Tue 28 Jun 2011
Dashiell Hammett’s The Dain Curse
A Review by Curt J. Evans
DASHIELL HAMMETT – The Dain Curse. Alfred A. Knopf, hardcover, 1929. Reprinted many times since. TV movie: 1978 (with James Coburn as “Hamilton Nash”).
Not all Hammetts were created equal. Case in point: Hammett’s second novel, his famous family slaughter saga, The Dain Curse. Less viscerally organic than his first crime tale, Red Harvest (1929), it is also, in my opinion, vastly inferior both to his immediately following works, The Maltese Falcon (1930) and The Glass Key (1931), and even to his last novel, the slick (if rather facile) The Thin Man (1934).
I am hardly the first person to note flaws in The Dain Curse. A quarter-century ago, in his entry on the novel in 1001 Midnights, Bill Pronzini observed that The Dain Curse was “overlong and decidedly melodramatic.” Indeed it is!
Where in Red Harvest the gang violence culminating in massacre that Hammett chronicles seems to rise naturally out of the darkest strains of indigenous Americana, in The Dain Curse the bloodletting is tied to an impossible plot that resembles the more absurd Golden Age British detective fiction that Hammett purportedly despised.
If you were to ask me which 1929 detective novel is the more ridiculous when looked at objectively, The Dain Curse or S. S. Van Dine’s The Bishop Murder Case (though Van Dine was not British, he clearly was heavily influenced by the sort of classical detective story we associate most with British writers), I would be hard pressed to name the latter title, even though it involves an unbelievably baroque plot involving multiple slayings carried out on the basis of nursery rhymes.
At one late point in the The Dain Curse, Hammett’s detective, the Continental Op, stops to list for a friend the myriad acts of bloody mayhem that have occurred around him of late. I have to say I found this list hilarious:
“Yeah. Gabrielle’s father, step-mother, physician, and husband have been slaughtered in less than a handful of weeks — all the people closest to her. That’s enough to tie it all together for me. If you want more links, I can point them out to you. Upton and Ruppert were the apparent instigators of the first trouble, and got killed. Haldorn of the second, and got killed. Whidden of the third, and got killed. Mrs. Leggett killed her husband; Cotton apparently killed his wife; and Haldorn would have killed his if I hadn’t blocked him. Gabrielle, as a child, was made to kill her mother; Gabrielle’s maid was made to kill Riese, and nearly me. Leggett left behind him a statement explaining — not altogether satisfactorily — everything, and was killed. So did and was Mrs. Cotton. Call any of these pairs coincidences. Call any couple of pairs coincidences. You’ll still have enough left to point at somebody who’s got a system he likes, and sticks to it.”
This passage makes Philo Vance’s “psychological” lectures at the end of The Greene Murder Case (1928) and The Bishop Murder Case seems overwhelmingly convincing by comparison. Unfortunately, it is reflective of the many pages in the novel given over to the Op’s inevitably tedious explanations of an extremely convoluted but ultimately not very rewarding mystery plot.
To be fair to Hammett, with The Dain Curse (as with Red Harvest) he was faced with the task of stitching together a novel from short stories. To make The Dain Curse stick together in one piece he was forced to use as glue the criminal mastermind gambit.
This device usually is not convincing in Edgar Wallace novels either, but then Edgar Wallace is not universally acclaimed today for having heroically and almost single-handedly (with some help from Raymond Chandler) introduced realism to the Golden Age mystery story.
This is not to say that there are not interesting points to The Dain Curse. There are times when one pleasingly can hear the wisecracking voice of Philip Marlowe and that smart ass legion of private eyes who jauntily followed Hammett’s Continental Op and Sam Spade down those mean streets:
“For God’s sake let’s get her out of here — out of this house — now, while there’s time!”
I said she’d look swell running through the streets barefooted and with nothing on but a bloodstained nightie.
And then there is simply the thrill in The Dain Curse of Hammett’s sharp and direct depictions of drug dependency and pure, elemental brute violence (which in 1929 must have been really thrilling — or appalling, depending on the reader):
“God damn you,” I said and hit him in the face with the gun.
Although I think that, in contravention of academics who have given much serious study to it, Hammett’s treatment in The Dain Curse of a religious cult is more pulp fiction than deep thinkin’, nevertheless I was greatly amused by this sardonic observation from the Op:
They brought their cult to California because everybody does, and picked San Francisco because it held less competition than Los Angeles.
Too bad Hammett (and the Op) missed the Swinging Sixties!
Overall, however, I would say that The Dain Curse is neither a great crime novel nor even a very good one, really — though it undeniably has importance both in the study of Hammett’s development as a writer and in the development of American detective fiction.
But when it comes to melodramatically and improbably cursed genteel families and wildly overcomplicated murder plots, give me S. S. Van Dine any day of the week. Indubitably, his Philo Vance is the go-to guy when one is faced with that sort of the case.