Saturday, April 4, 2015

The everlasting disappointment of THE DAIN CURSE by Dashiell Hammett

Here's the difference between Red Harvest and The Dain Curse: Yesterday I was bragging about my first edition of Red Harvest, which has been the cornerstone of my hardboiled collection for nigh upon thirty years. Also yesterday, while poking around my bookshelves, I discovered I also have a first, in decent condition, of The Dain Curse. That fact had totally slipped my mind, and will probably slip out again tomorrow. That's sad.

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.


Rick Robinson said...

As I said before, this was the first Hammett novel (or story) I read, so I had nothing with which to compare it. It didn't seem bad at all, though a bit drawn out, perhaps. Then when I read Red Harvest, it seemed, by comparison, I'm sure, awful darn bloody, so much so it was a bit of a turnoff.

While I like the novels, it's the stories where Hammett shines.

Dave Zeltserman said...

I love the OP stories, and Red Harvest is my favorite hardboiled novel, but I'm also a big fan of The Dain Curse. It's a very different style of Op novel. In Red Harvest, the Op is determined to cleanup Poisonville because he's pissed that someone took a shot at him, and as a crime novel it's a pretty wild ride. The Dain Curse is a very different style, really four independent mysteries dealing with cults and occult fakery, but even so the Op is still the same Op we've grown to love. Also, Owen Fitzstephen is a great character.

In some ways the novel in four parts works better with the Dain Cure than Red Harvest in that the 4 mysteries build up into one bigger, more satisfying overall mystery.

Maybe your lukewarm attitude toward The Dain Curse is because Red Harvest is a great crime novel, while The Dain Curse is a great mystery.

Brian Drake said...

None of Hammett's other books were like Red Harvest, which I think (and here's where everybody gets out their guns to point them at me) I even prefer Harvest to Falcon. The Dain Curse is a worthy read, and may indeed be a great mystery as opposed to a crime novel, as Dave said, but something really is missing. The same can be said for The Glass Key. But I'll tell you what: if the worst books I ever write are even half as good as The Dain Curse or The Glass Key, I will consider it a good thing.

Evan Lewis said...

I'm hoping that one of these days we'll get to see the Black Mask versions of the Harvest and Curse stories, so we can see what Hammett was working with when he built them into novels.

Meanwhile, I've been reading the very few Op stories published after the two almost-serials, and I'm convinced Hammett was making a conscious retreat from the balls-out style employed in Red Harvest. The last two tales resemble his early Op stories, involving real detective work, but exhibiting the polish he'd acquired along the way.

Evan Lewis said...

P.S. While I appreciate the literary achievement and importance of The Maltese Falcon, I don't get much of a kick out of reading it. Maybe it's due to having all three movies playing in my head at the same time.

I get the most enjoyment (by far) from Red Harvest, followed by either The Glass Key or The Thin Man (my preference depends on which I've read most recently), and then the Falcon. If I ever read The Dain Curses again I'll try - in deference to Dave Z - to pay more attention to the overall mystery.

Cap'n Bob said...

Have you seen the Bruce Willis movie based on Red Harvest? Godawful.

Anonymous said...

However, the Kurosawa film more or less kinda based on Red Harvest (there's controversy about that), Yojimbo, is a masterpiece.
Art Scott

Evan Lewis said...

True, Mr. S. I rate Yojimbo as my favorite film, even before Monty Python and the Holy Grail.

Rick Robinson said...

I thought Abbot and Costello Meet the Invisible Man was your favorite movie. You're confusing me....

Evan Lewis said...

Not even in the top twenty.