Sunday, May 21, 2023

The Main Death

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

Hand-colored postcard showing Lotta’s Fountain at the intersection of Market, Geary, and Kearny streets in San Francisco, looking northeast up Market, c. 1923, from a photograph by Howard Clinton Tibbitts (1863–1937). The large building on the right is the Palace Hotel. Dashiell Hammett worked nearby, first for the Pinkerton National Detective Agency (in the Flood Building on 870 Market) and then across the street as the advertising manager for Albert S. Samuels Co., Jewelers (at 895 Market).
The year 1926 seemed to start out well enough for Dashiell Hammett. After a series of disagreements with Black Mask editor Philip C. Cody, he quit writing fiction and took a full-time job as the advertising manager for the jewelry company owned by Albert Samuels. He was still drinking too much and ailing from the tuberculosis that had been plaguing him since his brief stint in the army, but for the first time in years he was bringing home a regular paycheck: $350 a month, enough to support his wife, Josephine (“Jose”), and their four-year-old daughter, Mary. A second daughter, Josephine, was born to the couple in May.

This newly acquired financial stability came to an end in July when Hammett collapsed in his office amidst a pool of blood from a hemorrhaging lung. Diagnosed with hepatitis on top of his tuberculosis, he was unable to continue working. Samuels sent a notarized letter to the Veterans Bureau so that Hammett could collect disability, and the Bureau awarded him 100% of the allowable amount of $90 a month. To avoid the risk of infecting his family, he rented his own small apartment on a narrow lane that today is known as Dashiell Hammett Street. In the spring of 1927, Jose moved with the children 20 miles north to San Anselmo in Marin Country, and the couple lived together sporadically over the next two years. In truth, their marriage was all but over.

The disability payments were not enough to support two residences and a family of four, so Hammett took on as much writing as he could handle. He became the crime-fiction critic for the Saturday Review of Literature, publishing twenty-four columns between March 1927 and October 1929. Three short poems were accepted—two by The Stratford Magazine and one by Bookman. He wrote a series of five articles on the advertising business for Western Advertising. And, of supreme importance both to Hammett and to American literature, Joseph T. Shaw became editor and part-owner of Black Mask and encouraged the magazine’s star author to come back to the fold. An announcement in the January 1927 issue informed readers that “Dashiell Hammett has called back the Continental detective from his long retirement and is setting him to work anew.” In reality, though, the Continental Op’s “long retirement” had not even lasted a full year.

Hammett’s return to the magazine in 1927 began with two linked stories, “The Big Knock-Over” and “$106,000 Blood Money.” (The longest works by Hammett to date, they were published together as a book in 1943 and deceptively marketed as a “new novel.”) At the beginning of June, he wrote to Jose:
Got home tonight to find a stack of letters from the Black Mask: one from Shaw telling me how good I am, one from Cody telling me the same thing with further trimmings, and one from [Erle Stanley] Gardner telling me the last dingus he read of mine was not only the best ever printed in the Black Mask, but the best he had ever read anywhere, and so on and so on and so on.

Overwhelmed by this applesauce I’m wiring them to shoot me some dough and I'll do them some more of the shots-in-the-dark.
“The last dingus” was “The Main Death,” which would be the last short story he published in Black Mask for a while. Instead, Hammett would fill the pages of the magazine for the next two years with the serialization of his first two novels: Red Harvest and The Dain Curse. The two years after that, he would send to Shaw three short stories and two more novels (The Maltese Falcon, The Glass Key) before ending his association with the magazine for good.

On its surface, “The Main Death” seems to be a straightforward puzzle mystery: an abundance of seemingly contradictory clues perplex the cops and detectives (and the reader), the Continental Op hunts down evidence that resolves the paradoxes, and he then reveals who committed the crime—or more accurately, in this case, crimes. What distinguishes this story, as Hammett’s biographer Richard Layman points out, is that “the Op's personal sense of right and wrong is the only guide he follows.”

To understand fully the Op’s dilemma, it’s important to know that the Pinkerton National Detective Agency (the model for Hammett’s Continental Detective Agency) turned down all divorce cases or requests to shadow cheating spouses—the type of work that pays the bills for the middling private eye. Nonetheless, the Op’s client, Bruno Gungen, whose $20,000 has gone missing when Jeffrey Main is shot and killed, seems less interested in finding the perpetrators or recovering the money than in confirming whether his young wife, almost one-third his age, has been cheating on him—an angle of the investigation the Op vehemently refuses to pursue. In order to determine who killed Main, however, the Op finds it necessary to dive into the marital affairs of his detestable client, and he decides to solve the case in a manner that avoids satisfying Gungen’s ulterior motive—even if it means that everyone involved might get away with their crimes.

Notes: A cacoethes carpendi, in the context used by the Op, is an uncontrollable mania for enjoyment or consumption. Highgrading is the theft of ore or dealing in stolen ore.

A pivotal scene takes place in the Mars Hotel on 4th and Howard streets, two blocks from the stretch of Market Street where Hammett worked as a detective and an ad manager. The Mars would later become a place where Jack Kerouac crashed when in San Francisco; his fictional alter-ego Jack Duluoz resides at the “skid row hotel” at the opening of Big Sur. The building was immortalized in a painting by Alton Kelley and Stanley Mouse for the cover of The Grateful Dead’s 1974 studio album, From the Mars Hotel. All the structures on the block were demolished in the late 1970s to make way for the Moscone Convention Center.

*   *   *
The captain told me Hacken and Begg were handling the job. I caught them leaving the detectives’ assembly room. . . . 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.