope' style of detection. Within the first hundred pages you
      get a full murder mystery, solved with improbable but perfect logic by
      the Continental Op (whether modern police methodology would allow a
      private eye to walk all over procedure these days the way he did is a
      matter of societal and cultural changes); then follows the aftermath,
      yet another murder mystery that probes a little more beyond just a
      simple crime story. The economy of this process is inspiring,
      everything that needs to be said is said or presented, there's no
      nonsense or unnecessary diversion. Characterization? Bah! Enough is
      presented to make the people live, even poor old Leggett, the French
      escapee from Devil's Island who has made a new career in San Francisco
      as a research chemist, but is all too soon a murder victim.

      A comment on customs: As we all know, sex, drug addiction, passion,
      and greed have existed throughout human history. That they are not
      presented graphically in this book is a matter of the editorial policy
      of the time -- any adult reader can fill in between the lines. What is
      more interesting for people with an interest in such things is the
      'periodicity', for example, the Op having to take a ferry from San
      Francisco to Berkeley because the Bay Bridge hadn't been built then
      (let alone BART). This adds appeal in the way the Philo Vance books do
      for New York. Then of course there is always the behavior of the cops,
      and also what would be considered blatant racism these days -- Civil
      Libertarians would have a fit now. I know some NYC cops, and their
      attitudes are really no different from what they would have been in
      the 1920s; it's just the procedures and the way of expressing opinions
      that have changed.
    • Wyatt James
      PS. The Continental Op is the anonymous precursor to Pronzini s Nameless Detective. But little things leak out. Did you know, for example, that he was only
      Message 2 of 5 , Apr 3, 2004
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        PS. The Continental Op is the anonymous precursor to Pronzini's
        Nameless Detective. But little things leak out. Did you know, for
        example, that he was only five-feet-six tall? (Bulky as he was
        described as a rule.) Somehow one's first impression is that he's the
        Incredible Hulk, the way he comes across (but doesn't behave, always
        being very polite), but he is actually a generic version of George
        Smiley or Father Brown. Lorre, not Bogart. This was intentional on
        Hammett's part, I think, before Sam Spade. He was just trying to
        represent a 'real' detective of the Pinkerton sort, not Sherlock. I
        have never met a private detective, but in reality they probably
        resemble bank clerks. Seedy, but not excessively so, plodding but not
        jerks by any means. Inconspicuous, but capable of displaying power
        when needed. This would fit the times -- likely nowadays a PI would
        more resemble a computer nerd with goggle glasses and a dirty T-shirt.
        (Apart from the boss of the agency, of course, who would dress like a
        professional basketball coach to impress the customers.)
      • W. Peck
        Interesting, don t you agree, that when The Dain Curse was adapted for film, James Coburn was cast in the lead, presumably because of his physical
        Message 3 of 5 , Apr 3, 2004
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          Interesting, don't you agree, that when "The Dain Curse" was adapted
          for film, James Coburn was cast in the lead, presumably because of his
          physical resemblance to Hammett -- with no thought whatsoever to the Op?
          ;
          --- Wyatt James <grobius@...> wrote:
          > Having recently read too many modern 500-page mysteries that are
          > padded out with kinky sex, bloodthirsty insanity, and protagonists
          > crippled by angst, I found it a pleasure to pick up "The Dain Curse"
          > (1929) again (the other four Hammett novels will follow in quick
          > order). 180 pages or so of beautifully contrived workmanship. If
          > you'll allow the analogy, it is like the old mechanical Timex watch I
          > had for twenty years as compared with my new answering machine. The
          > watch that never failed vanished into the hands of a mugger many years
          > ago -- one does not sentimentally hang onto something like that when a
          > knife is being held to your throat by a drug-addicted kid who'd kill
          > for a Big Mac hamburger. The answering machine, bought to replace the
          > one that recently died of old age at the age of five, which is about
          > the life expectancy of modern miracle machinery, is about the size of a
          > paperback book and has one button that does all (meaning it does
          > nothing any reasonable person would expect it to do -- the Timex, of
          > course, only needed to be wound, and adjusted when the clocks changed
          > for summer time); I've persuaded it at least to answer messages, but
          > at the expense of having a working telephone that can be used when the
          > machine is on: compromise deal with it now is to disconnect it when
          > I'm home, put it on when I go out, which means unplugging and
          > replugging all the different connection wires each time, now done with
          > ingenious if sloppy operational skill, making sure all those carefully
          > set out wires are covered up to keep the cats from playing with them.
          >
          > Is that business about 'technology' a pointless diversion? No, I don't
          > think so. "The Dain Curse" is both thriller and mystery, and
          > hard-boiled of course. The difference between hard-boiled and
          > traditional detection becomes a moot point when dealing with great
          > writers like Hammett and Chandler who purposely denigrated 'cosiness'.
          > You will find the same literary elements and narrative skills in both
          > approaches to mystery writing when they are well done -- and quite a
          > lot of overlap when it comes to fair clueing and a reasonable level of
          > erudition. But what I most admire about Hammett is the stripped-down
          > and straightforward narrative, spiced with excellent dialogue of a
          > terse and often witty sort. Yes, the plot might be absurd, as is
          > "Silence of the Lambs" as a modern example, yet works not by
          > overwhelming the attention span by long passages of obfuscation and
          > psychology but by punching and jabbing like Ali in his heydey. The
          > 'rope-a-dope' style of detection. Within the first hundred pages you
          > get a full murder mystery, solved with improbable but perfect logic by
          > the Continental Op (whether modern police methodology would allow a
          > private eye to walk all over procedure these days the way he did is a
          > matter of societal and cultural changes); then follows the aftermath,
          > yet another murder mystery that probes a little more beyond just a
          > simple crime story. The economy of this process is inspiring,
          > everything that needs to be said is said or presented, there's no
          > nonsense or unnecessary diversion. Characterization? Bah! Enough is
          > presented to make the people live, even poor old Leggett, the French
          > escapee from Devil's Island who has made a new career in San Francisco
          > as a research chemist, but is all too soon a murder victim.
          >
          > A comment on customs: As we all know, sex, drug addiction, passion,
          > and greed have existed throughout human history. That they are not
          > presented graphically in this book is a matter of the editorial policy
          > of the time -- any adult reader can fill in between the lines. What is
          > more interesting for people with an interest in such things is the
          > 'periodicity', for example, the Op having to take a ferry from San
          > Francisco to Berkeley because the Bay Bridge hadn't been built then
          > (let alone BART). This adds appeal in the way the Philo Vance books do
          > for New York. Then of course there is always the behavior of the cops,
          > and also what would be considered blatant racism these days -- Civil
          > Libertarians would have a fit now. I know some NYC cops, and their
          > attitudes are really no different from what they would have been in
          > the 1920s; it's just the procedures and the way of expressing opinions
          > that have changed.
          >
          >


