Friday, March 29, 2013

Slippery Fingers

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

A previous Story of the Week selection “Arson Plus” is Dashiell Hammett’s first story featuring the Continental Op, “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.” After the story’s initial publication in April 1923, the very next issue of The Black Mask magazine presented two additional tales featuring Hammett’s anonymous, tough-talking detective: “Slippery Fingers,” published under his pseudonym Peter Collinson, and “Crooked Souls,” the first story to appear under Hammett’s own name.*

“Slippery Fingers” is the more traditional and formulaic of the two selections: a light, relatively straightforward murder mystery with stock secondary characters and a “trick” revelation, ending with a garrulous confession by the just-nabbed perpetrator. But it nonetheless shows Hammett expanding the genre’s boundaries with his use of language: “What makes the Op stories stand out,” writes LeRoy Panek in his study of the early fiction, “is Hammett’s introduction of slang into the Op’s dialogue and narration. Thus, . . . from the very beginning, Hammett sprinkled nonstandard diction into Op’s grammatically correct sentences.” The patois of Hammett’s rogues is even more notably mangled, serving “as a distinguishing feature of characters at the bottom of the criminal food chain.” Reading through the stories Hammett published during the 1920s, readers can see “the dean” of hard-boiled detective fiction developing his technique into the prose style that would culminate in such classics as The Maltese Falcon and The Thin Man.

The gritty realism of these early stories must have resonated with the editors of The Black Mask, who had written to Hammett a few months previously, asking him if his characters were based on people he had known during his seven-year tenure at the Pinkerton National Detective Agency. His response was published in the July 15 issue: “None of the characters is real in a literal sense, though I doubt it would be possible to build a character without putting into it at least something of someone the writer has known.”

* Story of the Week presented “Crooked Souls” later in the year.

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