FIRST YOU READ, THEN YOU WRITE
by Francis M. Nevins
As I was beginning to think about how to open this month’s column, I opened the morning paper and found the answer handed to me. Ed Gorman had died. The date was Friday, October 14, a few weeks short of his 75th birthday. The cause was cancer, with which he’d first been diagnosed 14 years ago.
He was something of a recluse among writers, leaving his home in Cedar Rapids, Iowa almost never, once reportedly turning down an all-expenses-paid trip to Europe, but managed to stay in touch with countless colleagues thanks to email and the telephone.
Ed Gorman was one of the most prolific and compelling crime fiction writers of our generation, the author of dozens of novels and short stories under his own name and several others, plus Westerns and horror novels, plus anthologies, plus material for the Web on other writers, the list goes on and on. He was also one of the founders of Mystery Scene magazine, in whose latest issue there’s a moving tribute to him by editor Kate Stine. In so many ways, including his enthusiasm for everything he was involved in and the generosity with which he advised, mentored and supported writers younger than himself, he was the Anthony Boucher of our generation.
Of course he never wrote science fiction as Boucher did, but then Boucher never wrote Westerns. I wish I were one of the tiny handful of writers who knew him well.
Ever heard of The Digest Enthusiast? I hadn’t either, until one of its contributors, a man named Steve Carper, recently sent me a copy of the third issue (January 2016). It’s digest sized — what else would you expect? — and deals with all sorts of digest sized publications like magazines and paperback books and you-name-it.
The subject of Carper’s contribution is the collections of short fiction by Dashiell Hammett that were assembled and edited by Ellery Queen — that is, by the Fred Dannay half of the Queen duo — mainly in the 1940s, and were published as digest-sized paperback originals under the Mercury, Bestseller and Jonathan Press imprints of Lawrence E. Spivak, the original publisher of Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine.
As veteran readers of this column are aware, now and then I’ve compared a few of Hammett’s stories as they originally appeared in Black Mask and other pulps with the versions published twenty or more years later in EQMM and those digest-sized collections. Fred told me many times that every story ever written was too long. True to that belief, he had a habit of changing — usually in the form of cutting — the stories he reprinted. Even Hammett’s.
Now I learn from Carper’s article that a man named Terry Zobeck has been systematically comparing the Hammett stories as reprinted in EQMM with the versions published in Black Mask and elsewhere decades earlier. The article offers a few examples from Zobeck’s research. One sentence in the Continental Op tale “Who Killed Bob Teal?” (True Detective Stories, November 1924) reads: “Finally she shrugged, her face cleared, and she looked up at us.” Reprinting the story in EQMM (July 1947) and in the collection Dead Yellow Women (1947), Fred put a period after “cleared” and dropped the last six words.
Another sentence as originally published reads: “Dean and I rode down in the elevator in silence, and walked out into Gough Street.” Under Fred’s editorial blue pencil the sentence ends with “elevator”. Anyone who wants to explore this subject in exhaustive detail needs to read the long series of Zobeck’s posts on Don Herron’s “Up and Down These Mean Streets” blog .
“Who Killed Bob Teal?” is one of the lesser exploits of Hammett’s nameless Continental Op, but it’s of considerable historical interest, for reasons I can’t explain without [Warning] giving away the plot. Teal, a youthful detective for the Continental agency, had appeared in a few earlier tales in the series and in “Slippery Fingers” (Black Mask, 15 October 1923) was described by the Op as “a youngster who will be a world-beater some day.”
According to the Op in the present story, he “had come to the agency fresh from college two years before; and if ever a man had the makings of a crack detective in him, this slender, broad-shouldered lad had….[W]ith his quick eye, cool nerve, balanced head, and whole-hearted interest in the work, [he] was already well along the way to expertness.” As the head of the San Francisco branch of the agency describes Teal’s murder to the Op:
“He was shot with a .32, twice, through the heart. He was shot behind a row of signboards on the vacant lot on the northwest corner of Hyde and Eddy Streets, at about ten last night….I would say that there was no struggle, and that he was shot where he was found….He was lying behind the signboards, about thirty feet from the sidewalk, and his hands were empty. The gun was held close enough to him to singe the breast of his coat….”
The case he’d been working on for the past few days had been brought to the agency by a farm-development engineer named Ogburn, who suspected that his business partner, Herbert Whitacre, had been embezzling money from the firm and was about to disappear. “I sent Teal out to shadow Whitacre,” the agency head tells the Op. It doesn’t take our sleuth long to conclude that the murderer of Bob Teal was Ogburn.
“Bob wasn’t a boob! He might possibly have let a man he was trailing lure him behind a row of billboards on a dark night, but he would have gone prepared for trouble. He wouldn’t have died with empty hands, from a gun that was close enough to scorch his coat. The murderer had to be somebody Bob trusted, so it couldn’t be Whitacre…. There was only one man who could have persuaded him to drop Whitacre for a while, and that one man was the one he was working for — Ogburn.”
Why this story is of historical importance should be clear to anyone who remembers how Sam Spade in The Maltese Falcon immediately knew who had killed his partner Archer.
“Miles hadn’t many brains, but, Christ! he had too many years’ experience as a detective to be caught like that by the man he was shadowing. Up a blind alley with his gun tucked away on his hip and his overcoat buttoned? Not a chance….But he’d’ve gone up there with you, angel….You were his client, so he would have had no reason for not dropping the shadow on your say-so….He’d’ve looked you up and down and licked his lips and gone grinning from ear to ear—and then you could’ve stood as close to him as you liked and put a hole through him….”
There’s just one thing arguably wrong with the way Hammett handled the situation in the Bob Teal story. The plot requires that Teal must know and trust the client Ogburn, but little if anything in the story tells us that they even knew each other!
“I sent Teal out to shadow Whitacre,” the Old Man tells the Op. We can’t infer from that that the two men had met. But, reviewing the two reports Teal had filed before his death, the Op tells us that “Ogburn had given Bob a description of Mrs. Whitacre….”
This means that the two had met and had at least one conversation. It would have been easy for Hammett to be more specific about this matter, for example by having the Old Man tell the Op that he had introduced Teal to Ogburn and that the two had had lunch or a drink together, but for some reason he chose not to. The result, whether Hammett intended it or not, may well be one of the most subtly clued fair-play stories in the annals of short detective fiction.
The fact that no one ranks “Who Killed Bob Teal?” among Hammett’s better tales probably explains why it wasn’t included in the Library of America volume of Hammett’s Crime Stories and Other Writings (2001). If we confine ourselves to material that has appeared in print, then we can read this and the other stories omitted from that volume only as Fred Dannay edited them for EQMM seventy or more years ago.
Fortunately we live in the age of the Web, and thanks to Terry Zobeck’s Herculean labors we can read or at least reconstruct the original versions of most if not all of Hammett’s lesser stories. Thank you Mr. Zobeck!