DASHIELL HAMMETT “The Scorched Face.” The Continental Op #17. Novelette. First published in The Black Mask, March 1925. Collected in Nightmare Town (Mercury, paperback, 1948) and The Big Knockover (Random House, 1966). Reprinted in Hard-Boiled: An Anthology of American Crime Stories, edited by Bill Pronzini & Jack Adrian (Oxford University Press, 1995) among others.

   You may certainly correct me if I’m wrong, but I don’t think this is one of Hammett’s better known stories, and do you know, I don’t remember reading it before last night (from the Pronzini/Ardian anthology). I know I read The Big Knockover from cover to cover when it came out in paperback, but last night? Nothing came back.

   Here’s something else you can correct me on if I’m wrong, and that’s that I think the story is based on one of Hammett’s own cases when he was a Pinkerton detective. He’s hired here by a distraught father whose two daughters have gone missing. There was a small disagreement about money, but nothing out of the ordinary. What convinces the Op that the girls may be in considerable danger is that one of their female friends commits suicide the same evening after he questions her about them.

   The first part of the tale is filled with plodding legwork — no, plodding is not quite right word. It’s the kind of work a private investigator always has to do before he gets any traction on a case, and yet Hammett’s flair for detail as well as the personalities involved keeps the story in at least second gear until things begin to fall into place. This is about halfway through, and this is when the story really starts to take off, punctuated by short one line paragraphs that the reader (me) simply can’t read fast enough.

   The crime involved is not a new one by today’s standards, but I’ll bet it raised a few eyebrows back in 1925. It didn’t do too badly last night, either.