Sunday, May 22, 2022

Creeping Siamese

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

Title illustration by Stuart Hamilton for “The Case of the Creeping Siamese,” a reprint of the 1924 story “Creeping Siamese” distributed by King Features Syndicate to newspapers for their Sunday supplements in 1942. This copy is from the El Paso Times, May 31, 1942, and is courtesy of Davy Crockett’s Almanack. In the wake of the box-office success of the 1941 adaptation of The Maltese Falcon, King Features licensed several early Hammett stories for republication.
In “The Third Murder,” a memorable chapter from The Maltese Falcon, a gruff man “nearly seven feet tall,” clutching a football-shaped parcel, staggers into Sam Spade’s office.
The tall man stood in the doorway and there was nothing to show that he saw Spade. He said, "You know—" and then the liquid bubbling came up in his throat and submerged whatever else he said. He put his other hand over the hand that held the ellipsoid. Holding himself stiffly straight, not putting his hands out to break his fall, he fell forward as a tree falls.
The man, Captain Jacobi, was dead on the spot, having delivered to Spade the mysterious falcon, which turns out to be a fake—assuming the “real” statue ever existed.

It wasn’t the first time Dashiell Hammett had used such a scene in his fiction; the 1926 story “Creeping Siamese” opens with a tall man entering the offices of the Continental Detective Agency and dropping dead on the floor. Fans and biographers—and Hammett himself—have pointed to other stories that contain elements that he perfected in The Maltese Falcon, such as the final scene of “The Gutting of Couffignal,” which is a rough preview of the famous climactic confrontation between Sam Spade and Brigid O’Shaughnessy.

Published in the March 1926 issue of The Black Mask, “Creeping Siamese” is the last Hammett story to appear under the editorship of Philip C. Cody. In the fall of 1925, Hammett learned that his wife, Jose, was pregnant with their second child, and he needed a raise—an increase in the rate-per-word paid for his stories, which were largely responsible for the magazine’s growth in readership. When Cody refused, it was the last straw for Hammett, who was already frustrated with the insistence on stories with more action and annoyed by an outstanding payment of $300 he believed was due to him. So Hammett quit and took a full-time job as the advertising manager for a jeweler. His resignation apparently threw Cody and the rest of the staff into a panic; Erle Stanley Gardner, a relatively new contributor who was doing well financially as a practicing attorney, later told Hammett biographer Richard Layman that he offered to pay the difference with a deduction on his own rate—an offer rejected by the magazine’s publisher, Eltinge Warner, who didn’t think much of Hammett’s stories. (Gardner “must be nuts,” Warner reportedly said.) It took a full year and a change of editors to lure Hammett back to the pages of the magazine.

“Creeping Siamese” is a fairly simple puzzle mystery, and some critics, most notably Layman, have faulted it for both the lengthy exposition of how the murder happened (and how it didn’t happen) and the implausibility of the deduction the police make from the available evidence. There is not much in the way of action after the opening scene, which, given Cody’s penchant for hard-hitting, page-turning plots, might well have been meant as a parting message of sorts. Other readers, however, have noted that Hammett’s concern, as in many of his puzzle mysteries, is not with the scattering of clues leading to a clever solution of the case but with the presuppositions and biases that send investigators in the obviously wrong direction in the first place.

Based on the scantiest of evidence—a red silk sarong—the detectives, including the Continental Op, begin working under the assumption that they should be looking for “brown men,” that is, Asian immigrants. “This short story operates as a counter to the Yellow Peril narratives that appear regularly in all forms of popular media after the success of Sax Rohmer’s character Fu Manchu,” writes Brooks E. Hefner, most recently the author of Black Pulp: Genre Fiction in the Shadow of Jim Crow. “The Op’s skepticism of such an easy solution—and its politics—demonstrates the hard-boiled challenge to the nativist impulses of the 1920s.” Similarly, Sean McCann in his book Gumshoe America notes that Hammett makes his point “almost polemically,” particularly with the disquieting scene that ends the story. “Hammett uncovers the scapegoating fantasies of foreign-adventure fiction and its Klannish analogues,” McCann contends. “Race, the story implies, is an empty but potent fiction.” What makes that fiction potent is how groundless stereotypes and racist fears guide not only white law enforcement officials but also the public—or as the Op crossly puts it, “God knows what a jury would make of it!”

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Standing beside the cashier’s desk in the front office of the Continental Detective Agency’s San Francisco branch, I was watching Porter check up my expense account when the man came in. . . . 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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