I finished Dashiell Hammett’s The Dain Curse more than a year ago, as part of an ongoing effort to read more of the great American crime writers, and the story has lingered with me since then. The book is not Hammett’s best—the plot does some conspicuous zigging and zagging and lacks the single-minded focus of Red Harvest. But The Dain Curse stands out among Hammett’s other works for the attention Hammett gives to storytelling throughout the novel.
Not every member of the Pinkertons could have become the writer that Hammett is, but The Dain Curse suggests that Hammett’s experience as an investigator shaped his sensibility as a storyteller even before he turned his attention to fiction. For Hammett’s hero, the Continental Op, every crime scene presents the raw materials of a story. Narratives are introduced, then amended or dismissed, until the Op arrives at a persuasive explanation. We could say this about most detective novels (or films or TV shows)—that the protagonist is, if not a fabulist, than at least a storyteller. What distinguishes The Dain Curse is the presence of Fitzstephan, an acquaintance of the Op and an actual writer.
Fitzstephan is an undisguised hack, vain, affected, and—as we see by the book’s end—mentally unsound. The Continental Op, meanwhile, is a no-nonsense, self-possessed dude, a man who follows his feats of imagination with feats of action. An obvious reading emerges out of the contrast between the two characters: Hammett is dramatizing a genuine ambivalence about the merits of the life he once led as a P.I. vs. the writer’s life he later chose. And for all I know, this is true. But if the Continental Op’s relationship with Fitzstephan were only that, a binary based in old stereotypes and hard-man clichés, The Dain Curse would not be a very interesting book. The novel’s Fitzstephan scenes are memorable because his presence gives the Op a chance to talk about storytelling, and the contrast between the Op and Fitzstephan means these conversations often take the form of an argument. It’s a stretch, maybe, to call The Dain Curse a stealth Hammett-on-writing text, but the book at least examines the problems of writing more closely than the rest Hammett’s fiction.
Take this exchange between the Continental Op and Fitzstephan. The Op knows the difference between a story that neatly follows a formula—that satisfies in the moment—and a story with deeper resonance. He is a good detective in part because he’s not content without details that suggest the oddness of lived experience or the presence of a larger, unseen world. The Op begins the excerpt, questioning an account of a recent crime:
‘…he was sure of her treachery; and, up to his neck now, decided to kill her.’
‘His wife?’ Fitzstephan asked.
‘Yeah, but what difference does that make? It might as well have been anybody else for all the sense it makes. I hope you’re not trying to keep this nonsense straight in your mind. You know damned well all this didn’t happen.’
‘Then what,’ he asked, looking puzzled, ‘did happen?’
‘I don’t know. I don’t think anybody knows. … To fit in with what I saw, most of it must have happened very neatly as I’ve told you. If you what to believe that it did, all right. I don’t. I’d rather believe I saw things that weren’t there.’
‘Not now,’ he pleaded. ‘Later, after you’ve finished the story, you can attach your ifs and buts to it, distorting and twisting it, making it as cloudy and confusing and generally hopeless as you like. But please finish it first, so I’ll see it at least once in its original state before you start improving on it.’
The Dain Curse has more exchanges like this one, and the crux of the book—which I won’t describe in detail, for the reader who has made it this far without a working knowledge of Hammett’s novel—layers multiple narratives atop one another. And—whether this is evidence of Hammett’s vocational ambivalence or not—it closes by implying that the stories we tell sometimes tell us things we don’t want to know.