Saturday, February 1, 2020

The Tenth Clew

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

The January 1, 1924, issue of The Black Mask featured Dashiell Hammett on the cover for the first time. Although the story was titled “The Tenth Clew” inside the magazine, the word is spelled as “Clue” on the cover. Image courtesy of The FictionMags Index.
The film director Howard Hawks and three writers—Williams Faulkner, Leigh Brackett, and Jules Furthman—were at work on the screenplay adaptation of Raymond Chandler’s debut novel, The Big Sleep. It was 1945, six years after the novel had been published, and none of them could figure out one of the mysteries in a story filled with corpses. So they sent a telegram to the author and asked him who killed the chauffeur. Chandler cabled back, “NO IDEA.”

The new school of American detective fiction was, in part, a reaction to the puzzle mysteries of such writers as Arthur Conan Doyle, Mary Roberts Rinehart, and Agatha Christie. Whodunit was less important than the how, the why, the what, the where of the crime and its investigators; the tidy endings and what Chandler called the “exhausting concatenation of insignificant clues” were thrown over for gritty atmospheres and real-life ambiguousness. In his classic essay, “The Simple Art of Murder,” Chandler described the old conventions as “too contrived, and too little aware of what goes on in the world.” And the leader of the rebellion, he wrote, was Dashiell Hammett, who “took murder out of the Venetian vase and dropped it into the alley.” His novels and stories “gave murder back to the kind of people that commit it for reasons, not just to provide a corpse; and with the means at hand, not with hand-wrought duelling pistols, curare, and tropical fish.”

Hammett boasted a unique résumé for a writer of detective fiction: he had been an actual detective for the Pinkerton agency for seven years. Unlike his famous predecessors, he knew firsthand what it was like to “solve” crimes and hunt down perpetrators, and he portrayed the job (and its occasional drudgery) in stories about an unnamed detective who came to be known as the Continental Op. In the earliest tales, including “Arson Plus,” “Crooked Souls,” and “Slippery Fingers” (all published by The Black Mask magazine in 1923), you’ll still find the trappings of a traditional puzzle mystery, but the elements of the mystery play second fiddle to the daily lives of the Op and his peers. As Hammett told an interviewer a few years later:
What I try to do is write a story about a detective rather than a detective story. Keeping the reader fooled until the last, possible moment is a good trick and I usually try to play it, but I can't attach more than secondary importance to it. The puzzle isn't so interesting to me as the behavior of the detective attacking it.
The first Continental Op story of 1924 is a departure from earlier episodes: it deliberately mocks the whimsy of carefully placed evidence and cleverly solved crimes. “The Tenth Clew” isn’t noteworthy for the lack of clues—or “clews,” as Christie or Doyle would spell it—but rather for their ridiculous abundance. The adventures of the Op and Sergeant O’Gar (who had made his debut in “Crooked Souls”) exhibit instead how hard work, tedious inquiries, dodgy pursuits, and even pure luck normally play greater roles in catching a perpetrator than do clues and deduction.

While the detectives are credible representations of Hammett’s former colleagues, the depiction of the fortune-hunting femme fatale of the story barely rises above the level of a crude stereotype: “She was pronouncedly feline throughout. Her every movement was the slow, smooth, sure one of a cat.” Privately, Hammett not only acknowledged the absurdity of his description of the only woman in the story but seemed to hint that its excessive touches were poking fun at similar characters in other Black Mask stories. On January 1, 1924—the date of the issue in which the story appeared—he sent a letter to the magazine’s editor and pleaded “guilty to a bit of cowardice.”
The original of Creda Dexter didn’t resemble a kitten at all. . . . Believe it or not, she looked exactly like a young white-faced bull-pup—and she was pretty in the bargain! Except for her eyes, I never succeeded in determining just what was responsible for the resemblance, but it was a very real one.

When, however, it came to actually putting her down on paper, my nerve failed me. ‘Nobody will believe you if you write a thing like that,’ I told myself. ‘They’ll think you’re trying to spoof them.’ So, for the sake of plausibility, I lied about her!
The ending of the “The Tenth Clew” has long perplexed readers, many of whom have regarded it as Hammett’s own chauffeur moment. There is an error of logic in the final paragraph, after the characters have congregated for the resolution of the story’s mystery. In fact, when Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine reprinted the story in 1945, editor Fred Dannay (one half of the duo who were Ellery Queen) rewrote the finale to correct the gaffe, probably without the author’s permission. The Library of America collection of Hammett’s crime stories reprints the original text, of course, and we reproduce the “novelette” in its entirety as our Story of the Week selection. We’ll leave it to readers to discover Hammett’s flub on their own, or you can read about it at Mystery*File if you’re unable to pinpoint the mistake.

Note: A badger-game (page 82) is a confidence trick in which the victim is lured into a compromising sexual situation and then subjected to blackmail or extortion.

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“Mr. Leopold Gantvoort is not at home,” the servant who opened the door said, “but his son, Mr. Charles, is—if you wish to see him.” . . . If you don't see the full selection below, click here (PDF) or click here (Google Docs) to read it—free!

This selection may be photocopied and distributed for classroom or educational use.

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