Friday, December 7, 2012

Forgotten Books: Hammett Homicides (1946, 1948)

Hammett Homicides, edited by "Ellery Queen," appeared in digest in 1946 and Dell Mapback in 1948.

The stars of this collection are the two related novelettes “The House on Turk Street” and “The Girl with the Silver Eyes.” Originally from Black Mask in April and June 1924, this was the first time the two stories appeared together, and they’ve been together ever since.

Both stories are good examples of the Op in transition. He’s still behaving like a realistic agency detective, but his language is growing more colorful. He’s still a long way from the peak of his narrative style in Red Harvest, but he’s on the move.

In “The House on Turk Street” a kindly old couple agree to answer questions to aid his investigation. But they’re not at all what they seem, and the Op finds himself in a house full of thieves, each more dangerous than the next - and each looking for every opportunity to double-cross the others. One of the gang is a deadly dame who escapes to bedevil him again in the next story . . .

. . . “The Girl with the Silver Eyes.”  The deadly dame, known as Elvira in the first story, now uses the handle Jeanne Delano, but neither is her real name. She was Hammett’s first prototype for the character who eventually became Brigid O’Shaunessy in The Maltese Falcon. She relies on her beauty to bamboozle men, and she’s so good it almost works even on the Op.

Next up is “Night Shots,” a manor house mystery from February 1, 1924. The Op solves a clever plot, and the characters are quirky, but his language is pretty bland. Hammett made a major stylistic leap between this and “Silver Eyes,” just four months later.

The fourth, and last, Op story in the book is “The Main Death,” a puzzle story from June 1927. Publication-wise, it falls between “$106,000 Blood Money” and the first installment of Red Harvest, but stylistically it’s more akin to “Night Shots.” My guess is that this was written in 1923 or ‘24. It’s main claim to fame is that features a character named Bruno Gungen who bears several qualities later seen in Caspar Gutman.

“Two Sharp Knives” is an oddity - a first-person detective story in which the narrator is not the Op - he’s a small town police chief named Scott Anderson. This one appeared in Collier’s in January 1934, and it’s a nice little tale, though not among Hammett’s best.

“Ruffian’s Wife,” from the October 1925 issue of Sunset, was the biggest surprise for me. This is fine, sophisticated storytelling - and great prose too - though the entire story is in the third person point-of-view of the title character. I hadn’t read this in just about forever, and forgot how good it was.

So where do these tales reside today?  “The House in Turk Street,” “The Girl with the Silver Eyes” and "The Main Death" are in both The Continental Op (1974) and Crime Stories & Other Writings (2001). The Crime Stories versions follow the Black Mask text, while the others, like those in Hammett Homicides, were altered by Frederick Dannay. “Night Shots,” “Two Sharp Knives” and “Ruffian’s Wife” appear in Nightmare Town (1999).

Links to more Forgotten Books appear on pattinase.


George said...

Very nice! I have a weakness for those DELL Mapbacks, too!

Lexman said...

Thanks for this post.

Always interested in anything concerning Hammett.

Have a nice weekend!

shonokin said...

Did you know there is a loose movie adaptation of The House in Turk St? With Samuel L Jackson. Haven't seen it myself.

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