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        • b_ergang
          ... wrote: Characterization? Bah! Enough is presented to make the people live, even poor old Leggett, the French escapee from Devil s Island who has made a new
          Message 4 of 5 , Apr 3, 2004
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            --- In GAdetection@yahoogroups.com, "Wyatt James" <grobius@s...>
            wrote:
            Characterization? Bah! Enough is presented to make the people live,
            even poor old Leggett, the French escapee from Devil's Island who
            has made a new career in San Francisco as a research chemist, but is
            all too soon a murder victim.
            ********************************

            Since I'm the one on the list who seems to do the most *kvetching*
            about characterization in detective fiction, I thought I'd jump in
            on this by saying that Wyatt has effectively made my point for me.
            The kind of characterization he alludes to in Hammett's fiction is
            the kind I look for: people emerging from the pages as living,
            breathing beings, limned as individuals rather than as walking,
            talking pieces of cardboard who "exist" solely in service to the
            puzzle plot. I don't demand nor necessarily want Dostoevskian, let
            alone Freudian, analyses and portraits of every major and minor
            character. I just want them to come alive through their actions and
            manners of speaking. (Look at Ed McBain's 87th Precinct novels for
            superb characterizations of the sort I'm talking about.)

            It's a generalization, but there's more art in presenting characters
            the way writers like Hammett, Chandler, Macdonald, the
            aforementioned McBain and others do than in giving the reader page
            after page of narrative or dialogue analyzing a character's
            childhood and trying to find significance in every event therefrom.
            That's the stuff of case studies, not good fiction. Let the readers
            perform the analyses if they want to, but don't force feed them to
            them.

            An exception? At the end of PSYCHO, both book and movie, a
            psychiatrist explains what happened in the past to make Norman Bates
            the way he is. But the explanation is presented with *just enough*
            information and detail to clarify the events in the story and
            further flesh out Bates, without resorting to jargon and pages of
            psychological analysis appropriate for a case study but
            inappropriate for a novel.


            --- In GAdetection@yahoogroups.com, "W. Peck" <aria376@y...> wrote:
            Interesting, don't you agree, that when "The Dain Curse" was adapted
            for film, James Coburn was cast in the lead, presumably because of
            his physical resemblance to Hammett -- with no thought whatsoever to
            the Op?
            ********************************
            I taped "The Dain Curse" when it first aired--in Beta format, so
            that's how long ago it was. Like you I immediately noticed the
            resemblance. To heighten it, and because the character had to have a
            name for the TV production, they dubbed him Hamilton Nash.

            They did a wonderful job of adapting the novel, but it ran way too
            long. I mean, a six-hour mini-series?

            Best,
            Barry
          • Wyatt James
            I ve blogged it as a review.
            Message 5 of 5 , Apr 3, 2004
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              I've 'blogged' it as a review.
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