Sunday, May 23, 2021

The Gutting of Couffignal

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

Cover illustration for the December 1925 issue of The Black Mask, which contains Hammett’s story “The Gutting of Couffignal.” (Click on image to see entire cover.) Image from Galactic Central.
Receiving a rejection letter is disappointment enough for any author, but imagine the mortification of having the dismissal of two of your stories broadcast to the reading public in the pages of the very magazine that returned them.
We recently were obliged to reject two of Mr. Hammett’s detective stories. We didn’t like to do it, for Mr. Hammett and his Continental Detective Agency had become more or less fixtures in Black Mask. But in our opinion, the stories were not up to the standard of Mr. Hammett’s own work—so they had to go back.
The editors printed this declaration in the August 1924 issue of The Black Mask above the letter Dashiell Hammett had sent in response to the rejections, and they added how they hoped to show readers “the difference between a good author and a poor one”—with Hammett as an example of a “good author” for making the following admission:
The trouble is that this sleuth of mine has degenerated into a meal-ticket. I liked him at first and used to enjoy putting him through his tricks; but recently I have fallen into the habit of bringing him out and running him around whenever the landlord, or the butcher, or the grocer shows signs of nervousness.

There are men who can write like that, but I’m not one of them. . . .
Claiming that he’d decided not to publish either story and that he would no longer be writing “on a schedule,” Hammett promised that he would, from then on, send in only the kind of story that “fits my sleuth” rather than writing for the “market,” and he thanked the editors “for jolting me into wakefulness.”

On almost every point, biographer Richard Layman points out, Hammett’s letter was disingenuous. One of the two stories was soon resubmitted to The Black Mask, probably with modest revisions, and appeared only a couple of months later. The other was quickly accepted by True Detective Stories, an unsubtle reminder to Black Mask editors that their star contributor could simply take his efforts elsewhere. Between the fall of 1924 and the end of 1925, far from slackening the pace of his output, Hammett published a dozen stories, including eight in The Black Mask, and they were nearly all at least twice the length of his previous stories for the pulps.

The exchange of letters exposes the tensions between Hammett and Philip C. Cody, the magazine’s new editor who had assumed the position only four months earlier and who insisted that Black Mask authors needed to pack more action and adventure into their stories. Associate editor Harry C. North carried out much of the dirty work, including sending the rejection letter to Hammett. North underscored the spirit of the new regime to another contributor, Erle Stanley Gardner: “If you could once appreciate the fact that the publisher of The Black Mask is printing the magazine to make money and nothing else, perhaps you would be more nearly able to guess our needs.”

Given this context, Hammett’s confession in his letter (“when I try to grind out a yarn because I think there is a market for it, I flop”) reads more like a warning to Cody and North to back off than a promise to write stories likely to please them. Nevertheless, as Hammett’s stories got longer, the action and violence increased and the body count got higher. Layman tallies an average during Cody’s tenure of six deaths in each story featuring Hammett’s famous detective, the Continental Op. And far from no longer writing for the “market,” Hammett seems to have deliberately catered several stories for pulp audiences to the point of parody. In “Corkscrew,” a genre mash-up emulating (and mocking) the many Western stories in The Black Mask, the Op leaves San Francisco to become the new deputy sheriff in an Arizona border town, where he endures bucking broncos and shootouts on main street.

In “The Gutting of Couffignal,” one of the last stories Hammett wrote for Cody, the violence reaches a crescendo. Set in a community populated by wealthy retirees, the tale reads like a chaotic war story when the island of Couffignal is suddenly and inexplicably attacked by a small army, complete with machine guns, hand grenades, and bombs. It has divided readers and critics since its publication: Layman faults it for “too many loose ends” and a “carelessly planned plot,” while William F. Nolan, noting that the story has become one of the most reprinted of the Continental Op tales, calls it “an extravaganza, a wildly violent example of Dashiell Hammett at full throttle,” and Tony Hillerman and Otto Penzler chose it to represent Hammett’s oeuvre in The Best Mystery Stories of the Century.

Virtually all critics, however, note the importance of certain aspects of the story to Hammett’s work as a whole. The first is an oft-quoted speech by the Op, explaining why he remains a detective instead of moving to a better-paying job: “Now I pass up that twenty-five or thirty thousand of honest gain because I like being a detective, like the work. . . . I don’t know anything else, don’t enjoy anything else, don’t want to know or enjoy anything else. You can’t weigh that against any sum of money.” The speech takes place during the final scene, which itself is a trial run of the famous climactic confrontation between Sam Spade and Brigid O’Shaughnessy in The Maltese Falcon. When Hammett added an introduction to the 1934 Modern Library edition of the novel, he wrote that he had failed to make the most of a “promising dénouement” in “The Gutting of Couffignal” and hoped to have “better luck . . . in a longer story.”

Hammett published only three more stories under Cody’s editorship, and they appeared in the first three issues of 1926. He parted ways with The Black Mask in March 1926 for several reasons, including a dissatisfaction with the editorial direction, Cody’s refusal to increase his pay per story as the magazine’s circulation skyrocketed, and a squabble over $300 he felt the magazine owed him. Still ailing from the tuberculosis that had been plaguing him for years, and with his wife pregnant with their second child, he was having a hard time making ends meet, so he took as job as an advertising manager for a jeweler. Later that year, however, Joseph T. Shaw assumed the editorship of The Black Mask and immediately set to work winning back the magazine’s star fiction writer, including an agreement to pay Hammett the disputed $300. Hammett began publishing stories again in the February 1927 issue, and The Black Mask would go on to publish serially four of his novels, including The Maltese Falcon, before the end of the decade.

Notes: Early in “The Gutting of Couffignal,” the Op is reading The Lord of the Sea, a fantastical novel by British writer M. P. Shiel published in England in 1901. Hammett (and, thus, the Op) probably read the revised and much abridged (“savagely cut,” according to the Science Fiction Encyclopedia) version published by Knopf in 1924 with an introduction by Carl van Vechten.

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Wedge-shaped Couffignal is not a large island, and not far from the mainland, to which it is linked by a wooden bridge. . . . 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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