Sunday, May 24, 2020

Zigzags of Treachery

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

Hand-colored photographic postcard published in the early 1910s by Richard Behrendt, a local wholesaler. Image from Notes on the Arts and Visual Culture.

The above postcard shows “Terrific Street,” the nickname a century ago for Pacific Street in the Barbary Coast district of San Francisco, looking east from the corner of Kearny Street. (Kearny was commonly misspelled Kearney in the early twentieth century; Pacific Street later became Pacific Avenue.) Visible on the left side is a row of nightclubs: The Queen, Diana Hall, Spider Kelly’s, and the somewhat notorious Hippodrome; on the right is The Midway Theater, a cabaret. Despite numerous attempts by the city to clean up the district, the street was a popular destination for young middle-class adults and sketchier elements when Hammett became a Pinkerton detective in 1915; many of the businesses were closed or became “soft drink parlors” and speakeasies during Prohibition. In “Zigzags of Treachery,” Hammett includes a paragraph describing the neighborhood in the early 1920s as its multiethnic residents emerge on a typical evening: “Twilight came, and the street and shop lights were turned on. It got dark. The night traffic of Kearney Street went up and down past me. . . .”
At the end of 1926, Samuel Dashiell Hammett began a three-year tenure as the crime fiction critic for the Saturday Review of Literature. A former Pinkerton detective, Hammett had made a name for himself as the Black Mask contributor whose streetwise stories offered readers a realism sorely lacking in most of the magazine’s fare. In his first column for the Saturday Review, he began a weary assessment of five new books by relating what a “fellow sleuth” at Pinkerton had told him after confessing “without shame” to a passion for mystery novels: “I eat ’em up. When I’m through my day’s gum-shoeing I like to relax; I like to get my mind on something that's altogether different from the daily grind; so I read detective stories.”

The state of the genre was still a matter for despair three years later, when Hammett joined the staff of the New York Evening Post to publish a new “Crime Wave” column. During his time at the paper, he reviewed over eighty novels and story collections, but for one article, after deciding that the latest books were overwhelmed with errors and sloppiness that would “earn detective stories as a whole the sneers of the captious,” he threw up his hands and addressed his fellow authors as a group. “I am annoyed by the stupid recurrence of these same blunders in book after book,” he began, noting that the authors of most Westerns and sea novels do at least some research. “Surely detective story writers could afford to speak to policemen now and then.” So, instead of reviewing the books at hand, he offered a list of suggestions on how to avoid certain of his professional pet peeves. (“A pistol, to be a revolver, must have something on it that revolves.”) After favorable responses from readers, he supplemented the list with a few more bits of advice in a later column.

Many of the books Hammett was asked to review were “puzzle mysteries” in the tradition of such British writers as Arthur Conan Doyle and Agatha Christie. Our introduction to a previous Story of the Week selection by Hammett, “The Tenth Clew,” discusses how he led the rebellion against the old-fashioned detective story and introduced into the genre the realities of everyday “gum-shoeing.” In our current selection, “Zigzags of Treachery,” the Continental operative reiterates that most of a detective’s successful cases are “the fruits of patience, industry, and unimaginative plugging, helped out now and then, maybe, by a little luck.” Although “Zigzags” has some of the trappings of a traditional puzzle story, it is primarily about one of the most tedious aspects of real-life detective work: shadowing.

Several of Hammett’s Pinkerton colleagues later confirmed to biographers that “Sam” (as he was then known) was a highly respected detective, a patient mentor, and a “shadow ace,” to borrow the author’s term for one of his own characters. “A trained detective shadowing a subject does not ordinarily leap from doorway to doorway and does not hide behind trees and poles,” he advised writers in his Post column. “He knows no harm is done if the subject sees him now and then.” An ace detective can even get away with interacting with the subject; in his sketch “From the Memoirs of a Private Detective” (1923), Hammett recalled one such incident: “A man whom I was shadowing went out into the country for a walk one Sunday afternoon and lost his bearings completely. I had to direct him back to the city.”

“Zigzags of Treachery” includes Hammett’s “four rules of shadowing,” and when the story appeared in The Black Mask, the editors published in the same issue an explanatory letter from the author:
The four rules for shadowing that I give in “Zigzags” are the first and last words on the subject. There are no other tricks to learn. Follow them, and once you get the hang of it, shadowing is the easiest of detective work, except, perhaps to an extremely nervous man. You simply saunter along somewhere within sight of your subject, and, barring bad breaks, the only thing that can make you lose him is over-anxiety on your own part. . . .

Back—and it’s only a couple years back—in the days before I decided that there was more fun in writing about manhunting than in that hunting, I wasn’t especially fond of shadowing, though I had plenty of it to do.
Although he regarded shadowing as drudgework, it could still be dangerous. During one case, Hammett, not realizing the man he was following had a companion, was lured into a side street, where the second man bashed him in the back of the head with a brick. He was out of commission for two days.

Throughout “Zigzags,” Hammett maintains a dexterous balance, conveying the sluggish boredom that is an inherent part of shadowing while simultaneously keeping readers on the edge of their seats—because, at every street corner, in any dark alley, there is the possibility of danger. The story’s detail provides an “intimate inside look,” writes Hammett scholar Peter Wolfe, that “nearly makes it a primer on detection.”

Notes:Soft drink parlors,” such as those owned by Ledwich, were former saloons and pubs that during Prohibition usually sold sodas and “near beer”—malt beverages containing less than 0.5% alcohol—and often doubled as speakeasies. The Robert Louis Stevenson monument is in Portsmouth Square (formerly Portsmouth Plaza), on the west side of Kearny Street. Portsmouth “Street” is either Hammett’s error or, more likely, the Black Mask editors’.

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“All I know about Dr. Estep’s death,” I said, “is the stuff in the papers.” . . . If you don't see the full selection below, click here (PDF) or click here (Google Docs) to read it—free!

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