So what's wrong with this book? While the Op's narration in Red Harvest is consistently sharp, creative and loaded with grim humor, his language in The Dain Curse is flat and bland. Red Harvest boils over with conflict and intrigue of all sorts. Everyone has an agenda, and everyone's willing to kill in pursuit of it. The Dain Curse limps along, following the wayward path of a crazy girl and her sappy boyfriend/husband. The novel's best characters are a husband and wife team of religious charlatans, and they only occupy a quarter of the book.
So what went wrong? It can't have been an accident. Hammett was at the peak of his Oppish powers, and as subsequent books would prove, he had a lot more great writing in him. In response to yesterday's Red Harvest post, Dan Luft offered this possibility: Maybe the Dain Curse is like the Sam Spade short stories. Nothing to toward becaues the author has already met his goals.
I think that's a good point, and was likely a factor. I came across another clue in the back of Crime Stories and Other Writings. Stephen Marcus quotes Hammett as saying, in a 1956 interview, "I stopped writing because I was repeating myself. It is the beginning of the end when you discover you have style."
Red Harvest oozes style from every paragraph, but in The Dain Curse Hammett seems to have made a deliberate effort to rein it in. A few interesting lines leak through, but most of the prose is ordinary and could have been written by anyone. Was this Hammett's attempt to be style-free?
Then there's the matter of story content. Hammett reportedly faced a lot of resistance from Knopf on Red Harvest, insisting he tone down the violence. He apparently did some of this himself, and suffered while his editors did more. The relatively sedate crimes and characters in The Dain Curse may have been Hammett's reaction to this - an attempt to produce the kind of novel they wanted.
In the end, The Dain Curse sold more copies than Red Harvest, so Knopf got what they wanted, but most folks who enjoy the real Hammett (and by that I mean the author of the Op saga and the other three novels) find The Dain Curse to be major disappointment and major league bore.
Along with almost everything in the book (except the crazy doings at the Temple of Holy Grail) I especially dislike the long conversations between the Op and his nosy old acquaintance Owen Fitzstephan. Those scenes seem an attempt to tell us what the story is supposed to be about, something the story should be doing on its own. The only scenes I really like come in the second to last chapter, when the Op and Gabrielle (the crazy girl) are almost honest with one another. They almost form a connection, which is as close as the Op ever gets to such a thing.