Friday, January 4, 2013

Forgotten Books: The Creeping Siamese by Dashiell Hammett (1950)

Yep, I'm still on a Hammett binge, and still have several more books to yap about.

This one appeared in both digest and paperback in 1950.

The title story, which appeared in the March 1926 Black Mask without the "The" in front of it, is one of three tales featuring our short stocky hero, the Continental Op. In context of the story, the title makes more sense without the "The." As is, you might think someone is about to fall victim to a sneaky kitty-cat. Actually, the Siamese of the title are believed to be merciless knife-artists from Siam.

By the time Hammett wrote "Creeping Siamese" he already had twenty Op stories under his belt, so he was well in the groove. This is a fine little tale, with the added interest that it foreshadows still another scene from The Maltese Falcon. The story opens with a man entering the Continental Detective Agency office and dropping dead on the floor. In the course of the investigation, the Op is told that the dead man was recently in possession of a mysterious package, and that other mysterious characters were trying to take it away from him. The package is described as being about the size of a loaf of bread, but quite heavy for it's size. It's wrapped in brown paper, with an inner wrapping of canvas, and tied with a silk cord. Can you say dingus?

"The Man Who Killed Dan Odams," from Black Mask of January 15, 1924, is a shortie, and just about the closest Hammett ever came to writing a western. There's a jail and a marshal and a ranch of sorts, and our protagonist rides a horse. The only thing that prevents it being a western is a couple of mentions of automobiles.

"The Nails in Mr. Cayterer" (from Black Mask January 1926)  is another "lost" story that's been out of print since this appearance in 1950. Too bad, because it's a good story. This one introduces Robin Thin, the poet son (and sort-of partner) of a private investigator. Why is it out of print? Beats me. A second Robin Thin story, unpublished during Hammett's lifetime, debuted in EQMM in 1961, and now resides in the 1999 collection Nightmare Town.

"The Joke on Eloise Morey," from Brief Stories of June 1923, is the briefest story in the book, and relies on a single twist. It's a nice twist, though, and a nice little joke on Eloise.

"Tom, Dick, or Harry," from Black Mask October 1925 is pisser. Hammett went to great lengths to avoid cliches, and titled this story "Mike, Alec or Rufus," in a deliberate effort to get the benefit of the Tom, Dick or Harry idea without actually saying it. Then Frederic Dannay cane along and ruined it for him. I'll bet Hammett was pissed too. This is a minor Op tale, but still a good read if you can wipe the phony title from your brain.

The longest story in the book, and arguably the best, is "The King Business," an Op adventure that did not appear in Black Mask. Instead, it first appeared in Mystery Stories in January 1928, at the same time the Red Harvest novelettes were running in Mask. I have no inside dope on this, but wouldn't be surprised if Joe Shaw rejected it, feeling it delved too deep into European politics and strayed too far from the mean streets his readers were used to. Still, it's a fine story, with the Op up to his neck in revolutionaries, counterrevolutionaries and opportunists, with an idealist or two thrown in for flavor. The fictional kingdom of Muravia is a brutal place, and the Op gets a front row seat at a long and brutal whipping. EQMM commemorated the scene on their cover when they reprinted the story in 1949.

More amazing Forgotten Books at Sweet Freedom. More Hammett, most likely, coming next week.


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Todd Mason said...

Well, the spammers have found you. I'm doing the links this week, and always fun to see the Mercury Press versions of these slim Hammett collections. Remarkable that it fell to Dannay to keep that flame alive in the '50s...McCarthyism probably helped...

Todd Mason said...

Just "Creeping Siamese" would put me in mind of creeping phlox...perhaps conjoined phlox...

Evan Lewis said...

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Todd Mason said...

Or sells them...or something...(perhaps these are markers for the spammer[s] to return to your blog, if you leave them up...).

Albie The Good said...

Hey Evan, I bought this exact paperback back in the '90s at a yard sale in Benson, AZ. and it was the first Hammett book i ever actually owned (though i had read several already in library books like that big omnibus of the main novels.)

I always liked the "Dan Odams" story. That last line in that blew me away in my 20s-- i'll just say that without making a spoiler of it-- and i always thought it was kind of a proto-Spillane touch... or what a Spillane story might have read like if Mickey was a more "literary" kind of writer.

And you're right... that story and the Op story "Corkscrew" were definitely the 2 times Dash was really experimenting with the western. I read once that he was actually very conscious of westerns and that he was quoted as saying that the whole Private Eye subgenre-- which he arguably created-- was really just a transalation of the classic western into a contemporary story type.

In any case I would love to see "Dan Odams" done as a graphic comic book story... I think it would work perfectly.

Lexman said...

Another one on my to buy list, thanks for this interesting post Evan and best wishes for 2013!!

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