Reviewed by TONY BAER:


DASHIELL HAMMETT – The Dain Curse. Alfred A. Knopf, hardcover, 1929. Reprinted many times since, in both hardcover and paperback.  TV mini-series: CBS 1978 (starring James Coburn as “Hamilton Nash”).

   The Dain Curse is a bad novel cobbled together from four interlinked stories from Black Mask. I disliked the novel when I first read it many years ago. Then after a recent debate on the Rara-Avis listserve about its merits, I resolved to read it again. This time reading the four stories as originally published to see if that improved my experience. It didn’t.

   Taking the four stories separately, however, there are some ebbs and flows of merit. It is Hammett after all. And bad Hammett is still better than a lot of stuff out there. I just wouldn’t recommend a re-read is all.

Story 1: “Black Lives.”  (Black Mask, November 1928)

   The Continental OP is hired by an insurance company to investigate stolen diamonds. Edgar Leggett had been loaned the diamonds by a local jeweler for the purpose of conducting some experiments adding hue to the stones. The OP begins to suspect that there’s something fishy about the so called theft.

   And bad things happen to Leggett and his family. Leggett’s daughter, Gabrielle, is informed by her step mother that all of the badness can be traced to a family curse (her mother’s maiden name was Dain): The Dain Curse: “[Y]ou’re cursed with the same rotten soul and black blood…all the Dains have had, you’re cursed with your mother’s death on your hands before you were five; you’re cursed with the warped mind and the need for drugs that I’ve given you in pay for your silly love since you were a baby. Your life will be black as…mine [was] black; the lives of those you touch will be black”.

   In the end the OP solves the crime of the missing diamonds, the insurance company is happy. But the Dain Curse remains!!

Story 2: “The Hollow Temple.” (Black Mask, December 1928)

   By far the best of the four stories, in this one Gabrielle Leggett joins a cult and goes missing. The OP is hired by her fiancé to recover the girl — which he does — but not before crushing the hollow temple forged by a charismatic charlatan out of morphine, laughing gas, sight gags, and mullah.

Story 3: “Black Honeymoon.”  (Black Mask, January 1929)

   Once Gabrielle Leggett is saved from the hollow temple, her fiancé elopes with her. The honeymoon does not go well, and the OP is called in to pick up the shards.

Story 4: “Black Riddle.” (Black Mask, February 1929)

   The so called riddle is this: If you don’t believe in Dain curses, why are all these bad things happening to Gabrielle Leggett? In this horribly told story, the OP mansplains for all to hear the solution to the three prior stories.

   He doesn’t show us. He tells us. Giving us a bunch of undisclosed information based on unsupported guesswork that just so happens to be completely right and confessed to by the criminal mastermind. It’s absolutely the worst kind of ending of a mystery. No fair play. No show don’t tell. Just a boring dispositive lecture telling you the answer in a terribly unsatisfying way.


   So yeah. Hated it. Almost couldn’t finish it. Upon starting the book I immediately remembered who the ‘criminal mastermind’ was. This made my experience of the book infinitely worse as I could witness the lack of fair play in real time as the story unfolded.

   If Fast One is ODTAA (thanks, Roger) – -for whatever reason Hammett eschews ODTAA, insisting on a criminal mastermind to tie all of the miscreants and their collective miscreantry together. It’s an unnecessary conceit that spoils the whole thing. Ironically the curse of the Dain Curse is that there’s no Dain Curse.

   If Hammett had simply allowed the curse to linger all might have been okay. But Hammett takes such pains to dispel the curse that he destroys whatever mystery is left. Rather than solving the case, the whole thing crumbles in a monologue that neatly ties up everything in a bow. But what results is neither trick nor treat. Turns out the Dain Curse is the cursed book itself.