Monday, April 6, 2015

The Continental Op solves "The Farewell Murder" (maybe)


Back on March 20 (HERE), while discussing the 1974 collection The Continental Op, and while in the throes of Op-mania, I said that I believed two stories in that book "The Main Death" (1927) and "The Farewell Murder" (1930) had been written far earlier.

Don Herron called me on it (at least in the case of "The Farewell Murder"), and having recently re-read the story, I must confess he's right. (And had he called me on "The Main Death," he would have been right about that too.)

Over the past couple of weeks I've talked about the growth of Hammett's Op style, from a nearly invisible narrator to a personality so strong (in Red Harvest) that it dominates the story. Then, day before yesterday, I lamented the fact that in The Dain Curse the Op's personality is all but gone, and asked the question why. Possible answers included the notion that Hammett had developed the character as fully as possible, and that his style was becoming too distinct.

I think those are both factors, but today I encountered still another clue in Sally Cline's 2014 book, Dashiell Hammett: Man of Mystery. Cline notes that following Knopf's acceptance of Red Harvest, Hammet wrote that in the next novel he would try (in Hammett's words) "adapting the stream-of-consciousness method, conveniently modified, to a detective story, carrying the reader along with the detective." Or, as Cline rephrased it, "He would show readers everything the detective found as he found it. The reader would receive the Op's conclusions as he reached them, and the solution would break on both reader and detective together."

Both Hammett (then) and Cline (now) seem to feel this was a new approach. To me, it seems more a throwback to the thoroughly objective style he employed in the first Op stories back in 1923.

The point of all this is that it sort of explains why "The Farewell Murders," apparently written after The Dain Curse, has (on the surface) more in common with the stories of 1923 and 1924 than with those published between 1925 and 1927. Whether Hammett considered this "stream-of-consciousness" stuff or not, I don't know, but the Op investigates the case and narrates the story in a very businesslike and realistic way, without any of the frills of such balls-out adventures as "Corkscrew," "The Big Knockover" or Red Harvest.

What gives "The Farewell Murders" away as a late Op story, though, is its highly polished prose, occasional slips of mature Op humor, and descriptions like this:
     Two small forked branches were stuck in the ground on opposite sides of the fire. Their forks held the ends of a length of green sapling. Spitted on the sapling, hanging over the fire, was an eighteen-inch-long carcass, headless, tailless, footless, skinless and split down the front.

Despite the relatively unfunny storytelling, Hammett had fun with this tale.The opening scene, in which the Op is driven in "a coach" into the hills on a black night toward his client's mansion, evokes the first chapter of Dracula, and the next scene presents him with a case of torment and revenge that's straight out of Arthur Conan Doyle. It's an interesting story, with a possible solution only guessed at by the Op and his boss, the Old Man.

"The Farewell Murder," from February 1930, was the second-to-last Op story published, and almost certainly the last one Hammett wrote. "Death and Company," from later that year, bears every sign of being a leftover from the Op's early career. And Don Herron, I'm pleased to report, agrees.

In other news, this will likely be the last post in our Continental Op marathon. But beware, I'm likely to spring another on you whenever the mood strikes.

Don Herron (left) with unidentified stranger. San Francisco, 2011.

4 comments:

Cap'n Bob said...

I didn't recognize Don without his trench coat and fedora.

Richard said...

In that photo, Don looks a bit like me, or vice-versa. I have really enjoyed the Hammett posts. Got any left? Conclusions? Where will you go next?

Oscar said...

Nice pic. I'm enjoying the Cont. Ops posts and Hmmett.

Evan Lewis said...

Thanks guys. There's more Op in me, and it will have to come out, but for now I've said everything I need to say. I reckon it will be back to funny business as usual.