Saturday, March 24, 2012

Arson Plus

Dashiell Hammett (1894–1961)
From Dashiell Hammett: Crime Stories & Other Writings

During his first year as a published author, Dashiell Hammett placed twelve stories in magazines before his pioneering “hard-boiled” piece, “Arson Plus,” appeared under the pseudonym Peter Collinson in the October 1, 1923, issue of Black Mask. Three years earlier George Jean Nathan and H. L. Mencken had launched the pulp magazine, but it was only after they sold it in 1922 (at a significant profit) that Black Mask, under new editorship, began to feature the gritty, naturalistic crime stories that would become so extraordinarily popular with its readers. 

Hammett’s new style of stories was influenced in part by the success of another, less talented Black Mask writer, Carroll John Daly, and together they would change the detective tale forever. In “The Simple Art of Murder,” Raymond Chandler assessed how his literary predecessor finally brought crime fiction out of the parlors of the upper class:
If [English detective fiction writers] wrote about dukes and Venetian vases, they knew no more about them out of their own experience than the well-heeled Hollywood character knows about the French Modernists that hang in his Bel-Air ch√Ęteau or the semi-antique Chippendale-cum-cobbler’s bench that he uses for a coffee table. Hammett took murder out of the Venetian vase and dropped it into the alley; it doesn’t have to stay there forever, but it was a good idea to begin by getting as far as possible from Emily Post’s idea of how a well-bred debutante gnaws a chicken wing.
Drawing on his own experience as a Pinkerton detective, Hammett created the nameless, paunchy, street-tough Continental Detective Agency operative who appears first in “Arson Plus” and later in three dozen stories, eight of which were incorporated into his novels Red Harvest and The Dain Curse. When he submitted the initial pieces for publication, Hammett explained that he “didn’t deliberately keep him nameless,” but the Continental op got through the first couple of stories “without needing one.” He continued: “He’s more or less of a type: the private detective who oftenest is successful: neither the derby-hatted and broad-toed blockhead of one school of fiction, nor the all-knowing, infallible genius of another. I’ve worked with several of him.”

Notes: Hiram Johnson (page 18) was governor of California from 1911 to 1917 before serving as a U.S. senator from 1917 to 1945.

Jim Tarr picked up the cigar I rolled across his desk, looked at the band, bit off an end, and reached for a match.

“Fifteen cents straight,” he said. “You must want me to break a couple of laws for you this time.” . . . If you don't see the full story below, click here (PDF) or click here (Google Docs) to read it—free!

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