Published in 1940, this one finds Dave Fenner, the extra-hardboiled detective introduced in No Orchids for Miss Blandish (reviewed HERE), having moved his office from Kansas all the way to New York City, and taken his office assistant/secretary Paula Dolan with him. His work on the Blandish case brought him plenty of jack, and his name is known far and wide, but there still isn’t much business coming through the door.
So Fenner and Paula are pleased to get a visit from a good-looking dame who gives them $6,000 to save her sister, who is somehow mixed up with 12 Chinamen. The opening scene is loaded with overtones of the opening chapter of The Maltese Falcon, making it one of the best in the book. Then a defunct Chinaman with a slit throat appears in Fenner’s office, and when he goes looking for his client, he finds only a severed arm and a female torso missing legs and head. In between there somewhere, a couple of Cubans show up to search his office, bringing shades of Joel Cairo.
The trail then leads to Key West, taking Fenner away from Paula, which is too bad, because their interplay is the best thing about this (and the Blandish) book.
Once in Florida, the story shifts into Red Harvest mode, with Fenner cozying up to two gang leaders in hopes of starting some fireworks. There’s plenty of tough talk, face punching, head kicking and other such mayhem, but almost no humor, as Fenner bulls his way through the Key West underworld.
The title is taken from a line of dialogue, and refers to the preferred racket of one of the gangsters. He smuggles twelve Chinamen at a time into the country, charging them around a thousand apiece for the privilege, then sells them for half that to West Coast employers. On the run Fenner takes part in, a “special” is included, that being a Chinese woman.
The finish offers a nice twist, and is reasonably satisfying, but getting there would have been a lot more fun if Chase had been half the stylist Hammett was, or had half the sense of humor.