Monday, June 11, 2012

The Dain Curse

The Dain Curse was the second novel from Dashiell Hammett and the second novel to feature the Continental Op, the original nameless detective. I had originally read this book back in the late 1970s, when I was still discovering mystery fiction and devouring everything that I could get my hands on for a quarter or less. I enjoyed the book thoroughly and at the time I ranked it third on my list of Hammett novels. Not long after my reading of the book, there was a 1978 CBS miniseries of the book, which I enjoyed as well. The miniseries won an Edgar and was nominated for 3 Emmys.

In re-reading it, I was surprised at how episodic the book felt. The book is divided into 3 parts, “The Dains”, “The Temple” and “Quesada.” Without giving away too much in terms of plot, each part pretty much stands alone. The characters with the exception of Gabriella and the Op are replaced in each section. The plot and crime in each section is different. There’s little to remind the reader of the previous sections of the book. There are some amusing touches, like the fact that Gabriella’s boyfriend’s last name is Collinson, which was Hammett’s penname at Black Mask during the early 1920s.

In part, this was because the book had been serialized. Yet, I’ve read other serialized novels, where cliffhangers appear every so often without such a disjointed feel to it. Black Mask serialized all of Hammett’s novels (except for The Thin Man) and yet his other works do not have this novel in 3 parts aspect to it.

Black Mask offered Hammett this deal to lure him back to the magazine. In 1926, Black Mask had not been willing to increase Hammett’s rates, and they’d lost the author. [Erle Stanley Gardner had actually offered to reduce his own rates to pay Hammett, but the editors rejected that suggestion out of hand. Gardner had felt that a lower rate for a publishing magazine was better than a higher rate for a defunct one.] In 1927, they came back to him and offered to let him serialize his novels as a way to lure him back into the fold. It was necessary; they’d lost thousands of readers along with Hammett in the past year.

It was not unusual to have this story structure. Erle Stanley Gardner’s agent actually suggested stringing three novellas together to make a novel. Gardner opted not to do that but to develop a new work that was expressly written at that length.

I’m going to pull out another Hammett novel and see if it has the same problems, but I do know that The Maltese Falcon, although serialized, did not suffer from this severe disjointedness.